Child abuse in the home is an exceptionally difficult topic for teachers. Failure to detect and respond appropriately to abuse has led to some high-profile cases where children have died through abuse and neglect, and the agencies – schools, social workers, doctors – have collectively been held responsible in the minds of the public for not seeing the signs.
Yet teachers have not always acted upon their suspicions. There are several reasons for this: fear of being wrong and its consequences for their career; fear of the parents involved; and fear of dragging the child through a long and often disturbing process being just three.
Abuse comes in four key forms: emotional, sexual, physical and neglect. The symptoms of all these are different but if any is suspected, a teacher has a moral, and in the UK, a legal duty to act. It does not matter what the teacher’s concerns are: they must act in some professional and careful way. The laws are different in different jurisdictions: Ontario has a similar provision to the UK and the obligations of parts of the USA are laid down on the childwelfare.gov website.
As the cases of Baby P and Victoria Climbie in the UK highlighted, not being vigilant when a child has been abused can have drastic consequences. If the first signs of abuse are not reported, the abuse can continue and escalate. The first signs will vary according to the child and the nature of the abuse, but teachers should look out for mood changes, bruises, and anything the child says that could indicate abuse.
In the case of abuse in the home, vigilance on the part of teachers means reporting to the designated Child Protection Officer (if you are a teacher in the UK) or, in fact, anyone at the top of the leadership chain in school. This way the teacher enables the school to contact social services at the earliest opportunity.
Vigilance also means making notes and keeping them secure. A teacher must be able to defend their conduct and be able to refer to things the child has told them. Failure to keep notes, especially in the context of a busy school life, means failure to retain the facts.
Incidentally, vigilance also means remembering that the interests of the child are paramount. The advice of colleagues is irrelevant, as is a child’s desire to keep it secret. Sometimes a child will ask a teacher to keep these things between them, but a teacher is not empowered to do this and the teacher needs to ensure that they do not promise any such thing. If that means the child is unwilling to talk, then this is part of the investigation process and should be noted as such.
Teachers also need to be able to disentangle abuse from playground scrapes. A bruise that could have been obtained on the playground will not need to be reported unless it is accompanied by other concerns, or is something that recurs on the child. Teachers should use professional judgement at all times. This does not mean ignoring bruises, but it means if there is a concern, it should be discussed, first with the child and then with the responsible teachers at school. It may mean observing the child’s behaviour in school more closely or having a chat with their parents about how much they throw themselves around on the playground.
However difficult it may be, teachers need to remember for whom they are primarily responsible: the children. Not themselves, not the parents, not even their principals. If they have a concern, they must record it and act on it, even if it means having a chat with the Child Protection Officer. It could be the first step that saves a life.