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Children's Voice Article, November 2001

When Should Teachers Report Abuse?

A child abuse investigator offers tips for educators

by Nancy Duncan

An ordinary school day begins, overcast and cloudy. The classroom is filled to capacity and noisy with children eager to begin another day's school project. The little girl in the front row with long dark hair and big blue eyes arrives dirty and says she is hungry because her mother doesn't have any food. The teacher observes a fading bruise beneath the girl's eye. Over several months, the teacher has noticed the girl's bruised legs, and arms with healing sores.

The child has been referred to the school nurse because of chronic lice, dental neglect, and poor hygiene. School staff, particulary her teacher, are frustrated and suspect something is wrong at home. Calls to home generally elicit angry outbursts-Mom has made it clear she doesn't appreciate the school intruding on her family and tells the teacher as much. The teacher decides it's time to contact child protective services (CPS) and file a report of suspected child abuse.

Sound familiar?

According to the U.S. Children's Bureau, "More than half (approximately 53%) of all reports alleging maltreatment came from professionals, including educators, law enforcement and justice officials, medical and mental health professionals, social service professionals, and child care providers."(1)

David Finkelhor, Director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and Codirector of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire says, "The key problem is educators are confused about what child protection does and whether it does any good." Finkelhor, who has been studying child victimization, child maltreatment, and family violence since 1977, adds, "There is the other problem that schools may not support the reporting process."

What Is a Teacher Expected to Report?

Teachers are in a unique position to observe and report suspected allegations of child abuse and neglect, but it's a precarious position for educators-especially neophytes struggling to comprehend various community systems and the vast arena of child abuse reporting laws.

Educators should be guided by their school's internal administrative policies for reporting abuse. Sometimes, however, these polices can be confusing. Some schools, for example, encourage educators to report suspected abuse internally before contacting CPS. Nevertheless, state and federal laws mandate educators to report suspected child maltreatment-allowing school administrators to determine if a teacher's suspicions should be reported is unlawful. Because educators are not trained investigators, it is especially important for them to report suspected maltreatment and not assume the responsibility of determining whether a child has been abused.

The teacher's first concern lies in what is reportable and defining what constitutes abuse. The response, of course, is any reasonable suspicion that child abuse or neglect has occurred-but then, what constitutes "reasonable"? Since teachers form intimate bonds with children and families, their doubts are understandable. Identifying signs of child abuse can be confusing and awkward for educators and school staff. Suspicious signs of abuse generally are just that-suspicious-leaving teachers in a double bind of uncertainty.

Once an investigation begins, teachers express fear that the child will be subject to further abuse and severely punished for confiding the truth. A teacher for 33 years in California, "Loraine," says, "What happens to a child once they return home [or they] are not removed? Teachers worry about the results of CPS intervention." Like many teachers, Loraine, admits her first rule is do no harm. "If it looks like CPS won't do anything, a teacher may not report. It happens."

Though state laws vary, teachers need to remember that reports of child abuse are strictly confidential to protect mandated reporters. Investigators can be jailed and fined for violating confidentiality laws. Professionals from a variety of fields are mandated to report suspected abuse. Who must report? Nurses, doctors, dentists, mental health professionals, social workers, teachers, photo lab developers, day care workers, foster parents, and law enforcement, to name a few. Some states require anyone who suspects child abuse to report.

What Is Child Abuse?

Child abuse occurs among all socioeconomic family environments and cultures. Drug and alcohol abuse are common ingredients. Domestic violence is another leading indicator of potential child abuse.

The federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) provides a foundation for states by identifying a minimum set of acts or behaviors that characterize maltreatment. CAPTA also defines what acts are considered physical abuse, neglect, and sexual abuse. Individual states determine and define what warrants further investigation. Civil laws, or statutes, describe the circumstances and conditions that obligate mandated reporters to report known or suspected cases of abuse, with each state providing definitions.(2)

Physical abuse is an intentional injury to a child by the caretaker.(3) It may include but is not limited to burning, beating, kicking, and punching. It is usually the easiest to identify because it often leaves bruises, burns, broken bones, or unexplained injuries. By definition, physical abuse is not accidental, but neither is it necessarily the caretaker's intent to injure the child.

Although physical abuse may result from overdiscipline, or from punishment inappropriate to the child's age, corporal punishment, or spanking, is not against the law, even though many studies have demonstrated spanking is not a healthy from of discipline. Spanking, however, can be abusive and lead to injuries that should be reported.

Three-year old Anastasia could not sit still in her chair during snack time. The little girl with long blonde curls complained her bottom hurt. After some discussion with the child, the teacher learned Anastasia had been spanked the night before because she wet her pants. The teacher lifted Anastasia's shirt. Three small visible bruises traced the outline of the girl's underwear.

Should the teacher report? Given the child's statement and age, this is a reportable suspected case of abuse. Although young children are often prone to bruising because of their level of activity, questionable bruising should always be reported.

Neglect is the most common type of reported and substantiated maltreatment. According to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, of the estimated 826,000 victims of child abuse and neglect in 1999, 58.4%-more than 482,000 children-suffered from neglect; 21.3% were physically abused, and 11.3% were victims of sexual abuse.(4)

Whereas physical abuse tends to be episodic, neglect is more often chronic and involves inattention to a child's basic needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and supervision.

When considering the possibility of neglect, educators should look for consistencies and ask themselves such questions as:
  • Does the child steal or hoard food consistently?
  • Does the child consistently demonstrate disorganized thinking or unattended needs?
  • Would observing the family in the context of the community provide any answers?
  • Is this culturally acceptable child rearing, a different lifestyle, or true neglect?
A second grade teacher overhears a student say he hates going home because it is scary. When the teacher asks why, the child says the electricity has been turned off and his mom doesn't get home from work until dinnertime.

Is this a case to report? With a little probing, yes. If a young child is left home alone, the child is at risk for any number of problems, from a stranger coming to the door to a house fire or the child becoming injured.

Educational neglect. CPS receives many calls about parents not sending their children to school. CPS can look into such reports, because they may signal a larger case of neglect, but most communities have other resources to handle ongoing truancy.

Emotional abuse can be defined as verbal, psychological, or mental abuse in which the damage inflicted leaves lasting scars. It can include blaming, belittling, or rejecting a child; constantly treating siblings unequally; and a persistent lack of concern by the caretaker for the child's welfare.

Studies suggest many children are victims of unreported emotional abuse. Unlike neglect, where evidence may be obvious, emotional abuse is hard to diagnose and often more difficult to prove in court due to the complexities of what characterizes it.

A child who is exposed to domestic violence-perhaps witnessing a parent or sibling being physically abused-can also be a victim of emotional abuse. Research indicates children exposed to and witnessing domestic violence suffer long-term emotional damage. Investigating the destructive consequences of psychological abuse on partners and children, University of Georgia researcher Ileana Arias has concluded that psychological abuse harms future parenting ability and children's emotional well-being.(5)

Sixteen-year-old Jeff bragged to friends he was homeless. Jeff's teacher questioned him. He had a trusting relationship with her and admitted his alcoholic mother had kicked him out of the house. He confessed that his mom was verbally abusive and often, during drunken stupors, hit him with objects. He assured his teacher he was safe and staying with friends. He didn't want intervention and was glad to be away from his mother's chronic alcoholism and verbal abuse.

Was Jeff really homeless? Not really. Should the teacher report? Only after further investigation to clarify the numerous dynamics often involved in parent-teen relationships. The parent-teen relationship is fraught with pitfalls that are difficult for teachers and child abuse investigators to unravel. Does Jeff have any visible bruising or injuries? If so, then the teacher should report. Will mom allow him to return home? Is another family-friends, neighbors, or relatives-available to help Jeff and his mom? If not, then the teacher should report this as a case of suspected neglect.

Sexual abuse. According to CAPTA, sexual abuse is the "employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of any child to engage in, or assist any other person to engage in, any sexually explicit conduct or simulation of such conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct."(6)

Sexual abuse includes any interactions between a child and adult caretaker in which the child is used for the sexual stimulation of the perpetrator or another person. Sexual abuse may also be committed by a person under the age of 18 when that person is either significantly older than the victim or when the perpetrator is in a position of power or control over the child.

Over several weeks, the teacher noticed 12-year-old April began to withdraw into a world of silence and unprovoked angry outbursts. Her grades plummeted to near failing, and she often didn't come to school or participate in activities she normally enjoyed. April began to dress provocatively and was often overheard talking about sexual matters with students. Eventually, after much encouraging, the teacher was able to talk to April, who confided her stepfather was molesting her. The teacher contacted CPS immediately and informed April of the call.

Just the Facts

Reporting child abuse involves a complex array of dynamics. Individual subjectivity, personal perceptions, education, training, and life experiences affect everyone involved in the reporting and investigation process. To maintain objectivity, getting as many facts as possible is essential.

Before calling, the reporter should have all the important information, including the child's name, date of birth, address, and telephone number; details of the suspected abuse; and information about the perpetrator. Are there bruises or marks? Is the child at risk if he returns home? Callers should be clear about what they are reporting. Vague statements of concern limit the screener's ability when determining whether to assign a case for investigation.

"Educators need enough information to answer basic questions that will be asked if they call CPS," says Connie Burrows Horton, Associate Professor of Psychology at Illinois State University and coauthor of Child Abuse and Neglect, The School's Response. "For example, CPS will want to know such information as what the educator suspects happened. When a teacher calls a CPS hotline and reports vaguely, 'I'm just really concerned about this child; she is not acting like herself lately, and I did notice some bruises,' CPS typically will not pursue such a report."

CPS will assess all reports with concrete information for possible investigation. Some calls are screened out if callers can't provide addresses or family or children's names, or if details about the suspected abuse aren't clear. Screeners, supervisors, and investigative social workers make every effort to unravel callers concerns. Some calls may be referred to other agencies. Perhaps a community nurse or parenting classes could benefit this family. CPS can provide information and assistance to families and refer them to appropriate agencies better suited to meeting their needs.

Horton also stresses educators should remember they are not investigators. Educators are not trained to look for subtle clues, statements, and signs of suspected abuse, such as determining the age of a bruise or how it occurred, the right questions to ask, and appropriate nonaccusatory interviewing skills regarding sexual molestation and abuse. The educator's role is to ask nonleading general questions that will provide enough information to CPS to determine if an investigation is warranted.

When talking to children about suspected abuse, it's imperative not to ask leading questions or insert information. A case can easily become tainted if anyone involved asks leading questions or fills in statements for a child. The incident must be conveyed in the child's own words. Investigators, attorneys, social workers, psychologists, police detectives, and judges will scrutinize statements for information that could appear tainted if a case goes to court.

A recent study published by the American Psychological Association examined how misleading suggestions from parents influenced children's eyewitness reports.(7) Psychologist and coauthor of the study, Debra Ann Poole, says even children as old as 7 or 8 will repeat misinformation. "Apparently," she says, "general instructions to report only what 'really happened' does not always prompt children to make the distinction between events they actually experienced versus events they only heard described by a significant adult."

What to Expect When You Report

Mandated reporters often want to know the result of an investigation. Some state and local child welfare agencies will inform mandated reporters of the outcome of a report. In most states, CPS does send a letter to mandated reporters, and may contact them. A family's right to privacy, however, supercedes mandated reporters being privy to confidential investigations-thus the reporter may not be informed of the investigation's findings and may never learn what results from his or her report.

Once a referral is assigned for investigation, CPS will interview the child in a neutral setting, such as the school. If the child is old enough to understand, school personnel should inform her a report will be made to CPS. The child may find it helpful if school personnel explain the reporting process, that the child is not in trouble, the need to ensure her safety, and the teacher's duty to report suspected abuse. What educators decide to convey to parents should be discussed with the investigator and school personnel.

Once the child is interviewed, CPS will contact the family and others who may have additional information about the investigation. CPS is sensitive to the mandated reporter's role and connection to the child. Remember, all reports are kept confidential.

Mandated reporters should understand, however, that federal law requires social service agencies to make reasonable efforts to keep children safe within their families of origin. If the CPS agency determines the child can remain in his home safely while the family receives services, a report of suspected abuse or neglect may not result in a child being removed from the home.

The most important thing educators can do is contact their local child welfare agencies to learn more about state reporting laws and training opportunities for mandated reporters. Knowing when and what to report could save a child from abuse and neglect.

Nancy Duncan, MSW, is a California child abuse investigator who writes about health and psychology. The editor is grateful for the contributions of CWLA Child Protection Program Manager Caren Kaplan to this article.


  1. Children's Bureau, Administration for Children and Families (ACF), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). (2001). The Scope and Problem of Child Maltreatment. Washington, DC: Author. Available online at
  2. National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information. (2001). What Is Child Maltreatment? Washington, DC: Children's Bureau, ACF, HHS. Available online at
  3. Much of the descriptions of the various forms of abuse come from Cynthia Crosson Tower. (1992). The Role of Educators in the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. HHS Publication No. (ACF) 92-30172. Available online at
  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, Children's Bureau. (2001). Child Maltreatment 1999: Reports from the States to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Available online in both HTML and PDF at
  5. Judy Purdy. (1998). "Researcher documents psychological casualties of abuse." Athens: University of Georgia. Press release available online at
  6. National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information. (2001). What Is Child Maltreatment? Washington, DC: Children's Bureau, ACF, HHS. Available online at
  7. Debra Ann Poole and D. Stephen Lindsay. (March 2001). "Children's Eyewitness Reports After Exposure to Misinformation From Parents." Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 7 (1), 27-50. Available online at
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