Emergency vehicles appeared again this week at the door of a family we know. It’s such a common occurrence that the family greets the firemen by first names. After hearing about the latest event, I was sorely tempted to call the state of Georgia’s office of child protective services to check out what actually goes on behind closed doors. Maybe they’ll find concerns, but maybe not. There are a couple of reasons why I hesitate.
First, I was a foster parent for more than two years for some girls that had been involved in an abuse/neglect case. The girls’ parents were sent to jail for a drug offense and the children spent six to eight years as wards of the state of Illinois. As I’ve written before the state makes a terrible parent.
Second, I was a licensed day care provider for more than 10 years in Wheaton, Ill. I had the licensed limit of eight children under the age of 12 that I cared for each day, some before and after school. I took great pains to have a healthy, nurturing environment. I attended provider professional development classes, followed federal nutritional guidelines serving only hot breakfast and lunch, and I cared a lot for the kids.
That’s why I was beyond shocked when I opened my front door one August morning to find a badge shoved under my nose by a child protection agent. He politely asked to come into my home and sat down to “interview” me about a child abuse charge that had been made against me. As I was interviewed, it occurred to me what had actually happened. In the spring, I helped a friend out by taking in a 10-year-old for a before-school slot. I didn’t want to take in an unknown child and parent duo, but she vouched for the family. So, I took in “Johnny.”
My normal schedule began early, usually before 7:00 a.m. The first hour was spent taking care of breakfast. The second hour was reserved for a pre-school curriculum I taught. This last week of school included a lot of fun projects including one the kids really loved – involving popcorn, food coloring and sticky marshmallow fluff. Using their creativity, the kids came up with some pretty wild popcorn creations to add to our “Zoo.” Just before this activity, but after everyone had finished breakfast, Johnny was dropped off at my front door by his mom, who worked at the local high school.
Johnny joined in the activities and made a popcorn elephant, along with the other critters that were soon drying. I cleaned everyone up and soon we were on the way to walk to school.
The “child abuse and neglect” charge stated that I served kids popcorn for breakfast. On the surface it sounds terrible. When I informed the officer that the “child” in question was 10 years old (not the 2-year-old he expected), he realized that the “child” who had been dropped off for day care was perfectly capable of asking for a breakfast. He left and said that I’d be receiving a letter detailing the conclusion of his investigation.
I was horribly upset for the next few weeks, considering that this letter and this charge would also be a permanent part of my record as a licensed child-care provider. I seriously considered closing down my day care home, because I already was taking such a risk. I had to pay premiums on a $1,000,000 insurance policy to protect myself in case of any injury or death of a child while in my care.
Despite the fact that this incident was years ago, I’ve never forgotten feelings associated with this abuse/neglect report. Many others have experienced the same thing. According to Child Help in American there are child abuse reports made every 10 seconds. There are such long-term consequences to child abuse that many find themselves as members of the juvenile justice system and later, residents of adult prisons. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Children who experience child abuse & neglect are 59 percent more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, 28 percent more likely to be arrested as an adult, and 30 percent more likely to commit violent crime.”
The good news, according to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, is that half of the states reported fewer cases of child abuse in 2010 than 2009. However, the number of children found to have actually suffered abuse or neglect at the hands of a parent or caregiver were still staggering – 695,000 children according to the Child Maltreatment 2010 report. Eighty one percent of the abusers of children were parents, either birth, adoptive or stepparents.
So what’s an outside observer to look for to understand the real signs of abuse or neglect? According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services fact sheet, watch for these signs:
An abused or neglected child will:
- Show sudden changes in school performance or behavior.
- Have a medical issue that wasn’t brought to the attention of a medical professional.
- Lack adult supervision.
- Be overly compliant, passive or withdrawn.
- Come to school or other activities early, stay late and not want to go home.
- Has unexplained burns, bites, bruises, broken bones, or black eyes.
- Has fading bruises or other marks noticeable after an absence from school.
- Seems frightened of the parents and protests or cries when it is time to go home.
- Shrinks at the approach of adults.
- Is frequently absent from school.
- Begs or steals food or money.
- Lacks needed medical or dental care, immunizations, or glasses.
- Is consistently dirty and has severe body odor.
- Lacks sufficient clothing for the weather.
- States that there is no one at home to provide care.
An abusive parent will:
- Show a lack of concern for the child
- Deny the existence of—or blame the child for—the child’s problems in school or at home
- Ask teachers or other caregivers to use harsh physical discipline if the child misbehaves
- See the child as entirely bad, worthless, or burdensome
Some people are in positions of Mandatory Reporters of suspected child abuse. They are:
- Social workers
- Teachers and other school personnel
- Physicians and other health-care workers
- Mental health professionals
- Child care providers
- Medical examiners or coroners
- Law enforcement officers
Let’s hope you’re never in a position to report suspected child abuse or neglect. When in doubt, report. If you do, you may be the only adult in the life of a child who cares enough to make a difference.
Cherie K. Miller lives on a lake in Georgia with her husband, Steve, and a blended family of seven sons, two dogs, two leopard geckos and one freakishly grumpy 17-year-old cat, named Kitty. Steve & Cherie have a nonprofit organization that provides compelling character development curriculum for use by parents, in schools, or other community organizations.