What Should You Do When You Suspect Child Abuse?

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Mental health counselor, children’s advocate, and award-winning author of a newly published novel, The Wooden Chair, (http://www.raynegolay.com/), Rayne Golay, offers some insight into a few cases from around the country which she hopes will prompt witnesses to speak up about  suspected abuse and neglect. 

An Army sergeant in Maryland charged with 1st-degree child abuse, accused of starving, beating and burning her 4-year-old stepdaughter.

A North Carolina Child Protective Services supervisor and her husband, a nurse, arrested after their 11-year-old foster son is found handcuffed to a porch railing with a dead chicken tied around his neck.

Three malnourished sisters in Arizona, ages 12, 13 and 17, kept locked in their bedrooms for up to two years. Neighbors reported they sometimes heard children’s voices at the house at night, but never saw anyone during the day.”

c8a7828a98f8e0376eb1ce8a80c0b04b“’These cases remind us that child abusers can look like upstanding members of society. They can be your very nice neighbor, a trusted professional, the guy at the grocery store.’

In the case of the Army sergeant, Golay notes that an observant schoolteacher spoke up about her concerns, which led to the arrest of the child’s stepmother. The three sisters in Arizona, however, were not discovered until the two youngest girls escaped after their stepfather kicked in their bedroom door and threatened them with a knife.

“Neighbors said they’d heard children at night, but never saw them,” Golay says. “Wouldn’t you call that suspicious?”

She offers these suggestions for recognizing and reporting suspected child abuse.

Don’t be afraid to be wrong.  You don’t need to have hard evidence or proof of child abuse or neglect to report your concerns. If you’re wrong, social workers and investigators will soon discover that and close the case. It might be uncomfortable for the alleged abuser and he or she may get angry. But you can report anonymously, and it’s far better to risk someone taking offense or social workers finding no evidence of abuse than for a child to suffer because no one speaks up.

Actions often speak volumes. Does a young child cringe, raise an arm defensively or try to hide when her mother turns to her? These behaviors can be the reflexive response of a child who’s frequently hit. Do you know a child who has become withdrawn, had a persistent loss of appetite, or started doing poorly in school? Changes in behavior may signal a variety of emotional problems, including abuse and neglect. What about witnessing an adult lose their patience with a child at a store or other public place in a manner that seems over-the-top? If it appears to be an emergency, call 911, Golay says. Otherwise, try to defuse the situation. “You might smile at the parent and say something like, ‘It can be so hard to bring kids shopping. I remember it well.’ Scolding or criticizing will only make the situation worse, but attention and understanding words may calm the person.”

How to report your concerns? If you want to talk to a professional crisis counselor before making a report, call Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline, 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453). While counselors cannot file a report for you, they can answer your questions, provide information about resources, and discuss the situation that has drawn your concern. The hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  To report abuse, each state has a toll-free number; find the list at tinyurl.com/ReportChildAbuse. If you witness a situation that requires an immediate law enforcement response, call 911.

“Whatever you do,” says Golay, “do something.”

“We’re all very aware of child abuse and neglect, but still, most people continue to hang back and say or do nothing when they have concerns,” she says. “This is not acceptable. We all have a duty to keep our children safe.”’

According to the Department of Children and Families in New Jersey, “any person having reasonable cause to believe that a child has been subjected to abuse or acts of abuse should immediately report this information to the State Central Registry (SCR). If the child is in immediate danger, call 911 as well as 1-877 NJ ABUSE (1-877-652-2873). A concerned caller does not need proof to report an allegation of child abuse and can make the report anonymously.”

NJ’s DCF also provides the answers to commonly asked questions:

“What information will I be asked to provide to the hotline screener?

SCR screeners are trained caseworkers who know how to respond to reports of child abuse/neglect. Whenever possible, a caller should provide all of the following information:

  • Who: The child and parent/caregiver’s name, age and address and the name of the alleged perpetrator and that person’s relationship to the child.
  • What: Type and frequency of alleged abuse/neglect, current or previous injuries to the child and what caused you to become concerned.
  • When: When the alleged abuse/neglect occurred and when you learned of it.
  • Where: Where the incident occurred, where the child is now and whether the alleged perpetrator has access to the child.
  • How: How urgent the need is for intervention and whether there is a likelihood of imminent danger for the child.

Do callers have immunity from civil or criminal liability?

Any person who, in good faith, makes a report of child abuse or neglect or testifies in a child abuse hearing resulting from such a report is immune from any criminal or civil liability as a result of such action. Calls can be placed to the hotline anonymously.

Is it against the laws of New Jersey to fail to report suspected abuse/neglect?

Any person who knowingly fails to report suspected abuse or neglect according to the law or to comply with the provisions of the law is a disorderly person.

What happens after I make the call?

When a report indicates that a child may be at risk, an investigator from the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (formerly Youth and Family Services) will promptly investigate the allegations of child abuse and neglect within 24 hours of receipt of the report.”

Child abuse is never something that should be taken lightly. If you see or know of abuse, report it. Your actions could save a child’s life.

Also, please take an opportunity to pick up a copy of The Wooden Chair. It’s an incredible, informative read!

Rayne E.Golay is a certified drug and alcohol counselor whose work with addicts informs her understanding and insights into the consequences of child abuse. She has a Master’s in Psychology and is a lifelong reader and writer. The Wooden Chair, published in 2013 by Untreed Reads, won the Royal Palm Literary Award for mainstream literature in the 2005 Florida Writers Association’s competition.  She hopes that this story inspires witnesses to speak up for children whom they suspect are suffering from any form of abuse and/or neglect.”

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