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Increased stress and tension brought on by the pandemic has led to decreased child abuse reports--but experts caution that this isn't a good thing

How to spot child abuse or neglect in remote learning environments

Increased stress and tension brought on by the pandemic has led to decreased child abuse reports--but experts caution that this isn't a good thing

2020 has challenged the U.S. education system in ways we never thought possible. Remote learning has uncovered many issues with the education system in the United States, including decreased child abuse reports by up to 50 percent (though, under normal circumstances, child abuse and neglect actually increases during times of crisis and instability) (Callahan & Mink, 2020).

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), one in five children and adolescents experience a mental health problem, such as stress, anxiety, bullying, family problems, depression, etc. during their school-aged years (2019). In a traditional, in-person school year, some estimates say that 60 percent of students do not receive the support that they need – so in remote learning environments, it’s not difficult to see how even more students aren’t receiving the support they need as staff members who would usually be interacting with children are no longer doing so.

It is an educator’s responsibility to watch out for child abuse or neglect, including during remote learning, and understand their role as a mandated reporter (every state has similar, yet individual, mandates.) This can help them understand a child’s home life, and potentially flag if they suspect that abuse is happening at home.

“Any time a child’s behavior or attitudes change, there is cause for concern,” says Joe Laramie, a retired police Lieutenant and former Missouri Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force Commander. “It could indicate a variety of things, depending upon their home environment, their relationships with friends, and relationships within their own family. We should be paying attention to moods and behaviors.”

Unfortunately, there is no standard “checkbox” for educators to use if they suspect abuse or neglect is happening in a child’s home, even as cases around the country may be increasing. However, Laramie does offer some insight into what educators can do and watch out for:

1) Be aware of student absence without reasonable explanation, or sudden changes in behavior
“With any type of child abuse (physical, sexual or emotional), we have to remember that a child’s behavior is often controlled [by someone else]. In a high-stress situation, if domestic violence or abuse is at play, a child may be limiting their reaction.”
Consequently, some students who may be in an abusive home are not only worried about themselves, but they’re worried about their parents becoming stressed.

“Children tend to mimic the behavior around them – so maybe their behaviors aren’t indicative of abuse, but their behavior may be indicative of a parent who’s really struggling,” he says. “The first thing that teachers can do is to make sure that they express to their students, “I am here for you.” They must be willing to show empathy and talk to students about what they’re concerned about.

We should be teaching educators that they should assure their students that part of their job is to make sure students are safe. If a student doesn’t feel safe, they should speak with their teacher. How you relay that is important to not put the child at risk.”

Educators should be tracking absences in virtual learning in the same way that they might if they didn’t come to school. Remote learning technology can help them record absences in a central record, so that they can recognize patterns and act quickly in response.

2) Make sure students have teacher contact information on-hand
In an online class, a student may be noticeably concerned about talking to a teacher with their abuser or overly stressed parent nearby. If a teacher fears that a student may be in harm’s way, they can send out mass, general emails to all students with their contact information, or even put a sign behind them that lists their phone number as they chat one-on-one with the student.

3) Have individual check-in time
Laramie also recommends that educators have daily check-in time with students to chat and see how they’re doing. If they’re comfortable with it, he says, the student can pick up their laptop and spin it 360 degrees to show the teacher their home learning environment.

4) Ask the student to describe how they’re feeling with one word every day
If teachers repeatedly get answers like, “scared,” “frustrated,” or “angry,” these words may be an indication to dig deeper.

5) Make a report to the Child Abuse Hotline if there is reasonable suspicion that a child is being abused
Teachers have a responsibility as mandated reporters to report suspected child abuse to the Child Abuse Hotline of their jurisdiction. Do not assume that someone else has made a call. Just because an adult reports a problem to the hotline, Laramie notes, does not necessarily mean that it will mean that child will be removed from their home. Instead, it means that investigators will make sure that the child is safe.

For a quick reference, he says, ask yourself a few simple questions:
• If I do nothing, will this child be safe?
• If I don’t do anything, am I leaving this child in a safe environment?
• Am I putting this child more at risk?

These questions will help you decide.

We won’t always be living in a global pandemic. We’ve been encouraged to spend more time inside, which has felt isolating and can even feel like society is fragmenting. But by opening conversations and supporting each other – parents, teachers, administrators, and students alike – we’ll all exit this era in the same way we entered it: together.

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