Your role in situations of child abuse
By Roxanne Claire
For most dance teachers, major events in the lives of their students are usually limited to the illness of a grandparent or the birth of a sibling. Teachers in these cases are bystanders, offering at most a few words of sympathy or congratulations to the families involved. Occasionally, however, circumstances threaten the safety and well-being of the child. At these times, the teacher must step in to protect the child.
For one teacher in a large city in the Southwest, the behavior of a parent led her to suspect drug abuse. Another, a small-town teacher in the Midwest, learned about the sexual abuse of a student when the father went to jail; she became involved as the mother attempted to maintain normalcy in the girl’s life.
If you as a teacher suspect the physical or sexual abuse of a child, or suspect that the drug or alcohol abuse of a parent may be endangering a student, what should you do? It’s important to know when to be concerned, when to call the police or Child Protective Services, and what happens once you call.
Abuse can take many forms: emotional, physical, sexual, or neglect. Emotional abuse includes constant belittling remarks, frequent yelling or bullying, ignoring a child (the silent treatment), or exposing the child to the violence of others. Physical abuse can be the result of a deliberate attempt to physically hurt a child, but it can also result from attempts to discipline the child. Neglect is a pattern of failing to provide for a child’s basic needs of adequate food, clothing, hygiene, or supervision. Sexual abuse involves exposing or subjecting the child to inappropriate sexual contact, activity, or behavior. According to the American Psychological Association (apa.org), exhibitionism and exposing a child to erotic material are also forms of sexual abuse.
For a list of warning signs of abuse in children, see sidebar. It’s important not to minimize any warning signs observed, and equally important not to consider a single warning sign as evidence of abuse. A warning sign is a signal to look for a pattern of abuse or warning signs.
The effects of secrecy
When a parent sexually abuses a child or is abusing drugs herself, in many cases the child is sworn to secrecy. Faced with this emotional burden, the child takes on the guilt, feeling she is responsible for the parent’s behavior. Not only does this result in low self-esteem and depression, but the child’s belief that she is responsible for the behavior of others carries into her adult life, affecting her choices in education, work, and relationships. Often children with abusive or substance-abusing parents will abuse drugs themselves or choose partners who are abusers.
Thus abuse, and the secrecy that accompanies it, has serious effects far into the future. Conversely, children who are able to confide in a trusted adult (and are believed) recover more quickly from their childhood abuse.
It’s not only abuse aimed at the child that can leave lifelong scars; so can parental behaviors that affect the child indirectly, such as drug abuse. In many cases the child is forced to take on an adult role, sometimes even providing physical care for the parent. Often the child colludes with the parent to hide the drug abuse.
A parent’s drug abuse can put the child’s safety at risk. A parent may drive while under the influence, leave the child alone in unsafe circumstances, or expose the child to dangerous situations.
Signs of drug abuse include slurring of words, frequently missing appointments, money problems, unexplained weight loss, and inappropriate behavior in which the person is argumentative, giddy, hyperactive, or unreasonably fearful.
Legal obligation to report
In nearly every state, the District of Columbia, and most U.S. territories, professionals who work with children are legally obligated to report abuse or neglect. The term “professional” can include not just doctors, nurses, and schoolteachers but also dentists, clergy, and daycare workers.
The defining characteristic of “professional” in this instance is someone who is certified or licensed by the state. Since dance teachers are neither licensed nor certified by the state, they do not fall under such statutes. However, in some states, including Hawaii and Illinois, employees of any agency that provides recreational activities are considered “professionals” for the purpose of the abuse-reporting requirement. Moreover, in nearly 20 states, anyone who suspects child abuse or neglect is legally obligated to report those suspicions to the authorities. Failure to report abuse can result in jail time and/or a fine.
Even when there is no legal obligation to report abuse, most people feel morally obligated to protect children. Still, some fear making the situation worse or hesitate to get involved; others are unaware of reporting systems or laws. And sometimes a well-meaning person is uncertain whether a situation warrants intervention.
It’s important not to minimize any warning signs observed, and equally important not to consider a single warning sign as evidence of abuse.
A personal experience
I saw the mom in the waiting room, sitting with her face propped in her hand and her eyes closed. My antennae went up a little; this was not usual waiting-room behavior. After her daughter’s class, however, the woman was on her feet and seemingly alert. I was ready to dismiss my suspicion until another parent sidled up to me. “We’re all worried,” she said, tilting her head in the direction of the dozing mom. “She has nodded off like that before. We’re afraid she shouldn’t be driving in that condition, with two small children in the car.”
I’d already confronted the woman earlier that month when she’d shown up at the studio slurring her words. When I took her aside she said she was fine, blaming an interaction with a new medication. She’d already consulted her doctor. I’d let her go and subsequent encounters had not shown any more slurring. Yet here was another sign. What should I do?
I asked Shelly Power, associate director of Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy of Dance, what to do. A former longtime school owner, she has been a good resource for me regarding studio business matters. Power said that deciding whether to confront a parent is a judgment call. In situations where a studio owner observes a problem firsthand or perceives an immediate risk to a child, she says, the owner does have a responsibility to take action. If the owner decides to talk to the parent, Power recommends having another staff member present.
If confronting the parent appears not to be the best course of action, Power recommends turning to the family. “In my experience, contacting a family member is good practice—I certainly would want this if it were one of my family members—allowing for intervention by a loved one first,” she says.
This is the step I elected to take next. Using the emergency contact number on file at my studio, I called the student’s grandmother and gave her a brief synopsis of the situation. She called me back a short time later to say she had arranged for an intervention.
An intervention is when family members and others close to the person whose behavior is in question confront her in a non-threatening, controlled setting. Each person describes, in a factual way, the worrisome behavior and how it has affected others. The goals of an intervention are to make someone aware of self-destructive behavior and to get him or her to accept help.
An intervention needs to be planned. Information that outlines elements of a successful intervention is available on the Internet (see “Resources” sidebar). Professional intervention specialists can assist in the planning and execution of an intervention. While this may not be an option, experts recommend that families and loved ones consult a trained substance-abuse counselor before staging an intervention. They also say that to be successful, an intervention must include an immediate treatment plan. Research by Judith Landau and M.D. Staunton in 2004 revealed that 83 percent of people who are the subject of a professional intervention go on to seek treatment.
The CPS option
If a child has been injured or is at imminent risk of injury, it’s time to call 911. If you suspect abuse or neglect, or if inappropriate behavior of a parent continues, calling Child Protective Services (CPS) or the state child abuse hotline is the right step.
Calls to child abuse hotlines in most states can be anonymous, but those willing to provide contact information may be more helpful. All calls are kept confidential. The identity of the reporter is specifically protected from disclosure to the alleged perpetrator in 39 states. Anyone who reports suspected abuse in good faith is immune from civil or criminal liability. An advantage of calling is that if you are unsure whether circumstances warrant an investigation, the hotline worker will ask questions to determine whether it’s appropriate to file a formal report.
If a formal report is taken, CPS will investigate for neglect or abuse and decide whether to remove the child from the home. Children are not automatically removed unless they are determined to be in danger. If they are removed, they may be placed with a close relative or a foster family pending a hearing to determine whether the parents can retain custody or whether longer-term living arrangements need to be made.
In many states, the primary focus of CPS is determining whether a child is being abused or neglected. In such states, drug or alcohol abuse alone may not result in termination of custody unless the child is in danger as a result of that use.
Calling CPS might seem like a drastic measure, but CPS will take only such action as it deems necessary. And the risk in not making the call can be significant. Says Power, “Chances are, you are saving a child from harm.”
What to do when a child claims abuse|
When a child confides in you about an abusive situation, you may be shocked and unsure of what to do or say, especially when the abuse is sexual. Bear in mind that these conversations are even more difficult for the children. The most important thing you can do is take seriously what they have to say. The most important thing you can say is that any abuse is not their fault.
Allow the child to tell you in his or her own words what has happened. Then call the local child abuse hotline. If the child is injured or needs immediate protection, call the police.
A personal experience, part 2
My student’s mom was back in the waiting room of my studio within two weeks of her intervention, trying to pick up her daughter. The girl and I, along with 40 other students, were in a rehearsal. I locked the rehearsal room door to give myself time to think. I knew I wanted to protect the girl, who was 8, from any harm in the home as well as any embarrassment a scene would cause. But I wasn’t sure of my legal position.
Because the grandmother had called a week earlier to let me know CPS was involved, I didn’t believe the mother had a right to the child—although she kept insisting she did—but I worried about improperly keeping a child from her mother. I called the grandmother, who told me not to let the mom take the student and to call CPS.
At this point, another student unlocked the door and the mom called her daughter out. My office manager and I blocked the exit and drew the mother to another part of the building, away from the other waiting parents. While I called CPS one parent, a lawyer who had observed the situation, joined the office manager to stand between the girl and her mom.
After consulting their files, CPS advised me not to let the mom have the daughter and to call the police. While waiting for the police to arrive, my office manager, the lawyer, and I stood between the mom and her daughter, psychologically and physically preventing her from taking the girl. In calm voices we explained repeatedly that while we were very sorry, we were acting on CPS’s instructions and that the police would “sort this all out.”
The child stood quietly, looking miserable, but averting her eyes when her mother tried to emotionally blackmail her into leaving with her. The child did not appear to want to leave, or at least knew that she should not. The mom eventually left and the grandmother arrived to collect my student.
Children who are able to confide in a trusted adult (and are believed) recover more quickly from their childhood abuse.
What you can do
If one of your students is always poorly dressed and appears hungry, sick, emotionally distressed, fearful, clingy, or wary of others, or has visible signs of trauma (scars, burns, bruises, or cuts), call CPS. If you believe the child is in immediate danger, call the police.
In some cases, children may not get the protection they need until after CPS or the police get involved, making it difficult for them to face those who know about their parents’ behavior. And children often “act out” after traumatic events. It is important to recognize when behavior is a response to the pain of the abuse. The abuse may have ended but the trauma continues.
As studio owners, we can offer emotional shelter to these young victims of abuse. We can offer a place where they can reclaim a part of their former lives and where they can feel good about themselves. If appropriate, we can talk to their classmates and their parents. We can recognize why a child may be acting out and offer emotional support.
Dance teachers are often involved with their students for years. We can make a difference in their lives—and sometimes that difference can be lifesaving.
Warning Signs of Abuse in Children
1. Emotional abuse
- Excessively withdrawn, fearful, or anxious about doing something wrong.
- Shows extremes in behavior (compliant or demanding; passive or aggressive).
- Doesn’t seem to be attached to the parent or caregiver.
- Acts either inappropriately adult (taking care of other children) or inappropriately infantile (rocking, thumb-sucking, tantrums).
2. Physical abuse
- Frequent injuries or unexplained bruises, welts, or cuts.
- Clothes are ill fitting, filthy, or inappropriate for the weather.
- Trouble walking or sitting.
- Is always watchful and on alert, as if waiting for something bad to happen.
- Injuries appear to have a pattern such as marks from a hand or belt.
- Shies away from touch, flinches at sudden movements, or seems afraid to go home.
- Wears inappropriate clothing to cover up injuries, such as long-sleeved shirts on hot days.
- Hygiene is consistently bad (unbathed, matted and unwashed hair, noticeable body odor).
- Untreated illnesses and physical injuries.
- Is frequently unsupervised or left alone or allowed to play in unsafe situations and environments.
- Is frequently late or missing from school.
4. Sexual abuse
- Displays knowledge or interest in sexual acts inappropriate to his or her age, or even seductive behavior.
- Makes strong efforts to avoid a specific person, without an obvious reason.
- Doesn’t want to change clothes in front of others or participate in physical activities.
- An STD or pregnancy, especially under age 14.
- Runs away from home.
Reporting child abuse and neglect:
- Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: 800.4.A.CHILD (800.422.4453)
- State Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Numbers: childwelfare.gov (Search for “state child abuse reporting numbers.”)
- State laws on confidentiality of reporters or mandatory reporting: childwelfare.gov (Search for “mandatory reporters of child abuse.”)
Help for child sexual abuse:
- Stop It Now: stopitnow.org; 888.PREVENT (888.773.8368)
- Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network: rainn.org; 800.656.HOPE
Want to become more informed or involved? The Front Porch Project is a community-based initiative that provides training and technical assistance to those who want to help prevent child abuse. Visit americanhumane.org/children/programs/child-abuse-neglect-prevention/the-front-porch-project/ for info.