Trusting Your Gut: Considerations for your role as a mandated reporter

Submitted by: Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center

In honor of April being National Child Abuse Prevention Month, Communities In Schools of Chicago asks all of its community partners to think about how prepared you are when entering classrooms. Child maltreatment occurs in every community and can take the form of physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and/or neglect. The effects of child abuse can sometimes be difficult to identify. Children do not always have evident bruises or marks, and they do not always tell about their abuse with words. This is why it is imperative for those of us who work with and around children and families to be armed with accurate knowledge and the confidence to intervene appropriately. Thank you to our friends at Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center for contributing this post!

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Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center and our partners are the front-line responders in Chicago to reports of child sexual abuse, as well as reports of physical abuse of children under 3 years old. ChicagoCAC responds to more than 2,000 reports of child sexual abuse each year, and our staff provides family advocacy, forensic interviews and mental health services to help children and youth heal. But before any of this healing can begin, an adult needs to report suspected abuse to the child abuse hotline (1-800-25-ABUSE) or 911 to start an investigation.

Many of us are aware that we are mandated reporters, but some of you may be wondering what a mandated reporter is and exactly who falls into this group. In Illinois, the law defines mandated reporters as all school personnel, medical professionals, law enforcement, day care providers, mental health practitioners, clergy, people who work in athletic programs and people who work at colleges and universities. (See www.dcfstraining.org for a complete list.) When a person in one of these positions suspects child abuse or neglect, they are required by law to call the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services’ Child Abuse Hotline to make a report. However, all of us, regardless of mandated reporter status, can and should report suspicions of child abuse and neglect to the hotline or police. (If you are not sure if you are a mandated reporter, consult your employer and their policies regarding suspicions of child abuse and neglect.)

What does it mean to take responsibility for keeping children safe? It starts with knowing what behaviors indicate the possibility of child abuse or neglect, then taking action when we see these behaviors in children.  (See www.chicagocac.org for more information about behaviors to watch for.) Sometimes, this action should be calling the hotline.  Sometimes, we observe behaviors or situations that don’t merit a hotline call, yet we are concerned that something is “off.”

When your gut tells you something is just not right, what do you do?

At ChicagoCAC, we think about behaviors on a spectrum: a traffic light. “Green light behaviors” are the appropriate, positive interactions that support kids’ healthy development, such as a high five, a pat on the back for a job well done, or a hug. We each strive to have them with the children around us – that’s why we work with kids!

It’s the “yellow light behaviors” that catch many of us up in what to do, or whether to do it. We see an adult or kid insist on hugging, touching, tickling or holding a child who does not want this physical contact or attention, or continuing after the child says “stop” or “no.” We see an adult show favoritism to a particular child, such as giving gifts or frequently initiating time alone. Maybe the child acts angry, uncomfortable, scared or sad around a certain adult. Maybe you’ve noticed a sudden change in the child’s behavior; a usually gregarious child is now sullen and withdrawn. In these instances, you have not observed any abusive behavior, but your gut tells you something is not right. There are actions you can take in these situations.

Let’s say you observe one of your third grade students with his soccer coach a few times per week. The child often hangs out at school between class and practice, and the coach seems to pay extra attention to this child during and outside of practices. You see the coach rubbing the child’s shoulders, bringing him a gift and referring to the child as “my number one guy.” One night you observe the coach driving the child home from practice.

In this situation, you should definitely intervene. Ask a trusted colleague if anyone else has observed this behavior with this coach. You may not have been the only one to notice it, but you may be the first one to help this child. Talk to the coach to let him know you are paying attention. Talk to his supervisor. Explain that boundaries are being crossed and the safety of children is at stake, then follow-up to ensure that appropriate intervention took place. Check in with the child’s parents. They may need extra help with child care during the day, or they may require other community referrals that could provide support. Think about this as an opportunity to prevent harm by stopping these concerning behaviors.

Many yellow light behaviors – including the ones mentioned above – are actually grooming behaviors, which sexual abusers use to gain access to a child. Grooming is a subtle, gradual and escalating process of building trust with a child, as well as the child’s family and the community. It is deliberate and purposeful. Abusers may groom children for weeks, months or even years. This trusting relationship makes it more likely that abuse will be overlooked, dismissed or kept secret. Intervening during the yellow light phase prevents abuse.

Progressing to “red light behaviors” means there are clear indications of abuse or neglect that always warrant immediate intervention and a hotline call. Examples include seeing a suspicious injury on a child or hearing a child talk about an inappropriate sexual experience with an adult. Red light situations can also occur among youth where there is a power differential, such as between a child and an older youth, or a child with a disability.

Fortunately, there are typically plenty of warning signs and ways to intervene before a child ever experiences this abuse. And remember, all schools should have policies and procedures regarding mandated reporting, so familiarize yourself with the policy and use it as a guide.

Adults are responsible for keeping children safe and for taking action when they are not. By trusting our gut, then putting our expertise to action, we can play a unique role in interrupting grooming behaviors and preventing children from experiencing abuse. So pay attention when you know something is “off” – a child is sure to be grateful for it.

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Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center provides education and training to thousands of professionals and community members each year on how to prevent, recognize and respond to abuse.  In honor of child abuse prevention month, ChicagoCAC is offering several opportunities for education on these topics. For more information how to get training to your school or organization go to www.ChicagoCAC.org/respond.

Adults are responsible for keeping children safe from abuse and speaking up when they believe a child might be in danger. Mandated reporters must report suspicion of child neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse or emotional abuse to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Service (DCFS) by calling 1-800-25-ABUSE. For more information about what constitutes these types of abuse, or to read the law, visit www.dcfstraining.org. DCFS offers a free online training at this website that is a good refresher for anyone working with children.

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