Question: I am a third grade teacher who works in a suburb outside of Philadelphia, Penn. Based on several signs and a gut feeling, I suspect that one of my outgoing students is being abused. I plan to report my suspicions through the proper channels, but my question is: can I be sued by the child's parents if I am wrong? Helen S.
Answer: Helen, don't be so hard on yourself. Parents who abuse their children go to great lengths to cover up their crime and convince everyone else that all is well. Child abuse and child neglect are issues that we would rather avoid. Unfortunately, they are all too real and are so prevalent that, as teachers, we must rise to the challenge.
It is very important to remember that it is not always obvious in which family abuse might occur, and abuse and neglect do not necessarily have to be ongoing. Parents may end up becoming abusive for various reasons, including financial or psychological stress, or unrealistic expectations of their children. It can be as simple as losing one's temper under stress and calling a child "stupid," or smacking them in the face.
As a teacher, you are a mandatory reporter of child abuse and neglect. In simple terms, you are legally obligated by your state to report signs of child abuse and neglect to the proper authorities, especially in situations where you see physical and emotional signs of possible abuse. You should report your suspicions at the first sign of trouble while also following district and state guidelines.
Many teachers clam up in this type of situation, mostly due to their fear of falsely accusing someone of such a heinous crime. Thankfully, social service agencies do a good job of investigating reports of child abuse, so if a child is being abused, more often than not social services makes the right call. Also, many teachers are afraid of being sued by the child's parents, and possibly incurring their wrath.
The good news is that, in the United States, teachers are protected from litigation in situations where they report suspicions of child abuse, as long as they follow the requirements specific to their district and state. So breathe a sigh of relief, as chances are your worst fear will never come true. In the end we have to realize that the safety of the students placed in our care is our number one priority, and if we are proven wrong... well, we want to be proven wrong, don't we?
Child abuse is a very serious problem that must not be taken lightly. Any sign of abuse must be reported, and teachers must be ready to offer support and encouragement to these students. You can never be 100 percent sure that your suspicions are right, but don't let your doubt stop you from following your intuition.
As you gear up to report your suspicions through the proper channels, take solace in the fact that you are doing the right thing and will not face litigation as a result. Not only are you performing your legal duty, but you can sleep comfortably at night knowing that you took the bold action required to protect the students under your care.