An Autism Connection

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Calling Children's Protective Services (CPS) or Social Services

My job has it's ups and downs and it's joys and sorrows. One of the hardest things I have had to do was to call CPS on behalf of students, and it wasn't anything I did lightly.  As a teacher, I am a mandatory reporter of suspected child abuse or neglect according to my own state's law.  In my 16 years in education, first as a school nurse, later as a Paraprofessional and teacher, I have had to call 7 times. I had no choice in this matter. But even without the law, I would do it anyway, if I suspected it, because I am my student's advocate. Many of my student's are non-verbal and have no way to share what is going on in their lives. In effect, they have no voice and no one to stick up for them except the people who care for them. When they are at school, that person is me. I am fiercely protective of my students, and I consider one of my greatest strengths as a teacher to be my strong advocacy for those children that enter my classroom.

 Another one of my strengths is the relationships I try to build with my student's families. We are a team and I communicate with them regularly for the best interest of their child and my student. I want parents and families to be able to turn to me if there are things occurring in their families that are negatively impacting them or their child. If I am close to them, I might see that a family is overwhelmed and needs help. I don't have a child with a severe disability, but in the past I have been homeless with a child, have lived on public assistance, have lived on food stamps and in public housing. I know what it's like to struggle and have great empathy, as well as knowledge of resources, for many of my families who also struggle in this way.

Thanks to this open communication, I have been able to assist families who have told me that they were evicted, or were sleeping in their car, or their spouse lost their job, or they were trying to escape abuse, or their child was struggling with substance abuse, or flirting with gang membership, as just some examples of what I have heard over the years. I am lucky that my school and district has many inter-agency connections and I have been able to hook my families up with the resources they needed.

If I notice sudden changes in my student's behavior, or they are wearing the same clothes day after day, etc., I try to contact the family to find out what is going on. Usually there are rational explanations for what we are seeing at school. But not always. This is why it's important to know what the common signs and symptoms  of physical, emotional, sexual abuse and neglect are, and what your district and state policies are for reporting it. In my district, I have 48 hours to report if I have reasonable cause to believe that abuse is happening. This is also our state law. I don't need proof, I just need a reason to believe it may have happened. This can include a child's report of abuse, direct observation, signs or symptoms, or a combination of these.

The following are common signs and symptoms:

Physical and Sexual Signs of Abuse

  • Bruises (old and new, clustered on one part of body, or on both upper arms)
  • Burns
  • Cuts or scars
  • Marks left by a gag (or some form of restraint)
  • Imprint injuries (eg., marks shaped like fingers, thumbs, hands, belts or sticks)
  • Missing teeth
  • Spotty balding (from pulled hair)
  • Eye injuries (black eyes or detached retinas)
  • Broken bones
  • Sprains
  • Abrasions or scrapes
  • Vaginal or rectal pain
  • Bleeding from the ears, nose or mouth
  • Frequent urinary tract infections or yeast infections
  • Painful urination
  • Abrasions, bleeding, or bruising in the genital area
  • Incontinence in someone who was previously toilet-trained
  • Frequent sore throats
  • Sudden onset of psychosomatic complaints (males most frequently complain of stomach aches while females most frequently report headaches)
  • Sudden difficulty walking or sitting

Physical Signs of Neglect 

  • Dehydration
  • Poor or improper hygiene
  • Poor grooming (e.g., overgrown fingernails and toenails; uncut, matted, or unclean hair; unshaven facial hair, body crevices caked with dirt)
  • Malnourishment/weight loss
  • A smell of urine or feces on the person
  • Clutter, filth, or bad smell in the home
  • Improper sleeping, cooking, or bathing arrangements
  • Infestations (e.g., fleas, lice, roaches, rodents)
  • Poor skin condition or skin breakdown (such as rashes, bedsores, or open wounds)
  • Lack of necessary adaptive aids such as glasses, hearing aids, leg braces walkers etc. or improper medication management
  • Needed medical and dental care (including the administration of prescribed drugs) not provided
  • Lack of adequate or appropriate supervision

Behavioral Signs

  • CHANGES in the way affection is shown, especially if unusual or inappropriate
  • Suddenly fears being touched
  • Sudden onset of nightmares
  • CHANGES in sleep patterns; difficulty sleeping
  • Sudden regression to childlike behaviors (i.e., bed-wetting, thumb-sucking)
  • Sudden unusual interest in or knowledge of sexual matters (including excessive masturbation)
  • Cruelty to animals
  • Sudden fear of bathing or toileting
  • Sudden fear of a person or place
  • Depression, withdrawal, or mood swings

Family Characteristics- 

Factors that put them at greater risk for abuse:

  • Stress: illness, unemployment, divorce, death, a new baby, homelessness, etc
  • Isolation- not having a strong support system
  • family violence
  • Parents with history of abuse as children
  • Inadequate parenting skills
  • low self-esteem
  • substance abuse
It is also important to be aware of cultural practices that might resemble abuse to those that don't know, such as cupping, or coining in Vietnamese and other Asian cultures that leaves marks on foreheads or on children's backs. These are folk remedies for curing illness. African-American children can have dark pigmentation (that most outgrow as they get older) on their buttocks that resemble bruising. These are just a couple of examples. Be familiar with the cultural practices of the students in your class and school.

Follow the protocol of your school/district for making the call. In my current school, I am to call directly and then fill out a report with details of the suspected abuse/neglect, and what I did. Contrary to my usual policy of open communication with families, in these circumstances, I prefer to remain anonymous. In the past, my life has been threatened and I have not felt safe, so I always tell an administrator so that they can field any calls made by the family members, who are often very angry. I have called for both large and small burns that were not medically taken care of and the children were non-verbal, suspected sexual abuse (child had rectal pain and precocious sexual knowledge), suspected cigarette burns, a child reported that he received alcohol and marijuana for his birthday (in middle school), and that his parent was always drunk, another child who partied every night and slept downtown (he was in middle school), another whose parent had thrown him out (6th grade) because her new boyfriend didn't like him and he had nowhere to go. Sometimes I got to hear what happened  and other times I didn't. But I feel comfortable that I advocated for my students and that there would be follow up and monitoring. If the students were still in my classroom after all this, I monitored them extra carefully to make sure there was no repeat of the abuse. I take my advocacy role very seriously.