Every 36 seconds, a child suffers abuse or neglect in America. Social workers are at the forefront of stopping child abuse, and though it’s one of their most important missions, it’s also one they are legally obligated to fulfill. In the summer of 2012, Kentucky social worker Geri Murphy was sentenced to 5 years in prison for failing to investigate several counts of child abuse and lying to the state about her clients. Such extreme cases only illustrate the ethical and legal position social workers find themselves in Reporting child abuse often means disclosing confidential information and going against your client’s wishes. But when presented with solid evidence, you are legally required to speak up or you can be considered guilty of criminal liability. Of course, for the majority of social workers, this moral imperative is never in question.
1. Identifying Child Abuse
Courses and seminars on recognizing and reporting child abuse are an integral part of how many social workers learn to do their job, and they help spell out the legal ramifications associated with intervening on behalf of a child. Social workers are taught the three types of abuse-physical, sexual, and neglect-and their exact legal definitions. They are also taught ways to spot the indicators of abuse in children such as unexplained injuries, absences from school, abnormal behavior, or even a tendency towards violence. Abusive parents are also defensive and evasive or sometimes cavalier about their attitudes towards corporal punishment. Special risk factors are also considered such as whether a child is disabled. The American Civil Liberties Union reports that disabled children are more than 3 times as likely to be abused or neglected.
2. When to Report
While 18 states have laws mandating that everyone has to report suspected child abuse, every state has laws that designate specific individuals who must always report. Mandatory reporters include police officers, doctors, childcare providers, clergy, school staff, and social workers-anyone who would be in a legitimate position to be able to identify abuse. You don’t have to have absolute proof to report child abuse, and indeed, you shouldn’t wait for it. The burden to find proof is not on the social worker, it’s on police and CPS workers who investigate the case. Studies suggest the overall rate of false accusation is under 10 percent. While that can rise as high as 50 percent in cases of custody battles or estranged parents, a social worker’s training usually allows them to recognize when a situation is definitely serious.
3. Long-term Effects of Abuse
A social worker’s role in preventing child abuse doesn’t stop when the report is made. Often, the cases result in a child being removed from their home either temporarily or permanently, and the burden of being the means for a child to enter the foster care system can weight heavily, no matter how abusive their household was. Social workers can provide resources to counseling and help with the physical and emotional struggles that abused children go through, usually well into adulthood. Most importantly of all, access to the right care can prevent an abused child from becoming an abuser themselves, thus allowing social work to play a vital role in stopping the cycle.
Reporting child abuse is never as black and white as it should be. When the parents are clients, social workers see a wide range of abusers, from the truly monstrous to the mentally unstable. The most important thing that social workers learn in their training is not all abusers or abuse victims look or act the same. Their profession is about doing what’s right, no matter how difficult or elusive it might seem.
Brett Harris is an avid blogger. If you’re interested in a social work career, you may want to look into online msw programs.