Remote Learning Makes It Harder For Teachers To Detect Child Abuse

Signs to look for include behavioral changes, such as a child withdrawing from class discussions. [fizkes / Shutterstock]
Signs of abuse to look for include behavioral changes, such as a child withdrawing from class discussions. [fizkes / Shutterstock]
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Teachers and other school officials are key in helping to identify possible abuse situations, as they are required to report signs of abuse to child and family services. So when the coronavirus forced schools to close earlier this year, reports of child abuse and neglect dropped in the Cleveland area and across the country.

While many school districts returned to in-person learning this fall, there are still concerns that signs of abuse and neglect may go unnoticed because many children are still learning remotely from home.

“We don’t believe that child abuse isn’t happening; we just believe that it’s harder to tell that it’s happening,” said Jennifer Johnson, director of Canopy Child Advocacy Center (CAC), which works with child victims of abuse or neglect in Cuyahoga County.

Teachers and other school officials who are considered mandated reporters, meaning they are required to report concerns, have had a difficult time knowing what to look for in the remote environment, Johnson said.

“Mandated reporters are not seeing children on a regular basis physically, where they can build that rapport with them and then, [children] feel safe enough to disclose what is happening to them, or [teachers] can physically see that the abuse is happening,” she said.

According to guidelines compiled by Canopy, one sign to look for is if there is a major behavior change in the remote environment, such as a child not communicating or participating in class discussions.

Other indicators of abuse or neglect include unkempt clothing, bruising, poor hygiene, marks, and injuries, Johnson said.

She also recommends asking students questions about their home environment and caregivers, and how they’ve been eating and sleeping.

“‘Tell me about who your parents are, or your caregivers, what are their work schedules like, and who’s at home with you helping you?’” Johnson said. “Just things that are normal questions that you would ask to build a relationship, but would also give you tools to know when something is right, or when something isn’t right.” 

Though the guidance is intended for people who are teachers or other mandatory reporters, it can be useful for anyone, Johnson said. For example, parents and families who are participating in learning pods with other children should keep these recommendations in mind, too. 

“Building a relationship with the child so that you know what is their norm, and what isn’t,” she said. 

Cuyahoga County experienced a significant drop in reported cases in March. Those numbers have increased slightly recently, although it’s not clear why, Johnson said.

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