April is National Child Abuse Awareness Month, and when it comes to child abuse prevention, it’s everyone’s responsibility.
In some states, mandatory reporting laws only affect teachers and medical professionals, but here in Texas, section 261.101 of the Texas Family Code mandates that any individual who even suspects child abuse or neglect must report it immediately.
Such a report may be filed with either the Department of Family and Protective Services or with any local or state law enforcement agency.
When in doubt, an individual must always err on the side of the child’s welfare and make the report; failure to report suspected child abuse or neglect is punishable by a prison sentence of up to 180 days and/or a fine of up to $1,000.
The law is clear: Protecting children isn’t someone else’s problem — it’s a moral, civic and legal responsibility for each and every one of us.
In 1968, social psychology researchers Bibb Latane and John Darley conducted a series of experiments on the bystander effect, the social phenomenon by which people are unlikely to intervene in an emergency if it’s witnessed by multiple people and others are expected to intervene.
What Darley and Latane found was that in a situation where witnesses of a catastrophic event feel they are the only one who knows about the situation, 85 percent of such witnesses will report it.
But add four more witnesses to the scenario, and the likelihood of any one of them reporting it drops to 31 percent.
And — most shockingly of all — they found that when surrounded by others who don’t take any notice of a troubling incident, only 10 percent of observers will report the incident.
Here in Kerr County, there were 321 verified cases of child abuse in 2018.
According to the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas, 195 Texas children a day become victims of abuse.
And last year, 95 percent of those children served by Texas centers knew their abusers.
But what are the signs a responsible adult caretaker should notice and report? How does one distinguish between the ordinary bumps and bruises of childhood and injuries that are cause for concern?
Repeated or unexplained injuries — bruises, burns, cuts or fractures — particularly those located on the face, torso, buttocks or other areas generally concealed by clothing, can be a sign of physical abuse.
And if the child or caretaker is hesitant to give an account of the physical injury, or if the account offered by the child doesn’t mesh with the account provided by the caretaker, it can be another sign.
Sexual knowledge, behavior or interactions with other children that are inappropriate for a child’s age or level of development can be a glaring indicator of ongoing sexual abuse.
But there are subtle signs of abuse, too: behavioral issues including hostility and anger, inexplicable and sudden drops in grades, lack of appreciation of previously enjoyed activities, frequent unexplained school absences, and incidents of self-harm can also mask the shame and self-loathing that so often accompanies abuse.
And of course, clear disclosures by the child that he or she was physically or sexually abused — or witnessing abuse firsthand — are ironclad reasons to report.
You can report suspected child abuse by calling local law enforcement or by calling the Texas Department of Family Protective Services at 800-252-5400 — or you can make a report of child abuse online at http://www.txabusehotline.org/default.aspx.
Whenever possible, include the names and ages of all victims and offenders, the names of any witnesses, the child’s parents’ names, phone numbers and addresses, the location where the alleged incident took place, the approximate date of the alleged incident, and a brief description of what you observed.
Remember: It’s not your job to ascertain the seriousness of the situation. Leave that to the professionals.
Your only job is to speak up.