"I have a secret."
Children are always telling secrets. There's mystery and adventure in knowing one. Secrets are fun and part of growing up. But what happens when a child approaches you and shares a terrible secret involving some form of adult abuse? What should you do? What are the warning signs you should look for?
Part 2 of our series will discuss these questions. While you ay never need to deal with this problem, as an adult trusted by children, you should be prepared for the possibility. You don't need to be an expert to help a child in potential danger, but you do need to take action.
Neglect, emotional deprivation, physical abuse, or sexual maltreatment that can result in injury or psychological damage to a child are all forms of abuse.
The presence of the following indicators without appropriate parental concern may indicate a child at risk. At registration time find out about special medications your Scouting youth are taking. Have parents told you about a problem they are helping the child work through? If you have any questions, always ask.
Neglect involves chronic inattention to the basic emotional and physical needs of a child. Because the condition develops over time, people often feel a lower sense of urgency. But don't ignore it! Neglect can affect every facet of a child's maturing process and cause serious long-term psychological, and other health, problems.
Factors that might indicate neglect include: poor physical hygiene, listlessness, unattended medical needs, inappropriate clothing, and inadequate supervision. Neglected children might demand constant attention, or arrive too early and stay too late at a meeting because parents have failed to look after them.
Some of these factors in isolation may not necessarily indicate neglect. Get to know the parents and children of your group so you can distinguish between patterns and exceptions.
Emotional abuse destroys a child's self-image and causes disabling behaviour. It is caused by adults unwilling (or unable) to provide appropriate care, control, affection or stimulation. Constant criticism and demeaning is a common form of emotional abuse. This might involve making inappropriate demands upon a youth. A child exposed to family violence can also be emotionally harmed.
Some factors that might indicate emotional abuse include: sleep disorders, speech difficulties (because of anxiety), and frequent complaints (e.g. headache, nausea, abdominal pain). Warning behaviour might include: conduct inappropriate for the age, disruptive extremes (e.g. aggressiveness, anger, hyperactivity, depression, withdrawal), overly compliant behaviour (too well mannered, unusual need to please adults), excessively high standards, unusual fear of consequences of actions (often leading to lying, self-depreciation).
This entails physical harm inflicted by a parent or someone with authority over a child. It might involve over-discipline. Injuring a child is not acceptable, regardless of differing cultural standards of discipline. Children have clear rights under the law and must be protected.
Some signs of physical abuse include: unexplained bruises, welts or abrasions, unexplained small circular burns (from cigarettes), unusual rope burns, immersion (or patterned) burns, and unexplained delays in seeking medical attention. You should question all injuries that are inconsistent with the child's age and developmental phase.
Behaviour to look for might include: fear of going home, wariness of adults, behaviour extremes (e.g. aggressive, withdrawn), no attempt to seek comfort when hurt, role reversal (the child tries to care for the parent), cringing or flinching if touched unexpectedly, absence of parental support, inappropriate dress (perhaps to cover injuries), or an uncharacteristic change in participation during physical activities.
Sexual abuse is one of the most difficult forms of mistreatment to identify because the abuser is often well known to the victim and has frightened the youth into "keeping the secret." Sexual abuse occurs when an adult with authority over a child misuses this power for the purposes of exploiting the youth for sexual gratification. Criminal behaviour in this category includes incest, sexual molestation, sexual assault and exploitation of a child for pornography or prostitution. (Sexual activity between children may constitute sexual abuse if the age differences or the relationship between them leads the older one into taking sexual advantage of the younger.)
Factors that might indicate sexual abuse include: physical signs on the external genitalia, vaginal or anal areas (e.g. swelling, itching, bruises, bleeding or lacerations), pain during urination, pain that leads to difficulty when walking or sitting, and recurring vaginal infections or sexually transmitted idseases (especially in pre-adolescents).
Watch for these behaviour patterns: fear of normal physical contact (especially when initiated by and adult), sexual aggression, promiscuity, reluctance to participate in physical activities, unusual knowledge of sexual behaviour, confusion about identity (e.g. love, care-getting and care-giving), self-mutilation, severe depression, or dramatic behaviour changes.
Every person who believes on reasonable grounds that a child is, or may be, in need of protection must report promptly this belief and any supporting details to the local child protection agency. Every province has similar child protection laws. Consult your local police.
In some provinces it is a criminal offence for professionals and volunteers who provide youth services NOT to report suspected abuse.
It isn't your role to investigate suspected abuse. In fact, your probing inquiry may jeopardize the investigation by authorities. A child protection agency will need to know the youth's name, address, telephone number and date of birth, as well as details of the disclosure in the child's words. Record dates, time and location of events where available, but do not interrogate the child. Note any injuries and/or other signs of neglect.
If civil action is brought against a person who made a report, the law protects the person unless he/she acted maliciously or without reasonable grounds.
As a Scouting leader, don't get overly sensitized to child abuse issues. Scorpions are not found under every bush. The vast majority of parents and adults are resposible, caring and loving guardians, wishing (and doing) the very best for their children. However, if you do have concerns, act on them. A child's welfare may be at risk.
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