schools protecting children boy and girl holding handsChild abuse includes acts of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. The consequences of abuse can be profound for its victims, including physical and/or emotional injury, difficulty in building healthy relationships, and increased likelihood of engaging in child abuse as an adult.

Teachers and other school staff bear a special responsibility in helping to identify victims of child abuse. Because they spend so much time with students, they are often able to observe physical or behavioral changes that suggest a possible problem. As a result, they are in a unique position to sound the alarm when they suspect a child is a victim of abuse. 

Recognizing the important role of educators in identifying child abuse, New Jersey (and all other states) requires school staff to contact the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) if they have “reasonable cause to believe that a child has been subjected to child abuse.” The school staff member does not need confirmation from a second person to make the report. 

April is child abuse prevention month

Erring On the Side of Caution

In New Jersey, if a school staff member has reasonable suspicion of child abuse, failure to contact DYFS can result in legal repercussions for that staff member. At the same time, the person making the report is immune from civil liability or criminal prosecution if he or she makes the report “in good faith.” If school staff are not sure that what they are seeing is indicative of abuse, they are often encouraged to err on the side of caution in making the report. 

What Happens Next?

The role of the schools is limited to identifying children who may have been abused. Here’s what happens next:

  • Once a report is made to DYFS, a caseworker is assigned to investigate. This case worker will take responsibility for following up with the child and the family, including trying to determine whether abuse has occurred, protecting the child if necessary, and providing help to the family.  
  • The case workers have the right to interview the child in school, talk with school personnel, and review his records without parental consent. Students may be interviewed alone or can request a familiar person to be present, but no “coaching” is permitted. Most information remains confidential during and after an investigation for legal reasons and to protect the child. 

While educators thus have the responsibility to report children suspected of being abused, you as a parent have the right to expect that they will use good judgment in deciding whether to make a report, will exercise discretion by only giving information to the people required to receive it, and will deal with your child in a sensitive manner. 

If you, as a parent, suspect any child is a victim of child abuse, call the NJ child abuse hotline at 877/NJ-ABUSE (652-2873). 

Dr. Shore, a psychologist, teaches part-time at Rutgers. He has authored six books and created a film series on bullying. Visit his website or email him.