With kids far from teachers, advocates urge training to spot abuse

Kent County

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Child safety experts ask school employees to remain diligent in watching for signs of abuse as remote learning will continue for several districts this fall.

Moving to a virtual classroom creates an added obstacle for mandatory reporters in education, though those reporting laws have not changed amidst the pandemic.

“Where teachers would normally be with their students and see them face-to-face on a regular basis, educators are now seeing their students on a computer screen in small little boxes, 25 to 30 children at a time, so it just makes it more difficult to really pick up the nuanced behaviors that we can see when a child is experiencing abuse,” Kent County’s Kids Have Rights Program Manager Sara Soehnel told News 8.

Soehnel works for the Children’s Advocacy Center of Kent County. Its program has adapted to virtual educational opportunities in response to the pandemic. 

“It’s important that school districts are continuing to provide mandatory reporting training, not only for educational staff, but also for support staff as well. Anyone who interacts with children and families,” Soehnel explained. “That could be if your district is providing meals and you’re having families come and pick those meals up, make sure those staff who are interacting are aware of the warning signs. Have that training to know how to respond and if there is ever expected abuse, please continue to call that in.”

Warning signs in a virtual setting include a child not participating despite established internet connection and proper technology, lack of response from a family despite repeated efforts or changes in mood or behaviors. 

Currently, the CAC receives an average of three to four suspected abuse cases each day. That number is unchanged since before the pandemic, but is unfortunately expected to go up.

“What we are seeing in data and the trends is that looking out to the future, there will be an increase from that because of delayed disclosure,” Soehnel shared. “Children typically disclose something has happened to somebody they feel safe around when they are away from the person who has hurt them or touched them inappropriately and that’s why teachers are the most likely safe adult that a child will go to. And so we’re anticipating that once children are back in school we will see an increase.”

In an effort to maintain awareness and prevention efforts, the CAC teamed up with the Kent County Sheriff’s Department to create a series of videos aimed at educating children ages four through fourth grade. 

Some will be launching toward the end of August. Others are already posted to the center’s social media accounts

It’s not about one big conversation surrounding abuse, Soehnel said; it’s little teaching moments over time that will help. 

“We just want to plant little seeds with our kids,” she said. “Find teachable moments and one of the really important things for children to hear from their caregivers is, ‘You can come to me if there’s ever a time you need help. You will not be in trouble. I will believe you. I will help you figure this out.’ That is a huge gateway for kids to know we’re on their side.”

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