Suspect Child Neglect, Endangerment From Alcoholic Parents? When To Step In, What To Do

Many people, well-meaning ones at that, are often unsure what to do when they suspect a child is suffering neglect or worse at the hands of alcoholic and/or drug-abusing parents. The fact is that if you suspect something is amiss – backed by visible evidence such as bruises, cuts, malnutrition, or psychological and emotional distress – there likely is something drastically wrong. The question then becomes, when should you step in and what should you do?

We’ll look at when intervention should occur and what steps to take after we briefly sketch out the problem.

Three Million Cases and Counting

Every year U.S. child welfare agencies are bombarded with more than three million allegations of child abuse and neglect. And every year these agencies collect enough hard data – evidence – to support or substantiate more than one million instances. Put another way, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that 60 percent of American adults say they endured abuse and other difficult family situations as children. These experiences are also called adverse childhood experiences.

This is hardly minor. And these are just the reported cases. Just think of the untold numbers of children who are being neglected and abused by alcoholic and drug-abusing parents whose cases go unreported. Think of the tragedy awaiting those children. What kind of a future do they face under such circumstances?

Childhood Abuse Can Result in Extreme Personalities

New brain imaging studies show that child abuse (physical, emotional and sexual) can cause permanent damage to the neural structure and function of the developing brain. This permanent damage may reduce the size of parts of the brain, impact the way a child’s brain copes with daily stress, and result in enduring behavioral health problems.

Experts now say that childhood abuse can manifest itself in a variety of ways – and it can occur at any age. Internally it may appear as anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress or suicidal thoughts. Children can also express it outwardly as substance abuse, delinquency, hyperactivity or aggression.

Childhood abuse is strongly associated with borderline personality disorder. Children who have been abused and who develop borderline personality disorder see things in black and white. They may jump from admiration to hate, first putting someone on a pedestal and then vilifying them – from a perceived betrayal or slight. They are prone to volcanic outbursts and transient psychotic or paranoid episodes.

The outlook for abused children who develop borderline personality disorder is that they go through intense and unstable relationships. Feeling empty and unsure of their identity, they often seek escape and refuge in substance abuse. They also often experience self-destructive and suicidal impulses.

Beyond borderline personality disorder, stressful or traumatic experiences in children can lead to dissociative episodes, delusions, hallucinations, impaired attention, anger outbursts, psychosis, and paranoia.

The bottom line here is that much more needs to be done to protect children by preventing childhood abuse and neglect before it does irrevocable harm. Families, health care providers, and the community can help children to develop resilience when dealing with trauma. Research experts say that new approaches to therapy may also be indicated.

Repeated Trauma Exacts a Toll

According to the information provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) from a study by Barth et al. (2008), young children exposed to five or more adversities (including child maltreatment, caregiver mental illness, poverty, single parent, low maternal education) in their first three years of childhood face a 76 percent likelihood of having one or more delays in their emotional, language, or cognitive development.

The number of children with developmental delays increases with the rising number of risk factors. When facing 1-2 risk factors, less than 10 percent of children have developmental delays. Three risk factors result in developmental delays in about 20 percent of children. Forty percent of children facing four risk factors have developmental delays. With five risk factors, it’s 76 percent. With six risk factors, about 90 percent of children face developmental delays and at seven risk factors, about 100 percent of children face developmental delays.

In other words, the earlier and more often childhood abuse and neglect occurs, the more serious and long-lasting the damage is likely to be.

Types of Childhood Abuse

Children can suffer more than one type of maltreatment or abuse. Statistics from a 2007 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) show that, in 2005, children experienced maltreatment in the following percentages:

The “Other” category includes threats to harm the child, abandonment, congenital drug addiction and other situations. The percentages add up to more than 100 percent because, as stated previously, some children were victims of more than one type of maltreatment.

Stop Child Abuse and Neglect

Maybe you’re a next-door neighbor and you see children who are always poorly dressed, appear hungry, sick, emotionally distressed, are fearful, clingy, wary of others, or have visible signs of trauma in the form of scars, burns, bruises or cuts – you should not wait to act. Immediately call Child Protective Services (CPS) or the police if you believe the child to be in immediate danger.

Let’s say you are the child’s teacher and you notice that over time the child withdraws further from contact with adults, has increasing difficulty with class work, communicating, and interacting with other children – and you see signs of physical and/or emotional or sexual abuse. This is a huge red flag that you cannot, in good conscience, ignore. Get in touch with CPS or call the police – especially if you believe the child is in immediate danger. If the situation persists and you do nothing, it will only get progressively worse.

How can you and other members of the community intervene when necessary to stop child abuse and neglect? There are programs that can help. One is the Front Porch Project, an initiative of American Humane. This project teaches community members how to intervene when appropriate and encourages them to share their knowledge with other community members.

How to Report Suspected Child Neglect or Endangerment

We all have the right and the responsibility to ensure that our children, and those with whom we come in contact with, are safe. This means we should report any incidence of suspected child abuse or neglect – at any time. You don’t have to have hard evidence or actual knowledge of the abuse when you call to make a report. What you do need is to have reasonable cause, suspicion or belief based on your observations.

As for your observations, these may be first-hand observations – what you saw happen, or what you believe happened, include your professional experience or training, or be statements told to you by the child or parent. The more information you can provide, the better it will help authorities. Another important point is that all states have laws that protect persons who report suspected child neglect or abuse from legal liability as long as the report is made in good faith.

So, how do you report suspected child neglect or endangerment?

Contact your local child welfare agency. Depending on where you live, this agency may be called Department of Social Services, Children and Family Services, or Human Welfare, or Child Protective Services. If the child is in immediate danger, call 911 or your local law enforcement agency immediately.

To find the child welfare agency in your area, use the numbers provided by the Child Welfare Information Gateway, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. In California, for example, the agency is the Child Protective Services (CPS) and has hotlines in all 58 counties in the state.

When you call, the person you speak with will ask several questions in order to provide the investigative or assessment team with sufficient information. It’s important to keep in mind that you don’t need to know all the answers. Just be as comprehensive, clear, and specific as possible about what you do know. Here are some of the questions you may be asked:

While you can make anonymous reports in every state, this is generally discouraged. First of all, it’s important to know who’s making the report so that investigators have someone to speak with to obtain additional information during the investigative process – to ensure the child’s safety. After all, the point is to safeguard the children. Second, if the case goes to trial, the investigative child welfare worker may need to rely on the person who reported the instance of neglect or abuse to be a key evidentiary witness.

It is also true that child welfare agencies are often overwhelmed, severely underfunded and understaffed. They have to prioritize cases based on whether the child is in immediate risk or danger. You need to be patient. And this may require calling more than once. If you do call again, be sure to say that this is not the first time you’ve called to report suspected abuse/neglect of a child by the family in question.

Why Some People Fail to Report Child Abuse/Neglect

Unfortunately, not everyone who witnesses or suspects child neglect/endangerment/abuse actually takes the time to report it. Why? Here are some of the reasons:

While it may be perfectly understandable to have these concerns, the fact is that if you suspect or see child abuse or neglect and don’t report it, there could be serious – even life-threatening – consequences for the child. You should never be afraid to call to request someone intervene and check out what may be going on.

Your call will help child welfare professionals determine what the appropriate response is, including whether or not an investigation or assessment is needed and what further supports may be necessary or beneficial.

Think of the situation this way. It’s not your job to investigate. It is your responsibility to take action if the circumstances warrant. Your action is to contact the appropriate authorities who can then step in and do what is necessary to protect the child’s safety.

How to Help the Child

If your interaction with the abused or neglected child is one of a teacher, or neighbor, or other family member, you can help develop a nurturing relationship with the child by making use of the following tips. Remember that children need positive adult role models. By demonstrating your warmth, interest and empathy, you can help the abused/neglected child to see adults in a more positive light.

Listening is crucial. The importance of listening cannot be underestimated. Be approachable. Be patient. Be supportive. Learn to listen without being critical or negative. You need to show that you believe what the child says – even if it’s difficult to do so. Do not blame, punish or accuse the child of any wrongdoing. Make sure to let the child know that you are there to talk to at any time, leaving an open line of communication.

Show empathy. The child has these feelings for a reason. You need to validate these emotions, feelings and experiences. Tell the child that he or she is doing the right thing to confide in you. Let the child know you are always there to talk with and you want to help keep him or her safe. It is important to assure the child that he or she is not to blame (child victims of abuse and neglect may believe that the abuse is their fault). Although you may be angry or fearful over what you are told, it is important that you remain calm so that you don’t further upset the child. Overreacting could also prevent the child from coming to you in the future. Never speak negatively about the child’s parent in front of the child. Despite the parent being the abuser, many children are fiercely loyal to the parent, wanting to love and be loved by their father and mother.

Act as a positive role model. Feedback and reinforcement are instrumental in helping build or rebuild a child’s self-esteem. Talk about the child’s potential, what he or she has to offer, and reaffirm that the child is smart, good, and kind. Help the child learn how to resolve conflict by providing modeling behavior. If a child has been neglected, he or she may be unfamiliar with non-violent means of resolving conflict. Look for the child’s feelings behind the actions. If a child dismisses feelings by pretending they don’t exist, they are trying to protect themselves. Similarly, children who have been abused often negatively act out – because they don’t know how to get your attention in any other way. Look for every opportunity to demonstrate and reinforce positive behavior.

Promote positive interaction with others. Do not treat abused or neglected children different than other children. These kids want to be seen as normal, like everyone else. Do not pity them. You can help foster positive interaction with other children by promoting after-school or extracurricular activity. Help the child’s sense of self-confidence increase by allowing the child to have possessions of his or her own. This may include a desk, study space, backpack, or resources and opportunities to help them become successful in taking care of their responsibilities.

Act, Don’t Wait

When we suspect or witness child neglect or endangerment anywhere and anytime, we need to be ready to do what is necessary. If the child’s parents are alcoholics or drug abusers, which happens in a great many situations of child abuse and neglect, the urgency may be very real. If not you who steps up and reports the child neglect, then who? Who will save the children?