Every year more than three million reports of child maltreatment are made in the United States to Child Protective Services. Contrary to popular understanding, child maltreatment is defined by more than just bruises and scars that are visible physical signs of abuse. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), child maltreatment includes any act(s) either omission or commission, that threaten or result in the harm of a child under the age of 18 (Child Maltreatment, 2014). Omission, also known as neglect, is the failure to provide for a child’s basic physical, emotional, educational, and/or safety needs. Acts of commission can be words or actions that cause harm or threaten to harm a child (i.e. sexual, physical, psychological, and/or emotional abuse). The perpetrator of child maltreatment can be a parent, caregiver, a friend of the family, a babysitter, a teacher, etc.
Data show that one in three children (33%) receiving special education services for a disability is a victim of maltreatment compared to one in ten children (10%) without disabilities (Preventing Abuse, 2015). Unfortunately, not everyone is aware of how vulnerable children with disabilities are to child maltreatment. The fact that society continues to overlook the extent to which children, in general, experience maltreatment places children with identified disabilities further at-risk. Children with disabilities are more vulnerable, not due to the disability itself, but due to society’s response to disability. If a parent or other caregiver does not have the proper support system, they can unintentionally verbally or physically harm their child in response to the frustration or overwhelming emotions that may arise from caring for a child with a disability.
Another reason why formal reports of abuse may not be made for a child with a disability is due to the lack of belief in the child’s accusation. There is a common distrust, which stems from the stigmatization of disability, that children or adults with disabilities may tell lies, especially if the disability is a psychiatric condition, a cognitive disability, or an emotional disturbance.
Children with disabilities often do not report abuse or neglect because they do not understand what child maltreatment is. Communication impairments may also prevent a child with a disability from reporting abuse. Thus, there is a need for continuous education and training on issues related to the maltreatment of children. . The American Psychological Association recommends that families, professionals, judges, victim advocacy agencies, other caregivers, and individuals with disabilities receive specific training in child maltreatment (Resolution, 2003). Children with disabilities should be taught about abuse in an appropriate, comprehensible manner. Early childhood intervention programs already in place should require that their professionals are continuously trained on the topic of abuse (Preventing Abuse, 2015). Early intervention providers like all health, medical, and social service providers are mandated by law to report any reason for suspicion of child maltreatment. It is critical that providers are appropriately trained and sensitive to cultural variations in child rearing to gather the appropriate information to make a knowledgeable report.
The Head Start office advices mandated reporters to closely monitor children for any extreme changes in their behavior, especially if the child has a disability (Preventing Abuse, 2015). Changes in behavior can easily be attributed to the child’s disability, but they may also be an indicator of abuse. Further, along with visible indicators (bruises, scars, worn out clothing, etc.) people need to be aware of a child’s report of abuse. Any time a person has reason to suspect child maltreatment, it is that individual’s responsibility to monitor and talk to the child about his/her safety. Each law on child maltreatment to the Child Protective Service Agency varies by state, but usually individuals required to report suspicion include early childhood interventionists, teachers, physicians, therapists, and any other professional that regularly works with children.
Even though children with disabilities are protected under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) against child maltreatment, it is important to note that the definition provided by the CDC does not account for the diversity in experiences of children with disabilities. For instance, the CDC determines under 18 years of age as the age for abuse and neglect to be considered child maltreatment (Child Maltreatment, 2014). The question emerges on how to proceed in the case of maltreatment of a person with a disability who is above 18 years of age, but whose mental development does not reflect that age. The removal of children with disabilities from their homes after child maltreatment has been identified can also either improve or hinder the child’s life, depending on the quality of their foster care. Hence, partnerships between federal agencies, foster care and professional services, and families and/or other caregivers are pivotal in meeting the needs of children with disabilities who have been maltreated (Resolution, 2003).
To report child maltreatment:
Contact your local child protection or law enforcement agency. If you need assistance with reporting or have questions about reporting abuse, contact ChildHelp USA’s 24hour hotline at 18004224453.
Fact or Fiction?
Fiction 1: Only bad people abuse children.
FACT: In fact, not all abusers intentionally harm children. Sometimes the perpetrators have themselves been victims of child maltreatment.
Fiction 2: The majority of child abusers are strangers.
FACT: While abuse by strangers does happen, over 80 percent of child abuse cases in 2013 reported a biological parent as the perpetrator (Child Maltreatment, 2015).
Fiction 3: Child maltreatment is only wrong if it causes the child physical harm.
FACT: Physical abuse is only one type of child maltreatment. Neglect and psychological abuse can be just as damaging to children. The U.S. state and local Child Protective Services (CPS) reported that of the estimated 686,000 victims of child maltreatment, 78% of child victims were victims of neglect, 18% of physical abuse, 9% of sexual abuse, and 11% were victims of other types of abuse (Facts, 2014).
Preventing Abuse of Children with Cognitive, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. (2015, February 18). Retrieved April 24, 2015, from http://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/ttasystem/teaching/Disabilities/Staff Support and Supervision/Support and Supervision for Staff Serving Children with Disabilities/PreventingAbuse.htm
Child Maltreatment 2013. (2015, January 15). Retrieved April 21, 2015, from
Facts at a Glance 2014. (2014, January 14). Retrived April 22, 2015, from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/childmaltreatmentfactsataglance.pd
Resolution on the Maltreatment of Children with Disabilities. (2003, February 1). Retrieved
April 24, 2015, from http://www.apa.org/about/policy/maltreatment.aspx