Educators, who are some of the likeliest professionals to report child abuse, are encountering youth who have faced abuse in isolation throughout the pandemic. During 2020, the proportion of mental health-related emergency department (ED) visits among adolescents aged 12-17 years increased 31% compared to 2019. Suspected suicide attempt ED visits were 50.6% higher among girls aged 12-17 (CDC, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 6/18/21). These stats indicate an increase in child abuse as children were confined to the home during the pandemic.
Child welfare professionals recognize that children are hesitant to talk about or report abuse because they often don't understand what is happening to them, lack the vocabulary to explain their problem, feel it must be their own fault, and don't know what adult they can trust to protect them. This inability to report abuse inadvertently protects abusers from detection. Case workers have created programs designed to empower and educate not only the child victims but also families, teachers, and other professionals who are tasked with protecting children.
Speak Up and Be Safe
Childhelp, a nonprofit child welfare agency founded by two young Hollywood actresses from The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Sara (Buckner) O'Meara and Yvonne (Lime) Fedderson, in 1959 while on a goodwill tour in Asia, has grown to become the oldest and largest child welfare nonprofits in America. As they pursued their mission over 62 years, (The Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse), they were one of the first to recognize the inability of children to understand what was happening to them and to report their plight to someone who could help. Researchers estimate that more than 2/3 of children who are victims of some form of abuse never report it to authorities and, therefore, the abuse goes undetected. Realizing that a systemwide program of education and empowerment was needed to drag these unspeakable abuses out of the closet, Childhelp partnered with the Arizona State University Southwest Interdisciplinary Research Center to create their Speak Up Be Safe initiative that encourages kids to speak up while providing educators with insight into how to handle disclosures.
The Dignity and Rights of the Child
The Speak Up Be Safe program is the longest-standing and only comprehensive child abuse prevention program which covers various types of abuse: physical, emotional, sexual, neglect, bullying, and cyber abuse. It begins by emphasizing the fundamental rights of children so that they recognize their own dignity and who is responsible for what is happening to them. The program endeavors to teach each child to understand:
- I deserve to be safe.
- It's My Body!
- I have choices.
- It's NEVER my fault!
- Child Safety is an adult's responsibility.
- There are safe adults.
- I must tell someone.
The Speak Up Be Safe program provides 30-to-45 minute fully scripted lessons per grade level, delivered by educators who have completed the facilitator training. The overarching goal with this curriculum is always to provide children with the skills to identify and be able to approach a safe adult should they ever be in a situation in which they are unsure if they are safe.
The Responsibilities of Safe Adults
Adult family members and professionals who are tasked with child welfare whether as educators, medical professionals, or social workers are coached to be alert for signs of family problems that may indicate a child is being neglected or physically, sexually, or emotionally abused:
- Fear of a certain adult
- Difficulty trusting others or making friends
- Sudden changes in eating or sleeping patterns
- Inappropriate sexual behavior
- Poor hygiene
The safe adult response curriculum is covered thoroughly in the program with an emphasis on safety defined as care, security, protection, shelter, wellbeing, welfare, and absence of danger. Space prevents us from further elucidating the details of the program, but all social workers can access deeper information at www.childhelp.org.
As the world opens up and children return to school, Childhelp is ready with tools and resources so that each child learns that abuse is never his or her fault. Administrators, educators, and families have an evidenced-based ally in Childhelp's - Speak Up Be Safe.
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