What We Can Do About Child Abuse


Back to Table of Contents

Part Two: What Can We Do About Child Abuse?


Part Two: What Can We Do About Child Abuse?

The definitions and indicators provided in the first part of this handbook can help you to recognize abuse when you see it. When you do become aware of child abuse, what can you do about it? Better yet, how can child abuse be prevented from occurring in the first place? This part of the handbook will focus on what we can do about child abuse, starting with how to act when you recognize abuse, what you must do to inform authorities about abuse you suspect, how our law enforcement and child protective agencies intervene to protect children who have been abused, and what we can do, individually and collectively, to prevent abuse before it happens.

A. Responding to an Abused Child

Professionals who may come into contact with abused children include law enforcement officers, medical professionals, child care workers, teachers, and other school staff. Others who may know abused children are neighbors, relatives, and parents of the child's friends. Child abuse cuts across all walks of life: a child of any race, social background, or economic class -- even your own child -- may be abused.

Regardless of your relationship to the abused child, your responses, attitudes, and actions can be critical to his or her overall experience and eventual healing. Without attempting to investigate or intervene inappropriately, you can help. Your first responsibility when you recognize abuse of any kind is to report your suspicions. But your words and actions at the time of discovery or disclosure can be the first step toward opening the channels of communication and healing.

A child who has or may have physical injuries

Ask the child's permission before looking at a bruise or other mark, especially if s/he attempts to hide it.

However, the child may complain about the injuries or about pain in hopes that you will see or guess what is happening. That way, the child will not have to betray a trust or reveal a secret. It is a good idea to look at injuries in the presence of another responsible adult. Teachers and child care workers should have another staff person present when looking at a child's injuries. Never attempt to examine a child's private body areas. And reserve judgment: a number of innocent circumstances can produce marks that appear to be results of abuse but are not. Reasonable suspicions should be reported for possible investigation by appropriate authorities.

Ask about what happened

It is appropriate to ask the child a few questions to see if there is a simple explanation for suspicious-looking marks or injuries. Your role is not to interview the child but to listen and report to the appropriate authorities, who will then investigate. Try to use open-ended questions like "How did that happen?" rather than leading questions like "Did someone hit you?" or "Did Mommy [Daddy] burn you?" Questions should be age-appropriate in both vocabulary and meaning. Young children are easily misled or confused; they may not understand the implications of what you or they themselves say about abuse.

Repeat what the child says, in the child's own words, to make sure you have understood. Don't pressure the child to talk. Avoid prompting for answers. If the child does not answer the question "When?" don't prompt with "Was it last week?" If the child does not answer the question "Who?" don't prompt with "Did your mom do it?"

The actual investigation of an allegation of child abuse, and any in-depth interviews, should be performed by qualified professionals. Other concerned persons, including the first person the child approaches, should carefully avoid putting words in the child's mouth. The confiding child should be encouraged with open-ended, rather than leading, questions.

Documenting what you see and hear

It is a good idea to make notes on your observations of possible abuse or neglect. Write down the date, time, place, and events that caused you to become suspicious. If you do not know who the child is, note the license plate and make of the parent's car, if possible, or any other information to help investigators find the child. If your report is based on a conversation with a child, write down what you asked or said to the child, in your words as you remember them. Write down anything the child said (his or her words) or comments by family members or other persons who are directly involved. Your notes should be a record of the facts and, as far as possible, should not contain judgments or conclusions.

Your purpose should not be to investigate or build a case, but to simply record what you saw and heard. Then immediately report what you have observed to the appropriate authorities. You should keep your notes secure and confidential. Any notes you take may be subpoenaed by a judge in a subsequent legal proceeding.

The "outcry witness" in a child abuse proceeding

The first adult (18 years or older) a child (12 years or younger) discloses to is called the "outcry witness" and may have an especially important role to play in subsequent legal proceedings. (The law defines an adult as 18 years or older and a child as 12 years or younger). If you are an "outcry witness," what you say the child told you is not excludable as hearsay, but is admissible evidence in a trial involving an offense against a child. This exception applies only to the first person the child approaches. If you immediately pass the child on to another person such as a counselor or clergyman, important testimony could be lost. It is, therefore, important not to cut a child's disclosure short and to pay close attention to the child's exact words.

Respect the child's trust

Be careful not to communicate skepticism about what the child is saying. It is difficult for children to tell about any kind of abuse, and they are usually afraid of being disbelieved. They may even have been told they will be disbelieved. Do not express shock or blame, but also do not minimize or try to excuse the abuser's behavior. If the child does not wish to answer a particular question or be questioned further, respect the child's wishes. Let the child know you are available to talk and listen at any time. Do not promise the child that you will keep a secret about abuse. Tell the child that some things cannot be secrets because "we have to get help." Tell the child what you plan to do next, while reassuring him or her that telling was the right thing to do. While it may be a good idea to reassure the child, depending on the circumstances, you should not promise protection that you cannot deliver. If the child needs immediate protection, make sure this concern is communicated promptly to the investigating authorities.

Respect the child's privacy

Do not talk about what you have seen and heard with people who do not need to know. Do report your reasonable suspicions. If someone else (especially another child) has alerted you to an injury, do not mention this to the injured child; s/he may be self-conscious over being talked about. A child who is abused is likely to be extremely sensitive about what other people think about the situation. This is especially true for the child who discloses sexual abuse. Reassure the child that s/he is not changed, visibly different, "dirty," or "weird" as a result of the abuse. You can help by your support and understanding.

Respect the child's feelings

Although you may tell a child that the abuse was wrong, do not say that the person responsible for the abuse is bad. The abuser is often someone to whom the child is strongly attached. The child may actually want to protect the abuser as much as s/he wants to cry out for help. Older children may feel guilty or responsible, or that they deserved the abuse. Many situations that appear to involve neglect are due to financial need, homelessness, or other related problems; take care not to embarrass a child or a family with your offers of clothing or food. Do not blame the child for tardiness, sleepiness in class, or other mishaps that may be the result of neglect that is beyond the child's control. And do not permit other children to humiliate a child because of his or her clothes, hygiene, lack of food or money, or other condition that indicates neglect or poverty.

Disclosure of sexual abuse

Disclosures of sexual abuse may be even more indirect and vague than disclosures of physical abuse. A concerned adult should choose a quiet and private moment to invite further confidence. A person who has been approached should remain calm and reassure the child that s/he is believed, has done the right thing in telling, and is not in any way to blame. Don't say: "Why didn't you...?" "Why did you...?" "Are you sure...?" or "I'm sure he didn't mean..." Do say "It's not your fault." Remember that an older child, understanding all too well the implications of the disclosure, may be evasive when pressed. Children of all ages are likely to be concerned about being blamed, about retaliation by the abuser, or about the harm they may do to the abuser by disclosing.

Is your own child abused?

If your child discloses abuse to you, the cautions and recommendations provided above apply to you with even greater urgency. If you are the child's parent, your reaction will be extremely important to the child's psychological well-being. Because the abuser may be someone in your own family, even a spouse, you may be tempted to minimize the abuse or deny its existence. You must focus on the high potential for damage to the child and the fact that this damage can be avoided and repaired if the abuse is stopped and the child receives appropriate treatment. The child is not likely to be lying, and the child is never the cause of the abuse. If you must deal with a family that has just learned about the abuse of a child, be aware of how threatening this disclosure may be, and remember that the child's welfare must be the first priority at all times.

B. The Responsibility to Report Child Abuse

Anyone "having cause to believe that a child's physical or mental health or welfare has been or may be adversely affected by abuse or neglect" must report the case immediately to a law enforcement agency or to the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services, under Chapter 261 of the Texas Family Code. Failure to report suspected child abuse or neglect is a class B misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for up to 180 days and/or a fine of up to $2000. Indicators listed in Part One of this handbook are examples of adequate cause to believe a child is at risk.

The law does not require the person reporting to be certain that a child is being abused or neglected before reporting, only to have reason for believing it. It is a good idea to talk to the child to see if there is a simple or plausible explanation for the appearance of injury or neglect. But a concerned adult should stop well short of trying to investigate or intervene in the suspected abuse. Reasonable suspicions of abuse must be reported to the appropriate authorities. And any time a child discloses abuse to an adult, the adult has reason to make a report. This is true even if the adult feels skeptical about what the child has said; the disclosure should be reported so that appropriate authorities can judge the need for investigation.

How to report child abuse

A person wishing to report suspected child abuse or neglect can call any state or local law enforcement agency or Child Protective Services (CPS), a department of the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services (TDFPS). TDFPS has a toll-free 24-hour Abuse Hotline: 1-800-252-5400. When a child appears to be in immediate danger of serious harm, it is best to call 911 (where that service is available) or the nearest police or sheriff's department, to ensure the fastest possible response time to protect the child.

The person reporting should provide, whenever possible, the child's name, description, age, address, license plates, make of car, or other information that might help authorities locate the child. It is critical that the report be made as soon as possible. The more time that elapses between the incident and the report, the more difficult it is to investigate.

Professionals who work with children

Current law requires that professionals such as teachers, doctors, nurses, and child daycare workers make a report within 48 hours. Prior to September 1, 1995, professionals were also required to submit written reports. As of September 1, 1995, written reports are no longer required. Professionals whose personal communications may otherwise be privileged or confidential are required, without exception, to report suspected abuse. Such professionals include attorneys, clergy, social workers, counselors, medical practitioners, and mental health professionals. A teacher who reports suspected child abuse to his or her principal, school counselor, or superintendent does not thereby satisfy his or her legal obligation under the Texas Family Code. Local school district policy cannot conflict with or supersede the state law requiring a teacher to report child abuse to a law enforcement agency or TDFPS.

The person reporting is protected under law

The person reporting should be prepared to identify him or herself. An anonymous report is better than nothing, but may result in an abbreviated investigation because the Texas Family Code requires corroboration of an anonymously reported case prior to completing a full investigation. Someone in a position to observe the abuse is likely to be drawn into the investigation in any case. And the law does offer protection; the identity of the person making a report of child abuse or neglect to CPS is confidential and may be disclosed only upon order of the court or to a law enforcement officer conducting a criminal investigation of the report. In addition, the person reporting is immune from civil or criminal liability as long as the report is made in "good faith." "Good faith" means the person making the report took reasonable steps to learn facts that were readily available and at hand. The person reporting is also protected from liability if s/he testifies or participates in judicial proceedings that result from the report.

Exceptions: reports made in bad faith

A person cannot escape prosecution by reporting his or her own abuse of a chid; the law does not offer immunity from civil or criminal liability in this case. A person who acts in bad faith or with malicious purpose in reporting alleged abuse or neglect is also not immune from civil or criminal liability. In addition, a bad faith or malicious report by a spouse or parent may be used as evidence in a suit affecting the parent-child relationship.

Protecting and reporting about one's own child

A child's parent or guardian has a legal obligation to protect the child. Anyone who permits his or her child to be in a situation where s/he may be harmed may be prosecuted for child abuse. The fact that the abuser is your husband, wife, or other family member does not affect your obligation to report the abuse, nor does it shield you from being involved in legal proceedings resulting from the abuse. This is also true when parents discover that one of their older children is abusing a younger one (an indication that the older one may also have been abused at an earlier time). In that case, both children need help. If an abuser in your family is violent and you are frightened for your own safety as well as that of your children, call 911, a local battered women's shelter, 1-800-252-5400 (TDFPS), or your local law enforcement agency.

Will there be an investigation?

When a verbal report of suspected abuse is made to Child Protective Services, TDFPS records are checked and law enforcement personnel are notified. Whether or not the case will be investigated is then determined. Not every report gives rise to an investigation. The report may describe a situation that does not qualify as abuse; for example, corporal punishment and poverty, both frequently reported as abuse, are not likely to be investigated unless there is reason to believe that a child has actually been harmed.

Nor will an investigation occur if there is insufficient information to locate the child. Concerned persons often report truancy, running away, excessive discipline that does not leave physical injury, an older child being made to stay home and babysit younger children, and situations that are potentially but not actually abusive. CPS has no authority to investigate these cases. If the report suggests that a child has been abused or neglected or is at substantial risk of being abused, and the child can be located, an investigation is initiated.

Who investigates

Child Protective Services (CPS) in TDFPS performs the civil investigation into whether child abuse, as defined by Chapter 261 of the Texas Family Code, has occurred and assesses the risk of further abuse occurring. Law enforcement agencies conduct criminal investigations if it appears that a person should be charged with assault, sexual assault, or any other criminal misconduct against a child. CPS is responsible for determining what civil action should be taken on behalf of the child, if any. For example, the child may be removed from the home and placed in protective custody, and parental rights may ultimately be terminated. The investigating law enforcement agency is responsible for referring cases for criminal prosecution when appropriate. The Licensing Division of TDFPS investigates child day care or residential facilities licensed by the agency.

Finding out what happened

CPS may inform a person who reports child abuse about the status of the resulting investigation, if any.

If the person reporting receives no information on the status of the case, s/he may call Child Protective Services and request the information. The information made available to the reporter will be limited, however. Do not try to question a child about his or her conversation with investigators, but you may want to reassure the child that it's okay to talk to the caseworker if the opportunity and the need arise. If the child is in your care at any time, you need to know if there is anyone who should not have contact with the child.

What if nothing happens?

When the outcome of a report is "allegations unfounded," it does not mean that the abuse did not happen; it means that there was insufficient evidence to support charges or child protective services. The CPS case may remain open while services are provided. Other persons or other reports may still be under investigation by law enforcement. A person who reports abuse should remember that even if the report does not bring decisive action, such as removing the child, it may help establish a pattern that will eventually be clear enough to help the child. Often, an accumulation of evidence over time makes the difference. Continue to document new incidents or injuries or other additional evidence of abuse and make a second report if you have reason to suspect continuing abuse.

What if an alleged abuser confronts a person who reports?

A person whose own child is the subject of reported abuse or neglect may request access to confidential information contained in the report, but CPS edits the information to protect the identity of the informant. A person who makes a report of suspected child abuse is under no obligation to admit having done so. The report is confidential by law. An appropriate response for a person who is confronted by an alleged abuser would be, "It isn't important who made the report. The important thing is that the child is safe, and that children who do need help get help." Confronting or warning the suspected abuser is never advisable, and may actually jeopardize the child's safety. It is best to remain calm and acknowledge the accuser's anger in an unprovocative manner. An irate parent or guardian's actions may be reported to the CPS caseworker, if appropriate, or to law enforcement. In extreme cases, anyone who is threatened can call 911 or the local police or sheriff's department.

C. Investigation and Prosecution

The investigation is performed by CPS and/or law enforcement, depending on the circumstances of the case. CPS assesses the risk of maltreatment and determines what civil action, if any, should be taken regarding the custody of the child while law enforcement agencies investigate whether criminal charges should be brought. Investigators interview the child, the family, and any other possible witnesses. The child may need a physical examination. Witnesses may include medical professionals, and both medical records and physical evidence may also be entered into the case when relevant. Legal action may include removing the child from the home, either temporarily or permanently, or the filing of criminal charges, or both. The law prohibits anyone from interfering with an investigation of child abuse or neglect.

Interviewing the child

It is important that the entire investigative process be conducted in a manner that does not revictimize the child. The initial interview of the child may take place at a Child Advocacy Center, the offices of a law enforcement agency, or CPS. It may include videotaping of the child's statement. The interviewer should consider the child's age and ability to describe the incident and should be sensitive to the child's point of view. In some cases involving allegations of sexual abuse of a very young child, anatomical dolls (preferably, ethnically appropriate) may be used, but only when necessary for eliciting a young child's disclosure. If possible, repeated interviews should be avoided, and the child should be interviewed only by persons specifically trained to interview children about abuse. Correctly conducted, the interview can be the beginning of the healing process for the child.

CACs: Child Advocacy Centers

Child Advocacy Centers were created as a way to better protect and treat victims of child abuse. In the past, these child victims were subjected to numerous interviews in institutional settings such as police stations, social workers' offices, and prosecutors' offices. Child victims were shuffled from agency to agency, having to recount their trauma to each new stranger. The various agencies did not always communicate effectively. A Child Advocacy Center provides a non-threatening, homelike setting where victims of abuse can be interviewed, and where professionals from the prosecutor's office, Child Protective Services, and law enforcement can meet to review child physical and sexual abuse cases. These professionals, plus medical and mental health professionals, make up the Multidisciplinary Team. This team meets regularly in a spirit of cooperation to share vital information and proceed in the child's best interest. Obtaining medical care or an examination CPS can cause an examination to be conducted as part of an abuse investigation even if the child's parent or guardian does not consent to it. In that case, CPS petitions the court to order the examination.

A licensed physician, dentist, or psychologist who has reason to suspect abuse or neglect can examine a child with or without consent. A peace officer who has taken lawful custody of a child and who has reasonable grounds for believing that the child needs immediate medical care can consent to the medical care. This does not extend to requesting or consenting to an examination for abuse or neglect, but the doctor providing the immediate medical care is empowered to expand the care into an examination for abuse. Teachers and school staff members can authorize or provide medical care only with written parental consent obtained in advance, and only to the extent granted by the written consent. CPS or the police can take emergency possession of the child if circumstances warrant.

Physical examination of a sexual abuse victim

When there is reason to believe the child has been recently assaulted, the physical examination should be performed as soon as possible after sexual abuse has been reported. The examining physician or team should be informed that the child may have been sexually abused so that recommended procedures may be followed to ensure the least chance of further trauma to the child and the greatest chance that evidence of the assault will be fully and effectively documented. Preferably, the examiner should be trained in the collection of evidence and crisis intervention, as well as normal and abnormal pediatric anatomy. For nurses, Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) training or its equivalent is recommended.

It should be noted that most sexually abused children do not have injuries that can be observed during an examination, especially if the examination occurs weeks or months after the abuse. And rarely does an examination produce physical evidence. Absence of injury or evidence does not at all disprove the allegation of abuse. The child's parent, guardian, or conservator may be present for the examination, provided that s/he is supportive and is not implicated in the abuse.

Assessment of risk to the child

CPS estimates the severity and the immediacy of the risk to the child at the time the report is received. The risk (when it is determined that protective services are in fact needed) is rated as Priority One or Priority Two. A Priority One case is one in which the child is in immediate and serious danger. These are cases where a child has died and there are other children in the family, a child has a serious injury, a child has been sexually abused and is in immediate danger of further abuse, or a child is otherwise in extreme distress or danger. CPS must act on a Priority One case within 24 hours. Priority Two reports, to which CPS must respond within 10 days, involve physical punishment that is excessive but not life-threatening, a child who has been sexually abused but who is temporarily protected, neglect that is impairing development, or a lack of supervision that is detrimental to the child.

Civil actions by CPS

If it is determined that the child can safely remain in the home despite a risk of maltreatment, CPS offers services to preserve the family while reducing the risk of maltreatment or neglect. If the child cannot safely remain in the home, the family may voluntarily place the child with a relative, or else the child may be placed in substitute care with a foster family. During this period, CPS works toward reunification of the family or a permanent placement outside the home. If permanent placement is needed, CPS may seek termination of parental rights and work toward adoption or long-term substitute care for the child.

CASA: the court appointed special advocate

The judge may appoint a specially trained volunteer to act as the child's advocate when the child has been removed from his or her home because of abuse or neglect. The "CASA," who usually has only one case at a time, follows the case through every stage while getting to know the child, the family, and the circumstances of the alleged abuse or neglect. The court also appoints an attorney to represent the child's legal interests, but these "attorneys ad litem" may carry heavy caseloads and may not be specifically trained in the dynamics of child abuse. The CASA's goal is to advocate for the best interests of the child and to find a safe, permanent home as quickly as possible. The CASA's recommendation to the court on behalf of the child usually carries substantial weight in determining the final disposition of the case.

Deciding whether to press charges

Once a criminal investigation is complete, including collection and analysis of all physical evidence, the case is presented by the investigating law enforcement agency to the prosecutor's office. It is up to the District Attorney, Criminal District Attorney, or County Attorney to determine whether there is enough evidence to prosecute and what the charges will be. If there is sufficient evidence to support a felony charge, the case is presented to a Grand Jury of 12 citizens for possible indictment. If an indictment is returned, the case goes to the district clerk, who assigns the case to a district court.

Misdemeanor suspects are charged when a complaint and information are filed in county court.

Preparation for trial

Two things must occur before the case is ready to go to trial: the defendant must have an attorney who will represent him or her throughout the process, and the defense attorney must be given time to prepare the defendant's case. This process of gathering information can take several months. Someone reporting suspected abuse may be contacted by the defense attorney and does have the right to speak to the defense attorney. However, s/he is not required to do so. When the defense attorney and prosecutor are ready to go to trial, the case is put on the court docket. A case can be settled without going to trial based on a plea agreement recommended by the prosecutor, agreed to by the defense and accepted by the judge.

If the case goes to trial

If the case goes to trial, witnesses are contacted by the prosecutor's office and defense council and the trial procedures are explained. The prosecutor will usually sit down with the victim and/or family before trial to go over the case with them, explain what they may expect, and possibly even show them the courtroom. A Victim Witness Coordinator from the prosecutor's office will sometimes accompany victim witnesses to the trial to ensure their rights. Some prosecutors also offer a Court School to help children and their families learn about the court process. Testimony is given by the child, and in some instances the parent, and anyone else who might have information pertinent to the case.

If you are a witness in a legal proceeding

In some cases it may be advisable for a witness to seek legal advice for him/herself. Be sure the person you consult has the relevant expertise. If you are a witness, you may also refer to the prosecutor for advice and counsel. If you have kept notes about what you have seen and heard, you should review them before you testify, and show them to the prosecutor before the trial. You should be prepared for some unexpected or unusual interpretations of your statements. If you do not know the answer to a question, say so. Take your time before answering a question. If you do not understand a question, ask that the question be restated so that you do understand it. Try to stick to facts; do not offer your opinion unless you are specifically asked to do so. Always be completely truthful.

Crime Victims' Compensation

Passed by the Texas Legislature in 1979, the Texas Crime Victims' Compensation Act creates a fund and establishes statutory eligibility guidelines for providing certain benefits to victims of crime. The money in the fund comes from criminals who break the law and pay fines and court costs. An innocent victim who suffers physical and/or emotional harm as a result of a violent crime may qualify for an award to help pay for medical expenses and counseling. Children who are abused and neglected are victims of crime and, therefore, may be eligible for compensation.

The Crime Victims' Compensation Fund is administered by the Office of the Attorney General. Staff work with victims and claimants to make sure all available resources, including the fund, work in the best interests of victims. Victims are entitled to information about the fund and to referral, upon their request, to available social service agencies that may provide additional help.

The fund is authorized to award cash payments to or on behalf of a claimant or victim for monetary losses incurred as a result of a violent criminal action, such as child abuse. It may also refer a claimant or victim to a state agency for vocational or other rehabilitative services or provide counseling services for a claimant or victim or contract with a private entity to provide counseling services.

The fund may not award more than $50,000 for each victim and crime unless the personal injury is catastrophic and results in a total and permanent disability to the victim. An additional $75,000 may be awarded under these conditions. Specifically, the fund may reimburse expenses for medical and counseling needs, lost wages and support, child care, crime scene clean-up, replacement costs for seized property for criminal investigations, and funeral and burial expenses.

Every law enforcement agency in the State of Texas is required to provide crime victims with information about the Crime Victims' Compensation program and an application. Applications are also available from prosecutors' offices. Hospitals and medical centers may also have the application forms, or you may obtain them directly from the Office of the Attorney General by calling 1-800-983-9933. Please see the appendix for a review of the application process and for a copy of the statute that enables the fund.

What are the rights of the victims?

Child abuse and neglect are crimes that victimize our youngest citizens. As victims of crime, children have rights they can exercise at every stage of the criminal justice process. Notice of these rights should be provided to parents or guardians of child abuse and neglect victims by law enforcement when the initial report is made and by the prosecutor's office after the indictment or information is filed. At the pre-trial stage, victims and their guardians have the right to:

    * be protected from further harm or threats for cooperating with prosecution efforts
    * have the victim's safety considered in the setting of bail
    * information about relevant court proceedings
    * information about a defendant's right to bail and the procedures in a criminal investigation and the criminal justice system
    * provide pertinent information on the impact of the offense prior to the defendant's sentencing
    * information about the Crime Victims' Compensation Program
    * information on parole procedures and to be notified upon the release of the defendant
    * be provided with a separate and secure waiting area for witnesses at a trial
    * a prompt return of property held as evidence when it is no longer required
    * have employer notified if testimony requires absence from work
    * have counseling regarding acquired immune deficiency syndrome if the offense creates the need
    * be present at all court proceedings related to the offense, subject to judge's approval
    * be informed of all of these rights and to have them explained.

Failure to provide these rights does not create a liability on the part of those responsible for them.

Victim impact statements

The victim may submit a victim impact statement. This written statement documents the emotional, physical, and financial impact the crime has had on the victim and his or her family. After a conviction, during the sentencing phase of the trial, the victim presents the victim impact statement, which can be taken into account in determining the offender's sentence. For cases where the defendant is sentenced to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice or the Texas Youth Commission, victims have the right to participate in the parole or release process and be notified prior to any release of the defendant, if they request it. More information about rights of victims may be obtained from your law enforcement agency, prosecutor, or by calling the Crime Victims' Compensation Division in the Office of the Attorney General at 1-800-983-9933.

Texas child fatality review teams

Child Fatality Review teams are multi-disciplinary, multi-agency panels that review child deaths on the local level from a public health perspective. Team members include law enforcement officers, prosecutors, medical examiners, physicians, justices of the peace, public and mental health professionals, EMS, child protective services staff, child advocates, and educators. These teams are uniquely qualified to understand what no single agency or group working alone can: how and why children are dying in their community.

By sharing information, team members discover the circumstances surrounding children's deaths. They identify gaps and breakdowns in agency services designed to protect children and work to revise procedures and professional investigation protocols. Because of the team's efforts, child fatalities are more accurately recorded, and needed prevention initiatives can be developed. The ultimate result of a child death review system is an improved response to child fatalities and a reduction in the number of preventable deaths.

D. Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect

The United States spends hundreds of millions of dollars identifying abused children and providing them with medical and protective services in hopes that the abuse will not be repeated. The effort is worth every penny it cost, but how much better it would be if child abuse and neglect could be prevented. A truly comprehensive and effective policy on child abuse would, whenever possible, prevent injury before it occurs. It would strengthen families before protective intervention became an issue.

The substance of this handbook so far -- recognizing children who have been abused, reporting the abuse, and initiating child protective services -- amounts to tertiary child abuse prevention. That is to say, these processes may prevent an abused child from being harmed further. No part of the system described so far can fully address the causes that produce harm in the first place. And yet, there is much that can and should be done.

Primary child abuse prevention is preparing communities and parents for the job of non-abusive child rearing. Parents with adequate knowledge and parenting skills who live in supportive communities can provide children with the kind of safe and nurturing environment they need to grow into healthy, self-sufficient adults. For high-risk families in great need of information and assistance, secondary prevention (outreach and early intervention) is necessary before the family reaches the point of abuse, damage, and disintegration. Finally, tertiary prevention helps to rebuild the lives of families in which abuse and neglect occur.

Educating parents

Most people learn parenting skills from their own parents. They treat their children the way they remember their own parents treating them. In families where adults have limited parenting skills, abusive behavior can be passed on from one generation to the next. Some parents may have no idea how to shape their children's behavior other than by yelling at them and hitting them. They may have no idea of the damage that they can inflict on a child -- by shaking, for example. They may be unprepared for the amount of work and stress involved in caring for a small child.

All of these factors contribute to child abuse, and all can be reduced by helping parents learn about the job and the realities of parenting. They can learn new ways to try to make a baby stop crying -- and new ways to relieve their own feelings of helplessness and rage when a baby won't stop crying. Parents can be taught how to structure a child's environment or schedule to make good behaviors easier and more natural for the child. They can learn how to reinforce positive behavior with praise and rewards. And parents need to learn about effective forms of discipline other than yelling and hitting.

Reasonable expectations

Parents may become frustrated when they try to demand behavior that the child is too young to achieve.

The children most likely to be abused are infants and toddlers -- children under two years of age who are naturally both helpless and demanding. The parent may tell the child to stop crying, not to wet or soil its diapers, or to sit still for long periods of time -- none of which is possible for the child's level of development.

The parent may then conclude that the child is "bad," and try to "teach him a lesson." Also at risk are children who are mentally retarded, hyperactive, or have other physical and behavioral problems requiring extra patience and skill. Abuse can sometimes be prevented if parents are taught what to expect for their children's ages and levels of development.

Is spanking okay?

Texas law allows the use of force, but not deadly force, against a child by the child's parent, guardian, or other person who is acting in loco parentis. Most parents do, in fact, use corporal punishment (in the form of spanking) at least occasionally, and most do not, in fact, consider it abusive. Experts disagree about the advisability of ever spanking a child. Some say that, combined with other methods of discipline, mild spanking of a small child is harmless and effective. Others claim that other methods of discipline work as well as spanking or better, and that spanking is not necessary. Many child advocates and experts in child development contend that all forms of corporal punishment, including spanking, are harmful. Most believe that spanking an infant is always inappropriate. The law does not attempt to arbitrate between the different views on the best method of disciplining a child. What we do know is that severe corporal punishment can be extremely damaging and dangerous, and this is what the law prohibits as abuse.

When is discipline abusive?

Some parents who become abusive believe that what they are doing is in the best interest of the child and are confused about when an attempt at discipline crosses the line and becomes abuse. Whether an action is abusive really depends on the circumstances of the individual case. However, the following guidelines may help:

    * Striking a child above the waist is more likely to be considered abusive; disciplinary spanking is usually confined to the buttocks.

    * Spanking with the bare, open hand is least likely to be abusive; the use of an instrument is cause for concern. Belts and hair brushes are accepted by many as legitimate disciplinary "tools," and their use is not likely to be considered abusive, as long as injury does not occur. Electrical or phone cords, boards, yardsticks, ropes, shoes, and wires are likely to be considered instruments of abuse.

    * It is best not to hit a child in anger. Abusive punishment is most likely to occur when the parent is out of control.

    * Finally, and most important, punishment is abusive if it causes injury. A blow that causes a red mark that fades in an hour is not likely to be judged abusive. On the other hand, a blow that leaves a bruise, welt, or swelling, or requires medical attention, probably would be judged abusive.

Another abusive form of discipline that does not involve hitting is severe isolation or confinement of a child. Many parents use "time out," loss of privilege, or confinement to a special area as a punishment or as a time for the child to reconsider his or her choices. But when the child is tied up, gagged, locked in a closet, shut out, starved, or otherwise seriously deprived, the punishment is excessive and may constitute abuse.

Helping families

Sometimes, abusive parents know that what they are doing is violent and dangerous, but they just have trouble stopping the behavior. Caring for a small child is hard work, especially if the child is colicky, sickly, prone to cry a lot, or hyperactive. The decline of the "extended" family has contributed to child abuse. When there are no relatives available to help in times of need, the parents lack an important part of the natural family support system. The extended family can help in so many ways: babysitting, advice on child rearing, housework, and general moral support. Any time the community or even a concerned individual can help out in these ways, it's easier for parents to cope instead of lashing out. Professionals who work with children can help by referring parents to "Mother's Day Out" and latchkey programs, parenting classes, and parent support groups. Parents Anonymous is a national organization that exists specifically to aid parents who may become abusive. If you are uneasy about your own behavior toward your child, you can call the Parents Anonymous toll-free hotline at 1-909-621-6184.

Services for at-risk youth and parents of adolescents

When adolescents begin to test limits and challenge parental authority, conflicts can result in abuse. The Department of Family and Protective Services funds programs around the state to help families deal with the special challenges involved in parenting adolescents. The Services to At-Risk youth (STAR) program contracts with local agencies to provide counseling, parent training, and (in some instances) emergency shelter.

Preventing child sexual abuse

Children should be taught at an early age that there are certain places on their bodies that no one should touch. Children need to learn to trust their own instincts and to assert their rights regarding their own bodies when a touch doesn't seem right. They should learn that certain parts of their bodies are private.

They should not be punished or shamed for the natural curiosity that occurs between the ages of two and five. However, by age five, children may have begun to develop a sense of modesty. Adults should be aware that molestation can occur at the hands of older children; play areas and rest rooms should be supervised. A child who plays aggressively or displays overtly sexual behavior may have learned it from television or video, but these behaviors are also indicators of sexual abuse. Children should know that when anyone touches them in a way they do not like, they have a right to actively resist and should tell someone they trust. It is not uncommon for a program on appropriate touch to trigger a disclosure from an abused child.

Protecting children from child molesters

Parents and professionals who work with children should recognize that child molesters characteristically seek out contact with children and may obtain access to them through jobs, churches and volunteer programs.

Child molesters are not casually identifiable by their appearance or behavior. Administrators, churches, supervisors, and other organizers should be careful to check references thoroughly both when hiring and when accepting offers of volunteer help with children's activities. Precautions should apply to all persons with access to children, including parents who volunteer to help. Organizations can adopt rules to protect the children under their care. Isolated, out-of-sight, one-on-one contact between an adult and a child should be strictly limited, for example. The child's sleeping, bathing, and dressing arrangements should insure privacy for the child. Guidelines are needed for appropriate discipline of children.

State Laws help protect against child abusers

In recent years, the Texas Legislature has greatly strengthened parole, supervision, and notification requirements for child abusers and sex offenders. In particular:

    * sex offenders are to required register with local law enforcement agencies; specific information, including name, address, eye color and shoe size, is considered public information
    * the state Department of Public Safety maintains a searchable database of registered sex offenders, found at: https://records.txdps.state.tx.us; more than 43,706 sex offenders were registered in Texas as of July 2004.
    * the law allows courts to remove suspected child abusers from the home for up to 10 days while an investigation takes place.
    * child sex offenders have tightened parole standards and are required to undergo mandatory counseling.
    * sex offenders are not permitted in "child safety zones," including near schools, play grounds and other areas.
    * registered sex offenders are required to submit DNA samples to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) for use in future criminal investigations.

In addition, the Legislature has broadened community and victim notification requirements. The new laws mandate notification of the community when a convicted sex offender is living there and require notification of the victim when a perpetrator is set for release on bail or parole, when a prisoner escapes, or when an offender is released to community supervision. Victims are now also allowed to speak at the offender's parole hearing.

The need for therapeutic intervention

Once child abuse or neglect has occurred, therapeutic intervention is frequently required for the victimized child, the abusers, and others who may have been affected by the abuse. Therapeutic intervention may serve to prevent serious, lasting emotional and behavioral problems for the victim and family. Without this intervention, the likelihood of abused children becoming adult perpetrators is increased. Therapy can help children acquire a sense of control over their lives and help them avoid being victimized and feeling helpless. Without therapy, abusers are likely to continue assaulting their own children, their grandchildren, or other children. Spouses of abusers may never gain the tools to protect their children from further abuse without therapeutic intervention. Therapy may take many forms, but it is a necessary element for the prevention of child abuse and neglect.

What can we do about child abuse?

Parents account for most cases of child abuse, and the precipitating causes are often stress and poor parenting skills. Any concerned adult can help out on an individual basis by supporting the parents and families they know -- lending a sympathetic ear, recommending parenting classes, or babysitting from time to time.

Professionals have many opportunities to educate parents through posters, conferences, and individual contacts. Schools, clinics, and day-care centers can offer support groups and classes or circulate newsletters or other educational materials. Organizations can also adopt precautionary procedures regarding all adults who have access to the children in their care. Sound supervisory guidelines can help prevent child-on-child abuse. Children can be taught at school, at home, at church, and in day care centers to resist and disclose abuse. When all else fails and abuse occurs, intervention and counseling can help break the cycle of violence and protect the children of the future.

E. Why Does It Matter?

Child abuse prevention is a fundamental first step in crime prevention and violence reduction. Most abused and neglected children grow up to be peaceful and productive citizens. Within the criminal justice system, however, mistreated children are significantly overrepresented. The National Institute of Justice found that child abuse victims are 40 percent more likely than non-abused children to become delinquents and adult criminals.

Abused and neglected children are 53 percent more likely to be arrested as juveniles and 38 percent more likely to be arrested as adults. Physically abused children are more likely to be aggressive toward their peers and adults, and are more likely to have poor impulse control than non-abused children. The more frequent and serious the abuse, the greater the risk that the child will grow up to be troubled in these ways if no one intervenes.

The cost of child maltreatment is self-perpetuating; one study found that 90 percent of maltreating mothers were themselves abused as children. Child abuse victims are six times as likely as non-victims to become abusive parents. But this cycle of violence can be broken. Child abuse and neglect can be prevented. The damage to an abused child can be repaired. The Texas Crime Victims' Compensation Fund, administered by the Office of the Attorney General, provides benefits to innocent crime victims who lack means to pay for counseling, medical care, and other forms of relief.

Abused and neglected children are victims of crime. They and their families must deal with the emotional, physical, and financial aftermath of violence and maltreatment. We can help them, and help break the cycle of violence, if we can learn to recognize, report, and prevent child abuse. As teachers, medical practitioners, and other professionals who work with children, but also as parents and concerned citizens, we have daily opportunities to fulfill a fundamental human and societal responsibility: to protect our children.

Report Your Suspicions of Child Abuse

Physical Abuse: "Physical injury that results in substantial harm to the child." The law excludes physical punishment that does not result in injury.

Emotional Abuse: "Emotional injury to a child that results in an observable and material impairment in the child's growth, development, or psychological functioning."

Sexual Abuse: "Sexual conduct harmful to a child's mental, emotional, or physical welfare."

Neglect: "Leaving of a child in a situation where the child would be exposed to a substantial risk of physical or mental harm, without arranging for necessary care for the child." The law excludes failure to provide due to financial need, unless relief has been offered and refused.

Call the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services 24-hour Texas Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-252-5400 or a state or local law enforcement agency.

You must provide enough information to locate the child. Your report may include name, address, license plate number, make of car.

Is a child in immediate danger of serious bodily harm? Call 911 or local law enforcement immediately.


Back to Part 1
Back to Table of Contents

Revised: May 06 2010
CVS Update CVS Update - the Crime Victim Services Division E-newsletter CVS Materials Order Form
Contact Information:
Crime Victims' Compensation
P.O. Box 12198
Austin, Texas 78711-2198
1-800-983-9933 (state-wide) 1-512-936-1200 (in Austin)
1-512-936-1800 (FAX)
crimevictims@texasattorneygeneral.gov Address Confidentiality Program, MC-069
P O Box 12199
Austin, Tx 78711-2199
512-936-1750
888-832-2322 TexasAttorneyGeneral.gov