Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Child Abuse and Neglect: A Practical Guide for Professional School Counselors

Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Child Abuse and Neglect: A Practical Guide for Professional School Counselors

Article excerpt

Rarely do ethical dilemmas confronting professional school counselors involve definitive "correct" or "incorrect" choices. However, when it comes to reporting suspected child abuse and/or neglect, explicit laws and policies require that counselors have appropriate procedures available for managing suspected abuse. This article (a) describes the prevalence and severity of abuse, (b) identifies the ethical and legal statutes associated with abuse, (c) presents indicators of abuse and guidelines for reporting suspected cases, and (d) offers a systemic prevention plan.


Child abuse and neglect is a pervasive problem. Often professional school counselors (PSCs) express feelings of anxiety at the prospect of working with such cases. Indeed, one of educators' greatest fears is dealing with child abuse and neglect cases (Wilson, Ireton, & Wood, 1997). Most PSCs know their legal responsibility to report cases of abuse and neglect; however, procedural uncertainty and other concerns may cause great anxiety. Numerous questions may arise for the PSC: "Whom should I call?" "Do I need to tell my principal I am reporting the case?" "Will I be legally liable in any way if the case is found to be untrue or unsubstantiated?" "What specific information do I need to report?" and "How will I feel in my future interactions with the suspected parents?"

Many of these questions are common for both new and experienced PSCs. Not surprisingly, Crenshaw, Lichtenberg, and Bartell (1993) found common instances of noncompliance even when helping professionals knew the legal statutes pertaining to reporting suspected abuse. Further, the Federal National Child Abuse and Neglect Incidence Study found that within school settings, only a small percentage of suspected abuse cases known to school personnel were reported to Child Protective Services (CPS) for formal investigation (Sechrist, 2000).

Most ethical dilemmas confronting PSCs do not involve a simple "right" or "wrong" answer (Remley & Huey, 2002). Reporting suspected child abuse and/or neglect, however, is dictated by explicit laws and procedures. For example, all states require that abuse and/or neglect be reported if there is physical injury (Cambron-McCabe, McCarthy, & Thomas, 2004; Crosson-Tower, 2002; Fischer, Schimmel, & Stellman, 2003). Nevertheless, counselors experience uncertainty and apprehension when working with suspected abuse, warranting a professional resource that outlines appropriate procedures for managing such cases.

The purpose of this article is to serve as a resource providing pragmatic guidelines and information to assist PSCs in making appropriate ethical and legal decisions when working with victims of abuse. For the purposes of the article, the term abuse is used to encompass physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and neglect.

To provide a common understanding of abuse, the following definitions of abuse and neglect are taken from the American School Counselor Association's Position Statement: Child Abuse (ASCA, 1999):

   Abuse: The infliction of physical harm upon
   the body of a child by other than accidental
   means, continual psychological damage or
   denial of emotional needs (e.g., extensive
   bruises/patterns; burns/patterns; lacerations,
   welts or abrasions; injuries inconsistent with
   information offered; sexual abuse involving
   molestation or exploitation, including but not
   limited to rape, carnal knowledge, sodomy or
   unnatural sexual practices; emotional disturbance
   caused by continuous friction in the
   home, marital discord or mentally ill parents;
   cruel treatment).

   Neglect: The failure to provide necessary food,
   care, clothing, shelter, supervision or medical
   attention for a child (e.g., malnourished, ill-clad,
   dirty, without proper shelter or sleeping
   arrangements, lacking appropriate health care;
   unattended, lacking adequate supervision; ill
   and lacking essential medical attention; irregular/illegal
   absences from school; exploited,
   overworked; lacking essential psychological/
   emotional nurturing; abandonment). … 
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