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EDUCATION

This is How States Have Improved How Teachers Report Child Abuse

Erin’s Law is creating a more objective standard for child abuse reporting

Luke Fowler & Joel Vallett

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

To more effectively combat child abuse and respond to the barriers faced by teachers, Erin Merryn, a social worker from Illinois, partnered with her state senator to draft a child abuse prevention education policy in 2010, known as Erin’s Law. It requires school districts to adopt an age-appropriate curriculum addressing topics such as personal body safety, signs of abuse, and reporting abuse. Erin’s Law takes a unique 3-step strategy toward contesting child abuse. First, the policy equips teachers with educational materials and resources about recognizing, reporting, and responding to child abuse. Second, teachers instruct students on these same child abuse prevention topics. Finally, parents receive information and additional resources to help them support potentially abused children.

Erin’s Law has been adopted across 37 states over the last decade.

While Erin’s Law is designed to improve how teachers report child abuse, has it actually impacted teacher reporting practices?

We use a dataset of state-level child abuse reports over a five-year period to examine how teacher reports of child abuse change after Erin’s Law is enacted. Our findings indicate that prior to Erin’s Law, teacher reporting was inconsistent across states as teachers interpret legal and administrative responsibilities differently. We also find that differences in teacher reporting was at least partially reactive to the environment. For example, child abuse is reported by teachers more in places where it is seen as an unacceptable practice or perceived as a rampant problem. Conversely, abuse is reported less in other regions where it may be more socially acceptable or seen as an intrusion into a family for teachers to report suspected abuse. In general, this means that the same behaviors in one place may be reported by teachers as abuse and go unreported in other places.

After Erin’s Law, teacher reporting stabilizes across states and the influence of politics decreases, indicating that Erin’s Law is creating a more objective standard for child abuse reporting. In other words, Erin’s Law replaces a competing set of ideas and interpretations with a more consistent framework for understanding how to identify and report child abuse. Consequently, how teachers perceive the political or problem parameters have much less influence on whether or not they report suspected abuse.

However, this does not necessarily mean that child abuse reports from teachers are becoming more accurate or that fewer cases are going unreported; it just means that teachers are becoming more consistent in their reporting practices and less influenced by the political or social environments of their schools and/or communities.

Even though child abuse prevention policies within the U.S. have progressed since the early 1960s, most policies still take the form of mandatory reporting laws, especially as it applies to educators. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the efficacy of these policies is suspect. Additionally, the patchwork of state and local laws, as well as school district policies, defining child abuse and reporting processes have disrupted the establishment of commonly accepted professional norms, so there are no clear standards for what constitutes child abuse or what teachers should do about it.

For instance, teachers regularly describe fears of reporting for a host of reasons. Specifically, teachers are concerned that reporting suspected abuse may negatively influence their ability to perform their jobs. Include the presence of inconsistent reporting policies, and teachers now face an overwhelming barrier of competing ideas about when and to whom to formally report suspected abuse (e.g., school administrators or law enforcement). Additionally, child abuse itself is somewhat ambiguously defined by law, so teachers often report difficulty in rectifying suspected abuse, socio-cultural norms of families, and legal processes. On one hand, falsely reporting abuse can humiliate students and families and permanently damage working relationships. On the other hand, not reporting may put teachers or schools at risk of being held liable for allowing abuse to continue. This culmination of fears and conflicting policies has led many teachers to minimize their role in combatting child abuse.

With Erin’s Law in place, teachers have a consistent set of training and resources necessary to disrupt reporting barriers. Likewise, with a child abuse curriculum, teachers have an educational space to discuss with students topics of abuse previously considered taboo. The discussion of abuse is no longer an intrusion into the family; instead, it lies within the comforts of an education curriculum. Teachers also move from latent participants in the fight against child abuse to active participants in policy structures. Erin’s Law encourages teachers to be aware of their role within this policy system and reduces competing ideas previously encountered.

Overall, Erin’s Law is having an effect on how teachers are reporting suspected child abuse, but how it works may be different from place to place. In some places, Erin’s Law will likely lead to teachers playing a more active role in child abuse reporting alongside law enforcement and social workers; in other places though, teachers may reduce their role. The key take-away is that Erin’s Law is leading to greater consistency in reporting practices across states, where a previous patchwork of policies created an ambiguous environment for teachers.

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