The previous articles in this series have made it clear that child abuse does exist in our area and that there is a need for prevention and education.

Deanna Martin
School Counselor, Oak Ridge Intermediate School, Camdenton R-III

The previous articles in this series have made it clear that child abuse does exist in our area and that there is a need for prevention and education. For 14 years, I have worked as an elementary school counselor in the Camdenton School District. If I were asked how many child abuse and neglect hotline calls I have had to make, I couldn't begin to make a guess. Often a child will first disclose abuse or neglect to their classroom teacher or the school counselor, making the school system their first line of defense.

School employees are mandated reporters, meaning that they must (by law) report any suspected cases of abuse or neglect. The decision to hotline is not made lightly, but when putting the safety of the child first, it is the right thing to do. Is every case substantiated? No.

But that is up to Children's Division and the Juvenile Office to determine. Our job is to report so the situation can be investigated. When in doubt, we err on the side of making certain the child is safe.
Every school works to create an environment of safety and trust. We want a child to walk into the building feeling like they belong, feeling like they have people they can talk to and feeling like they will be safe there all day, every day. When that safe environment is created, a child is more likely to tell an adult at school about the abuse that is happening to them outside of school.

According to a 2008 article in The Lancet medical journal, researchers believe that fewer than one in ten cases of child abuse is actually reported. As a school counselor, this is a big concern, to know that we see children in our school daily who are being abused or neglected, yet we have no idea. By creating the best environment possible at school, it is our hope that we can defy the odds and do our part to help secure safe living situations for more than a mere one in ten abused children.

Many cases of abuse that come to my office have first been disclosed to a trusted classroom teacher. I never underestimate the importance of the teacher/student relationship.

It makes all the difference in the world. A student who can walk into the classroom one morning and go straight to their teacher and say, "Something terrible happened to me..." is going to get the help he or she needs and is going to come through it, with the understanding and support necessary for survival of the unthinkable.

On the other hand, a student who walks into a classroom after being abused and who feels that he or she cannot tell an adult may sink into a seat, be unable to make eye contact, and be incapable of enough focus to do his or her assignments. The student will often begin to fail tests, withdraw socially and possibly even become a behavior problem in the classroom.

Needless to say, when we see changes like that in a child, we worry, and we do our best to reach out. Sometimes the child will accept the outreach and disclose the reason for their behavior, but all too often, he or she will not. We can implement as many interventions as possible to support a child who presents as withdrawn or aggressive, but unless we can stop what is happening to them, we will not be treating the basic problem; we will only be applying a band-aid to an open wound.

Tough economic times definitely play a part in the escalation of abusive home situations. Parents who are stressed about money will sometimes take out that stress on their children. At school we usually see an increase in family stress around the holidays, due to pressure regarding money or difficult family issues. While most children are excited to go home for Christmas break, we have some children in whom we see an increase in anger, anxiety or acting-out behaviors right before the holiday because they fear going home to a couple of weeks of tension and possible abuse. A child who doesn't want to go home for a holiday or for a weekend will often be irritable or even physically or verbally aggressive as the time approaches. My co-worker and I usually clear our calendar for the week before Christmas, so that we will have time to deal with these issues. It is not unusual for us to have to make child abuse hotline calls near the holidays, as some children will finally cave in under the pressure that they may be further abused over a break from school, and they will disclose the situation to us in a desperate plea for safety.

We are very fortunate here in the Lake area to have outstanding professionals working in Children's Division and the Juvenile Office. There is a feeling of mutual respect and trust between school and agency. We work hand-in-hand to see that children are safe. It is a sad statement in some ways that school counselors get to know Children's Division investigators on a first-name basis, but it is also very rewarding to work together to gain safety for a child.

Teachers and school counselors often say, "I could take that one home with me." In a round-about way, I did just that.

In 2007, my husband and I became foster parents to a child in need, and we were blessed a year later by being able to adopt him. He was 11 years old, nearing 12, on the day of adoption, and the changes in him as he accepted our love and the safety and stability of our home have been incredible. Through the process of foster care and adoption, I got to see Children's Division and the Juvenile Office from a whole different angle.
It is awe-inspiring to see those people at work and to be a part of something important. So many people in this community work hard to help kids be safe.

Sometimes I feel like I do a lot for kids, and sometimes when faced with so many children who are unhappy, emotionally unstable, underfed, and, frankly, inadequately loved, I feel that I don't do enough. However, I face each day simply trying to do the best that I can, one child at a time.