September 24, 2021
Schools have vital role to play in detecting child abuse says PhD candidate
Schools have vital role to play in detecting child abuse
How can schools best equip staff to recognise the signs if they suspect a child is being abused or neglected?
University of Auckland PhD candidate Briar O’Connor’s thesis focuses on how a child protection policy can go from being a ‘tick-box exercise’, to a normalised part of everyday routine for all school staff.
From her research, which included a specific school as a case study, she found that while all the required legal steps had been followed, induction – ‘here is the policy and this is why it matters’ – was only the beginning.
“Dealing with this very complex and difficult area is hard,” she says. “Knowing what to be looking out for, how to read between the lines of what you observe, or what a child might be trying to tell you and what you should do about it, takes knowledge and practice. It’s not enough to know a policy exists.”
So what can overworked teachers and other school staff do if they see or hear something concerning?
“They should know if a child discloses something it takes a lot of courage; children love their parents and want to believe they’re good people. They need to reassure the child that they’ve been heard and believed, tell them the information can’t be kept a secret, resist asking further probing questions, and document what was said.”
Her case study school was doing some things very well.
“At every meeting, for example, they had a ‘children causing concern’ item on the agenda, which made it a normal part of being an adult in that school to not only notice but mention anything that might be worrying.”
They need to reassure the child that they’ve been heard and believed, tell them the information can’t be kept a secret, resist asking further probing questions, and document what was said.
Using Normalisation Process Theory (NPT) – which looks at the implementation, imbedding and integration of new ways of doing things into an organisation – to frame her study, she examined the requirements of the Children’s Act 2014.
Her hope was that things like recognising and responding to abuse, along with regular police vetting for anyone who works with children for example, would have become so embedded in schools that they’ve almost disappeared into normal school life.
However, this wasn’t really the case.
“To implement a child protection policy in a school takes a specific focus by the board of trustees, who must write it with expert guidance, put it in a visible place on their website, introduce it to all new staff at induction, and revise it every three years. And all adults on school grounds, including visitors, should know who holds the key responsibility for child protection,” she says.
“Busy teachers and wider school staff, including teacher aides, office and grounds staff, many of whom may be better placed to notice signs of abuse or neglect, can’t be expected to respond to a child carefully without training, for which there is seldom any time or money.”
There are no regulated, widespread processes for training all school staff in child protection policy requirements, despite the fact that in its 2012 White Paper, the Key government said they were essential, and would be developed.
“Each school is left to create or source their own,” says Ms O’Connor, “and is responsible for developing their own training and revising beyond the point of tick-box compliance. I believe this is grossly unreasonable and doesn’t serve our tamariki in a country where we have some of the worst domestic violence statistics in the OECD.”
An immediate solution and ‘great start’, she believes, would be for government funding for all school staff to do at least one of the existing online courses (Child Matters, or Safeguarding Children Initiative) in recognising and responding to child abuse.
“We all have a responsibility to do something about our appalling child abuse statistics and while something I often hear from teachers and others is, ‘but what if I’m wrong?’, my answer is, “but what if you’re right?”