Educators learn to recognize child abuse, neglect


CHARLESTON — Orientation sessions for new diocesan school personnel were recently conducted at three locations across the state — Columbia, Greenville and Charleston. The gatherings included presentations on child abuse and neglect awareness, along with an introduction to the diocese and its schools structure.

Dr. Gay Rowzie, Secretary of Education and Evangelization for the Diocese of Charleston and superintendent of schools, was the presenter at each event. At the meeting held at Blessed Sacrament School in West Ashley on Aug. 17, Rowzie told attendees about the pastoral structure and typical parish organization used by diocesan churches, focusing on how that impacts the governance of Catholic schools here.

The four criteria for Catholic schools developed by Bishop David B. Thompson were discussed by Rowzie, elaborating each area listed by the Bishop: that schools be authentically Catholic, academically excellent, financially feasible and community supported.

The superintendent then asked, “What is it that makes a Catholic school Catholic?” Eliciting numerous responses from the audience, she replied, “It is that Christ is present in everything that we do; from discipline, to grading, to dealing with parents. It is all of what we do. It’s not just what we teach, but how we behave.”

Financially feasible was described by the presenter as “being financially accountable, but able to offer a Catholic education to as many as possible.”

Before presenting the information concerning child abuse and neglect, Rowzie asked the educators to close their eyes and take two words — child abuse — and draw a picture in their minds.

Following this introductory exercise, she then spelled out definitions of child abuse and neglect as stated by the Children’s Code Reform Act of 1996.

A child is defined as anyone under age 18, with abuse and neglect encompassing the infliction of physical or mental injury; committing sexual offenses; failing to supply food, clothing, shelter or medical care; abandoning the child; and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

The term sexual offense was a broad one, ranging from inappropriate touching to rape to pornography.

Answering the question “How prevalent is this problem?” Rowzie cited statistics provided by various law enforcement and social service agencies stating that in the United States, more than 2 million cases of physical abuse or neglect are reported each year, which averages out to one every 6 seconds.

Annually, 2,000 children die of child abuse or neglect, which averages out to a child dying every four-and-a-half hours. At least one in three girls and one in seven boys are sexually molested or abused during their childhood years. Most victims are 11 years of age when the sexual abuse is discovered.

In addition, there are no cultural barriers which foreshadow child abuse victims or their perpetrators, said Rowzie. The child sexual offender is usually know to the victim, and they come from all economic, ethnic, racial and educational backgrounds and religious traditions. “There is no single characteristic that defines a child sexual offender,” she said. They can be respected members of the community, church or synagogue, “who earns the child’s trust and that of the adults around the child,” Rowzie continued.

At this time a list of indicators of possible child abuse and neglect was distributed, which gave potential clues to physical abuse, physical neglect, sexual abuse and emotional maltreatment.

If suspecting possible child abuse or neglect, the superintendent told the teachers that they are “mandated reporters” and as members of the educational community are legally mandated to report a suspicion of child abuse or neglect to the state Department of Social Services. Callers can remain anonymous and, when acting in good faith, are immune from civil or criminal liability. Rowzie stressed that any school personnel who fail to report a suspected case of child abuse or neglect may be fined up to $500 or be imprisoned for up to six months under provisions of the Child Protection Reform Act of 1996.

Teachers are also to follow reporting procedures established for the Diocese of Charleston and their school, Rowzie emphasized. Instructors are to first go to their principals with their concerns. If the suspected sexual abuse has been perpetrated by diocesan church personnel the procedures to be followed are listed in the “Policy of the Diocese of Charleston Concerning Child Sexual Abuse by Church Personnel.”

“The investigation of suspected abuse is not your responsibility,” Rowzie said. “If doubt exists, resolve that doubt in favor of the child by making a report.”

She added that goals should be to protect the child from further abuse, stop the offender’s abuse and heal the victims.

A video was then shown which dealt with a situation of a child reporting an instance of possible sexual abuse by a tutor to her religious education teacher. Discussion followed concerning the dialogue between the teacher and the child. This was expanded in an overview of a “disclosure” handout, which included the following suggestions: don’t panic or overreact to the information disclosed by the child, don’t promise to keep the information a secret, don’t criticize the child, do reassure the child that you are concerned, do suggest that the child talk to his/her parent(s), do report the information to the appropriate authorities, and do keep the information confidential.

On the flip side, teachers were also given information on how to safeguard themselves against possible accusations of sexual abuse. Some of these included: no one-on-one contact, respect for privacy, appropriate attire, constructive discipline, and all functions and activities open to observation by parents and church/school leaders.

Lastly, Rowzie addressed the question, “What are we doing to protect our children from abuse and neglect?” Procedures for screening school employees and parish and diocesan volunteers will now involve an application process, reference checks, a State Law Enforcement Division check and Department of Social Services check. Awareness/responsibility education and familiarization with the diocesan policy on reporting abuse/neglect are also components in the new program.