Employee training program under way to recognize, report child abuse

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Over the past six weeks, nearly 2,000 Penn State employees have attended the University's professional training program designed to help employees recognize and report suspected child abuse.

The program is part of Penn State's initiative to help ensure a safe community for children, said Susan Cromwell, director of workplace learning and performance in Penn State's Office of Human Resources.

The effort is being led by a team of individuals from Penn State's Center for Workplace Learning and Performance, Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR), WPSU Learning and Media Design Team, University Police, Penn State Student Affairs, Intercollegiate Athletics, Centre County Women's Resource Center, faculty experts and professionals throughout the community.

"Our goal is to educate the University community about child abuse and reporting and move people from an awareness of the issue toward having confidence to take action," said Cromwell.

The program is being implemented in two stages. During the summer, the University is addressing an immediate need to train employees, also identified as "authorized adults," who will be working with children at numerous camps and workshops at University Park and other Penn State campuses across the commonwealth. These face-to-face training sessions began on April 18.

The second stage is slated to begin in the fall and will include interactive online training for all University employees at every campus location, with the exception of Penn State Hershey Medical Center/College of Medicine, the client representation clinics of the Dickinson School of Law, and University Health Services, each of which will follow the policies and training appropriate to its own unique activities.

Initially, the training is required for employees who work with children directly as part of their jobs -- considered "mandated reporters" under state law.

According to the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law, a mandated reporter must file a report, or cause a report to be filed, when that person, "who in the course of employment, occupation or practice of a profession, comes in direct contact with children and has reasonable cause to suspect on the basis of medical, professional or other training and experience that there is a victim of child abuse."

In order to foster a safer community for children, Cromwell said it is important that even those considered permissive reporters -- Penn State employees who are not mandated by Pennsylvania law to report abuse -- participate in training. The online module, available in the fall, will teach employees how to recognize abuse and report it to the appropriate resources even if they are not required by law to do so.

"We often tell children to tell an adult, but the problem with that action is that it puts the responsibility on the shoulders of the children to report the abuse," she said. "There are many reasons that kids don't tell; that's why we must shift the responsibility for reporting from the child to the adults."

The training sessions start out with definitions and explanations, asking: "What is a mandated reporter?" "What is the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law?" "How do I recognize the signs of abuse?" and "What are the reporting requirements?"

Participants in the sessions learn some surprising statistics. For instance, it is estimated that one in four girls and one in six boys in the United States will be sexually abused by the age of 18. Stephanie Flanagan, senior program coordinator for performance management in the Center for Workplace Learning and Performance and a mandated reporter trainer, also noted that more than 90 percent of juvenile sexual abuse victims know their abuser in some way.

Session leaders then delve into University policy and what is expected of participants in their roles as Penn State employees. For example, if abuse is suspected, the reporter's first step is to notify their program director/functional director, and then together they must call Pennsylvania's reporting ChildLine. In addition, the director will notify University Police, the University's general counsel and Office of Risk Management.

ChildLine's mission is to provide information, counseling and referral services for families and children to ensure the safety and well-being of the children of Pennsylvania. ChildLine accepts calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and each call is answered by a trained specialist. Actions include forwarding a report to a county agency for investigation as child abuse or general protective services; forwarding a report directly to law enforcement officials; or referring the caller to local social services, such as counseling, financial aid and legal services.

The employee and volunteer training session then focuses on how to recognize the possible signs of child abuse, how to respond to a child's disclosure of abuse, and the proper process to report any suspected abuse.

"The behaviors that we talk about are examples, of course, because the truth is that every child responds to abuse differently," said Flanagan. "Raising the awareness of adults in the child's environment -- that's what this training is about. Abuse is less likely to go unreported in an environment where children feel safe to talk to adults, and adults understand the signs and symptoms of abuse, and know how and when to report their suspicions."

Questions and concerns about reporting abuse, including protection that may be afforded to someone who does report abuse, and the consequences of willfully not reporting abuse, are also addressed during the training. Finally, facilitators take the participants through several possible scenarios, asking "What would you do?" and prompting discussion and deeper thought by attendees, who may not otherwise have considered various situations.

Flanagan said the response from participants has been overwhelmingly positive, and feedback from the face-to-face sessions will be incorporated into the online training.

"A lot of people think they know what they would do when in this situation," she said. "But in reality, they may be shocked and confused about what to do next. The training helps them to know what they are required to do. We take the guesswork out of it."

Betsy VanNoy, prevention and training coordinator at Centre County Women's Resource Center, and a trainer, added, "Abuse is something that survives in silence. When you walk into a community that is talking about this issue -- that is taking concrete steps to prevent child abuse, and knows what to look for -- that sends a strong message to potential abusers."

Last Updated June 19, 2012