Child abuse reports made by teachers are on the rise in Carroll County

November 25, 1993|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

Are Carroll County teachers doing a better job of discovering child abuse or just overreacting to increased publicity that reminds them they have to report it?

The answer may be a little of both, according to social services and school officials.

Carroll County social workers, who have their hands full with an increase in reports of child abuse, are asking whether teachers and school staff can help them out by not calling them with referrals unless they really believe abuse has occurred.

"For the month of October, we had 104 calls -- more than double [the number in] the last three years for that month," said M. Alexander Jones, director of the Carroll County Department of Social Services. For the past three years, the department has gotten about 40 reports of abuse each October.

However, throughout 1993, the number of child abuse reports each month has been higher than in the previous years.

This year, through October, the agency has investigated 757 child abuse reports. The total in 1992 was 482, Mr. Jones said.

He presented the figures to the agency's board of directors at its monthly meeting Tuesday.

Teachers attended training sessions last spring and again in September to heighten their awareness of child abuse symptoms and state-mandated reporting requirements.

School officials statewide also have reminded teachers over the past few weeks of their legal obligation to report suspected abuse. The state Department of Education told local officials to do so after allegations that Anne Arundel school staff knew of sexual abuse by teacher Ronald Walter Price but did not act on it.

Before he tells teachers to back off, Edwin Davis wants to see some data that show whether the percentage of invalid child abuse reports from teachers has gone up. Mr. Davis is director of pupil services for Carroll's schools.

Alan L. Katz, assistant director of the Carroll Department of Social Services, said he didn't have the data immediately available but would gather it for Mr. Davis.

Coupled with an increasing number of reports that are valid, Social Services workers have been scrambling to investigate all the reported cases, Mr. Jones said.

He said the number of reports has increased to the point that social workers are unable to meet the state mandate of making an initial investigation into each reported case within 24 hours.

"I'm not saying we are leaving a child at risk of serious harm," Mr. Jones said. "We are triaging calls. The most critical get their attention now."

The increase in child abuse reports did not begin last month, however.

Since January, the number of calls of abuse each month has been higher than in the same months in previous years, according to figures Mr. Jones gave the board yesterday.

"I don't know all the reasons, but I do know one," Mr. Jones said, referring to the publicity over the Price case and statewide efforts to educate teachers on their obligations.

But some teachers may be overreacting and reporting abuse based on hunches, Mr. Jones said. For example, he said, in two cases children told teachers that they had fallen out of bunk beds. Another child had a mark on the arm.

In those cases, Mr. Jones said, there were no allegations of abuse by the children and not enough evidence for Social Services to start an investigation.

Some cases are not valid and not investigated -- for example, when a person calls to claim abuse because a child was spanked, Mr. Katz said. Spanking is not abuse under Maryland law, he said.

Mr. Davis said that teachers already are told they shouldn't report possible abuse unless they believe it really happened.

"If they say, 'I don't think it happened, but someone else may,' that's not a valid reason," Mr. Davis said.

If teachers have nothing more than a hunch, they can ask a child some non-leading questions in an attempt to get more information, or they can go to a school counselor or principal and suggest that one of them look into the situation.

But if teachers believe there is abuse, they must report it by calling Social Services themselves, regardless of what the counselor or principal says, Mr. Davis said.

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