Acting to protect youths in Carroll from abuse

Video: Teachers, doctors and parents are shown how to recognize and report suspected child sexual abuse.

September 04, 2005|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

Courting the attention of no one in particular, the young girl dressed in knee-high boots, a miniskirt and heavy makeup saunters along the pathway that snakes alongside the basketball courts at a Westminster playground.

Although her provocative attire suggests there is more to her story, this much is clear: the carefree days of a 10-year-old seem to have eluded the pretty fifth-grader.

Fortunately, for Rachel Kotmair of Westminster, it's all an act.

On a recent sunny day, the scene is captured on camera for It's Up To Us, an instructional video that will be used to train teachers, doctors, ministers and community organizations, such as local parent-teacher associations, about the importance of reporting suspected child sexual abuse.

With schools across the county opening their doors to students last week, school officials are teaming up with local and state departments of social services to remind adults - including teachers and doctors - about their legal obligation to report suspected abuse.

"We want to give people concrete examples of things that would be reportable," said Michael McGrew, supervisor of school psychology and special projects for the Carroll County school system. "It's up to anyone in the school system to gather as much evidence, but only as much as is needed, to lead you to suspect abuse."

He said teachers have to understand that they are at a greater risk for not reporting suspicions because they are considered "mandated reporters" under the law. Health practitioners, police officers, educators and human service workers are considered mandated reporters, which means the law requires them to report suspected abuse.

"The video will deal with the limits of confidentiality and explain the steps that should be followed in reporting suspected abuse" as well as what happens after suspicions are reported, he said.

After suspicions are reported to the local Department of Social Services, they are reviewed to determine whether they fall within the parameters of what DSS officials are allowed to investigate, said Lynn Wisner, the department's child protective services administrator.

"By law, we are required to notify the police [within 24 hours] of all sex and physical abuse cases we plan to investigate," she said.

McGrew said the decision to investigate reported suspicions belongs to the Department of Social Services.

The purpose of the video is to stress the need to report - not investigate - suspicions to social services officials and to not overlook key clues such as a child's demeanor or the appearance of bruises, he said.

"We want people to know what to look for and how to respond," he said.

Supplemental tool

School officials provide some training during orientation for new teachers, but McGrew said he hopes the video will be a supplemental tool for school employees to help them better understand what is expected of them.

He said the 17-minute video - about 43 scenes taped during the summer with about 60 children, administrators, doctors and other people throughout the community as actors - provides examples of reportable circumstances.

State, local funds

The video was produced with funds from state and local departments of social services, in partnership with the county school system.

In one scene filmed in an elementary school classroom, a teacher notices that a student has a black eye. The teacher inquires about the girl's injury, but the sullen girl says she doesn't want to get her mother in trouble by talking about it. The teacher explains that she has to make an effort to help the girl and tries to persuade her to see the school nurse.

Another scene shows Rachel Kotmair's character at a doctor's office where the nurse becomes suspicious of the girl's flirtatious behavior. She decides it might be a sign that the girl has been sexually abused and reports her suspicion to the doctor.

In other scenes, the film depicts situations that are less obvious in an effort to encourage people to take notice of a child's demeanor and mannerisms.

"If a kid looks upset, it doesn't necessarily mean he has been abused, but it's something to consider," said Jenna Trumpower, 18, a communications major at Salisbury University who was a production assistant with the school system this summer.

"You have to be a good observer and identify signs that indicate abuse and neglect," said Trumpower, a 2004 graduate of North Carroll High School in Hampstead. "You can pick up clues from [children's] expressions."

Statewide interest

The video was produced in Carroll County, but the state Department of Social Services has expressed interest in distributing it to school districts across the state, said Pat Flaherty, the station manager for Carroll Educational Television, the school system's public broadcast channel.

"There are three [main segments], two of which are general," Flaherty said while shooting scenes at the playground. "But if another county wanted to use the video, they could tack on their own local piece in place of the third at the end," which is specific to Carroll County.

Taping was completed at the end of last month, and school officials hope to have the video ready for schools by early fall for teacher training, McGrew said.

Wisner, who said that her department is considering ways to provide community access to copies of the video, added that the video serves as a reminder that "it's not just DSS' responsibility, but the whole community's responsibility, to watch out for our children."

"We're hoping the video opens the lines of communications," she said. "We're not out there all the time, so we rely on the community to be our eyes and ears."

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