I was speaking to an elementary teacher the other day and she provided some insights into how her job relates to the child welfare system. She works as a special education teacher in the South, and her job is often frustrating because she deals with parents on a daily basis who have difficulty meeting the basic needs of their children. It's hard for her to know when to bring up issues such as a child never wearing the right shoes to school to participate in PE or having roaches in his backpack. These are scenarios that occur but aren't necessarily meeting the conditions of child abuse or neglect. Her job is challenging because she must maintain a close relationship with students' parents but she must also report them when they falter.
Thank God for Teachers
In general, teachers are a life-saving force in the sense that, like parents, they can usually detect small changes in a child's routine. They are sensitive to a child's likes and dislikes and when his mood is not normal for him. When things are going well at home, a child will generally be happier a school. When things are stressful or downright traumatic at home, a child could begin to act out. Sometimes, the latter is a cry for attention. Other times, it is a child attempting to control a situation while feeling powerless to control things at home. This could occur in ways that are easy to understand or in more subtle ways, but they are enough to keep a teacher awake at night. Why? That's because many teachers like her only feel successful when they can maintain a classroom environment where a child can learn. If a child comes to school with so many problems at home that a teacher cannot control or understand, there is a limit to what can occur in the classroom. She can just do her best to love and support that child and provide stability and access to learning when the child is able to function.
What the Future Should Look Like
So, I thought to myself that I'm glad that teachers are mandatory reporters. They have a legal responsibility to report suspected abuse of a child to their state's authorities. Oftentimes, the teacher told me that she will make a call because she does not know if what a child is telling her means anything is going on at home that constitutes abuse or neglect, but she'd rather err on the side of the child. I am glad that our nation's children have access to teachers like her who really care about kids and are willing to advocate on a child's behalf even when doing so could bring professional consequences. In her case, not doing so has legal consequences. I imagine a future in which the people supporting the child welfare system have clearer channels of communication. As a teacher, she would like to see that someone followed up on a child's case. Instead, her current system has the reporting mechanism, but she could continue to work with the same child for years and not know if someone ever investigated the home or ensured that the issues were resolved.
Action is Key
Whether youngsters end up in the child welfare system or not, trauma affects their physical, emotional, social, and mental wellbeing. They cannot undo the effects of being exposed to trauma. In the best-case scenario, children get access to counseling and to live in a different environment where they can heal from traumatic experiences. If they will be returned to their parents, which is the goal of the system, hopefully, this happens after their parents have received the tools to cope with their problems. Teachers are definitely stakeholders in the system and have good reasons to want it to change. They can seek more training, including evidence-based research on trauma and skills for non-clinicians who work with children who have suffered from trauma by contacting the Good Harbor Institute. If one teacher can go to a training and then share what she learns with her colleagues at her school, then she can start a domino effect within her local system.
Shenandoah Chefalo is a former foster youth, and advocate. She is the author of the memoir, Garbage Bag Suitcase, and co-founder of Good Harbor Institute an organization focused on translating evidence based research on trauma into skills that can be used immediately by individuals and organizations. You can learn more about her and her work at Garbage Bag Suitcase or Good Harbor Institute