Courier Times: Op-Ed – When children are in danger, there is no room for confusion

As I read the (March 29) article “How Pa law made it easy for schools to avoid abuse allegations”, I found myself reflecting on ways that school employees can, and do, make a difference in keeping kids safe. Yes, there have been many positive changes to the Child Protective Services Law in the past 30 years. Each one has strengthened child protection efforts by addressing loopholes and bringing clarity to issues that were historically ambiguous for those required by law to report child abuse. However, protecting our children requires more than solid child protection legislation.

As the Director of Programs at Pa Family Support Alliance (PFSA), a statewide non-profit organization that is dedicated to preventing child abuse, we support a three-pronged approach to making Pennsylvania safe for children. First, for agencies and institutions that serve children, like schools and daycares, they must ensure that all their staff members have received thorough background checks and clearances. Second, they should create strong child protection policies that use known prevention strategies. Third, they should require that their staff members receive comprehensive and continuous trainings regarding child abuse, so they understand what the warning signs of abuse are, what constitutes grooming behavior, and when to make a report of suspected child abuse to Pennsylvania’s ChildLine. These three things help create a culture of child protection within the school, especially when combined with ongoing prevention education, training and reinforcement.

Towards that end, Act 126 was enacted in 2012 and requires training for all school employees on how to recognize and report suspected child abuse. This training requirement was a good start. However, receiving quality, live training by experts in the child welfare field is the best option for fulfilling this requirement. This type of training enables school employees to have live interaction with trainers where they can ask questions and get immediate answers from subject matter experts.

As a mandated reporter for the past 20 years, I know the benefit of quality training. There is no replacement for learning from trainers that have dedicated their entire careers to learning and applying the Child Protective Services Law and keeping children safe. In fact, this level of quality training is why I joined the team at PFSA, where I oversee the Mandated Reporter Training program. Our training titled “Recognizing and Reporting Child Abuse” teaches mandated reporters what child abuse is, equips them to recognize the warning signs, and clarifies when and how to report suspected child abuse. An additional training titled “Responding to Disclosures of Child Abuse” helps mandated reporters know how best to respond at the time a child makes a disclosure of suspected child abuse. Both curriculums are available live and daily — at no cost — to any mandated reporter in Pennsylvania.

The tragic allegations of abuse involving former choir teacher Joseph Ohrt at a Central Bucks elementary school should serve as a lesson to all of us: when children are in danger, there is no room for confusion. Year after year, decade after decade, it appears that many teachers and school administrators were concerned about Ohrt’s behavior but did not understand what actions they could have taken. Our children deserve to grow up in an environment that is free from abuse and neglect.

That is why it is vitally important for teachers and school administrators to receive quality training on child abuse recognition and reporting — so they are prepared and confident to take action to stop abuse when it does occur.

Our trainings are approved by the departments of Human Services, Education and State and meet all requirements for mandated reporter training (including Act 126 for school employees), along with continuing education credits under Act 31 and Act 48. For school districts, administrators, and teachers interested in how they can enroll, please visit our website or email me at [email protected].

Haven Evans is the Director of Programs at Pa Family Support Alliance and has served in this role since 2016. She has over twelve of experience working in the child welfare field. She is a graduate of Messiah College and is currently earning her master’s degree from Penn State University.

From Courier Times, April 3, 2022

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