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Who are the Bright Spots in Your Community?

By Harold Johnson

A young boy holds his hands up which are brightly painted with many colors.

Raise the topic of child maltreatment and a common response is often "Oh, that is just too horrible to think about, I'd rather discuss something else." I usually respond, "Yes, it is a tough topic, but the less we discuss it, the more likely children with disabilities are to experience it."

In April of 2010 DCMP published an article entitled "Child Abuse and Neglect: CA/N." The article asked readers to: 1) watch a brief video, i.e., The 11th Commandment; 2) read a two page document discussing how to recognize the signs of maltreatment; and most importantly, 3) call the Childhelp Hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD) if they suspect a child is being maltreated.

Note: Since the 2010 DCMP article was published, Childhelp has established a special hotline number to report possible instances of child maltreatment as experienced by children who are deaf/hard of hearing, i.e., 1-800-222-4453.

During the course of the past year, a significant number of presentations have been provided to parent and professional organizations concerning the incidence, indicators, risk factors, and prevention of child abuse and neglect as experienced by children with disabilities. This 2011 DCMP article will focus upon two key elements of those presentations: "Why are children with disabilities at increased risk for maltreatment?" and "What can YOU do to help?"

Why are children with disabilities at increased risk for maltreatment?

In 2008 the Oregon Project Ability: Demystifying Disability in Child Abuse Interviewing was published. The publication focused upon guidelines for conducting forensic interviews of children with disabilities that were suspected to be victims of maltreatment. As a prelude to the interview guidelines, the publication noted the maltreatment risk factors experienced by children with disabilities:

  • The child is taught to follow the rules.
  • The child is taught obedience/compliance.
  • Impaired communication may limit a child's ability to disclose abuse.
  • Many children have an absence of privacy (residential care) or are isolated (home care).
  • The child has not received education on sexuality.
  • The child has had a lack of education on self-protection.
  • Some forms of therapy can be painful (injections, physical therapy), and the child may not be able to differentiate appropriate pain from inappropriate pain.
  • The child may be accustomed to having his body touched by adults on a regular basis for dressing and hygiene due to increased number of caregivers. (p. 7)

Project Ability authors, citing the 1998 work of Steinberg and Hylton, summarized the maltreatment risk factors as a "Cascade of Injustices," i.e.,

  • Not having the abuse recognized as wrong
  • Not being able to disclose the abuse
  • Not having a disclosure understood or believed
  • Not having the abuse reported
  • Not having the reports investigated
  • Not having investigations lead to trial
  • Not being recognized by the courts as a competent witness
  • Not receiving therapy for the effects of abuse
  • Not having the therapy appropriate to their needs (p. 8)

This information indicates that children with disabilities experience an increased risk for maltreatment because they: a) do not know they can say "NO!" to an abusive situation; b) do not possess the necessary communication skills to be believed when they report that they have experienced abuse; and c) do not have needed knowledge concerning what constitutes maltreatment, their own sexuality, or self-protection. The information also indicates that the "system," i.e., medical, educational, child protective services, and legal are inadequately prepared to effectively understand, or respond, to children with disabilities that are suspected/confirmed victims of maltreatment. This lack of knowledge constitutes a critical barrier to preventing and reducing the incidence, duration, and impact of maltreatment experienced by children with disabilities.

What can YOU do to help?

"Bright Spot" is a term coined by the authors of Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard to describe situations, or individuals, that are effectively addressing what is otherwise considered to be an insurmountable problem. This "Bright Spot" concept is now being used to gather needed knowledge to prevent and respond to instances of maltreatment experienced by children with disabilities. During the course of the past year a collaborative effort has been initiated to identify, document, and share the identity, knowledge, resources, and interests of individuals with expertise in both children with disabilities and maltreatment, i.e., "Bright Spots." The "Bright Spot Project" uses the ooVoo video conferencing technology to conduct and record "Bright Spot" interviews. The interviews use brief * *video segments to share "Bright Spot" information regarding: a) frequently encountered problems and solutions in working with children with disabilities who are suspected/confirmed victims of maltreatment; b) key informational resources; and c) areas of topical resource.

Note: Captions have yet to be added to the "Bright Spot" videos. The lack of captioning reflects a lack of funding, not a lack of understanding, or respect. Captions will be added if funding for this project can be secured.

To date, "Bright Spots" have provided information on the following topics:

This information, combined with the "Bright Spot" resources and areas of topical resource, as supported by the "O.U.R. Children Coalition" wiki, constitutes a novel and efficient mechanism to document and share critical knowledge needed to reduce children with disabilities risk for maltreatment. YOUR help is requested to identify "Bright Spots" in your community. Once identified, simply nominate them by sending an email message to Dr. Harold Johnson/Bright Spot Project Director ( Dr. Johnson will then contact the nominated individual, explain the "Bright Spot Project" to them, and determine if they would like to participate in this effort to decrease the maltreatment risks experienced by children with disabilities.

WE can protect children with disabilities from maltreatment, but to do so we MUST talk about this topic, we MUST become informed, we MUST identify our "Bright Spots" and most importantly, we MUST call 1-800-222-4453 when we suspect a child is being maltreated. If not us, then who....?

About the Author

Harold Johnson is a professor of special education (deaf/hard of hearing) at Michigan State University (MSU). Prior to his arrival at MSU, he was a professor at Kent State University (1980-2006), a public school administrator (1975-1977) and a teacher of students who were deaf/hard of hearing (1971-1975). His research focuses upon how web-based technologies and resources can be used to reduce isolation, facilitate collaboration, recognize excellence and enhance teaching/learning within K-20 deaf education. He is now focusing his research efforts on the incidence and impact of child abuse and neglect as experienced by children who are deaf/hard of hearing.
517-432-3926 [Voice] [Video phone]

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