As students were gearing up for winter break last December, a little girl at a North Texas middle school told a teacher she didn’t want to visit family because an older cousin sexually molested her.
The teacher immediately reported the outcry to Child Protective Services, the state agency charged with protecting our children. And she worked with a school counselor and law enforcement officer to make sure the student would be safe during the holidays.
Although the teacher never learned of the CPS investigation’s outcome, she fulfilled her responsibility as an educator to report suspected child abuse or neglect.
Nationally, about 1 in 10 children experience child sexual abuse before they turn 18, according to Alliance For Children, a child advocacy center in Tarrant County. And most often, educators or school personnel are the ones reporting the abuse. In fiscal year 2016, CPS received reports of 293,148 allegations of abuse. Of those, 56,980 cases — or 19 percent — were reported by a school employee. Medical personnel were the second-highest group to alert CPS, with 54,630 reports.
A child’s cry for help emerges in different ways. Sometimes it is written on a note, depicted in artwork or posted on social media. An attuned teacher can notice subtle mood or appearance changes that indicate suffering, said Jamie Farber, director of guidance and counseling for the Northwest school district.
“They spend a lot of time with us at school,” Farber said. “I am always wanting to know why — what is behind the behavior.”
Child advocates said it’s important to teach youngsters about how danger can lurk among the people they love and trust.
“It’s easy to let something grow when its hiding in the dark. You expose it to the light, it is a lot harder to get away with things. Education exposes things,” said three-time Olympic medalist Margaret Hoelzer, who promotes the need for child abuse prevention by sharing her experience as a victim of sexual abuse by an acquaintance.
Teacher training, coupled with increased child abuse prevention awareness, is making a difference, said Katia Gonzalez, a community outreach coordinator with Alliance For Children. Gonzalez said that while Tarrant County ranks No. 2 in confirmed abuse cases in Texas, the number of victims declined by more than 1,000, from 6,213 in fiscal year 2015 to 5,162 for 2016, according to Child Protective Services data.
“We know prevention education is working and that we, as a Tarrant County community, are embracing the fact that we need to take action to make sure child abuse is eradicated,” Gonzalez said.
‘It is my responsibility’
Texas’ Family Code requires that anyone who suspects child abuse or neglect must report it to law enforcement or the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Some careers — such as teachers, doctors and day care employees — lead to employees being enlisted as “professional reporters” because they work with children. These professionals are required to report suspected child abuse or neglect within 48 hours of discovery.
In Texas, state law mandates that every adult should report reasonable suspicion of abuse.
“Even if I am just regular Jane Doe and I find out information, it is my responsibility to let somebody know,” said Stacey Lewis, counseling services supervisor at Lena Pope, a Fort Worth-based nonprofit that employs counseling and education as a foundation to help families stay together.
“You may be the only person that has that information, and there may be kids getting hurt. There may be families getting hurt,” Lewis said.
Samantha Jordan, spokesman for the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, said the misdemeanor offense of failure to make a child abuse report does not come up very often.
However, “when it’s believed an adult knowingly refused to report a situation ... we try to pursue a higher-level felony by charging them with the offense of endangering a child or as a party to the abuse itself, which carries a much higher punishment range,” Jordan said.
Jordan pointed to the case of a mother who was charged with sexual abuse of a child because she would knowingly leave her young daughter in the care of her boyfriend in exchange for the boyfriend supplying her with meth. The boyfriend would then molest the girl. In 2015, the mother was found guilty of sexual abuse of a child under 14 and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Many times people who are aware of child abuse don’t know what to do, Lewis said, especially when the perpetrator is a parent or sibling.
“We get a lot of families that call [Lena Pope]... that the first call should have been to Child Protective Services,” Lewis said, explaining that people typically say they wanted to find help for a victim.
Often, people don’t want to bring attention to their own families, especially when they are dependent on the abuser for food, housing and transportation.
“Even though the trauma is so bad, most victims have a reservation about making the outcry because the outcry will create such havoc between their own family dynamics,” said Megan Guidry, a counselor at Granbury Middle School.
‘More eyes on the kids’
Michael Hill, assistant superintendent for administration at the Arlington school district, said the state, through legislation known as Jenna’s Law, also requires that teachers and school employees know the signs of child abuse. That law, named for sexual abuse survivor Jenna Quinn, went into effect in September 2009.
Arlington schools recently expanded the training to include all teachers and staff, including bus drivers and janitorial workers.
“There are more eyes on the kids and people know what signs to look for,” Hill said.
Kim Rocha, a former spokeswoman for Alliance For Children, said while the state mandates teachers receive training in child abuse and sexual abuse prevention and recognition, “what that training looks like is not mandated.” That means that the training format can vary from district to district. Many school districts turn to a child advocacy center for the training, which can be offered online or in sessions that include victim testimonials and how to identify signs of abuse.
Alliance For Children offers training to area school districts, including Fort Worth, Hurst-Euless-Bedford, Birdville and Northwest. Educators receive a certificate at the end of the training.
Rocha said teachers are taught to call 911 if a child is in imminent danger. They’re also urged not to alert the child’s parents, especially if they are the alleged abusers. And teachers are taught to limit their questioning of a child making an outcry of abuse, so as not to impede on investigations by police and CPS.
“We’re seeing changes in the ISDs to where they realize a three-page PowerPoint is not making anybody do the right thing,” Rocha said. “It’s not empowering them. It’s not inspiring them to get involved. That’s kind of what our training is more about — empowering people.”
‘Not the stranger-danger thing’
Child abuse victims brave fear or uncertainty when they seek out help, and their outcries signal the first step toward healing.
Experts and child advocates say when a child outcries, the response needs to be simple and supportive.
“That kid picked you for a reason. Let them tell you their story,” said Rocha, explaining the foundation of training. “Don’t drag them down the hall to the counselor’s office, because they picked you for a reason.”
As school districts step up training of teachers and school employees, they also have moved to teach young people how to protect themselves.
In the Granbury school district, about 50 miles southwest of Fort Worth, the district uses grants from the Paluxy River Children’s Advocacy Center, an organization that serves Weatherford, Granbury and Stephenville, to teach youngsters about personal boundaries starting in prekindergarten.
“If they have been molested, it often has started when they were very young and they did not understand what was being violated and boundaries,” Guidry said.
Teaching child abuse prevention to children also helps them understand how to react when a friend makes an outcry to them, Guidry said.
Hopefully, the student who receives the outcry will tell a trusted teacher: “So and so told me this and I don’t understand it.”
Farber said it’s important to empower students, regardless of their age, by teaching them how to tell when someone is crossing a boundary, such as trying to manipulate or “groom” them for potential abuse.
“It’s not the stranger-danger thing,” Farber said, noting that most predators know their victims. “It is someone who has worked to form a relationship with that child or that family.”
Farber said the Northwest school district, which encompasses portions of Denton, Tarrant and Wise counties, is teaching children about prevention and builds on other programs aimed at internet safety, preventing bullying and supporting young people contemplating suicide.
“Prevention has become a higher focus,” she said.
Farber said the district has been marketing a tip line that young people can use to report any concerns. Sometimes, young people call to find out how they can help their friends.
“It is our responsibility as a school,” Farber said.
‘You need to go tell your mom’
Hoelzer, the Olympic swimmer, said she experienced inappropriate encounters with a close friend’s father between the ages of 5 and 7. The abuse ended when the man moved away.
“This was a man that I trusted — that my parents trusted,” Hoelzer says in a video produced by the national nonprofit Darkness to Light. The video testimony is included in the organization’s Stewards of Children training offered to area educators by Alliance For Children.
Years later, at age 11, Hoelzer shared the encounters with a friend, who responded: “You were molested?”
Hoelzer, who serves as spokesperson for the National Children’s Advocacy Center, said her friend knew how to respond to an outcry because she had learned about child abuse prevention at school.
The friend urged her to take action.
“You need to go tell your mom,” the friend said.
“That is a true testament as to why the education is important,” Hoelzer said in a recent telephone interview.
Hoelzer said family members need to know the signs of abuse and how to protect their children, including talking about personal boundaries and sexual abuse.
“It is just having those conversations, which are not easy,” Hoelzer said.
Hoelzer said that often, when she tells of her experience in a public setting, someone approaches her with his or her own experience. She said people want to share what happened to them.
“They want to know they are normal,” she said. “That’s the least I can do is let them know they are not alone. ... When you are going through it, you feel like you are alone.”
Staff writer Deanna Boyd contributed to this report.
Texas Health and Human Services has a 24-hour, seven days a week abuse hotline: 1-800-252-5400.
Abuse can also be reported online: txabusehotline.org