Teachers Key in Identifying Neglect Cases

This month, law enforcement will hear about more cases of child neglect than any other month - 20 to 30-percent more. It comes down to two things: trust and teachers.

Most students have been in class for six-to-eight weeks now. It's enough time for youngsters to develop a relationship with their school teachers.

A simple observation can lead to a number of follow-up questions.

"Many times the teacher notices multiple days without a coat," said Gene Klein, executive director of Project Harmony.

Because the student now trusts their teacher or school staff member, they open up about life at home.

And sometimes the trouble signs are more obvious.

"We had an example once where a mom didn't come home one night," said Dr. Suzanne Haney, a child abuse pediatrician. "The two oldest kids actually took the youngest to school with them, because they knew that youngest child couldn't be home alone."

Recognizing a need to help all levels of investigators understand what they see on a home visit, last fall Project Harmony created a training version of a home with plenty of challenges. The rooms spin around showing different problems they may encounter.

"It also helps us focus on what are the things we can do to help this family," said Klein.

But is a dirty home - a dangerous one? That's what the experts try to sift through.

Perhaps the family is on the edge of poverty and just needs some support....or maybe there's mental health or substance abuse issues and the children aren't safe in this environment.

"We tend to think that sexual or physical abuse of a child will have a greater impact on a child," said Klein, "But kids living in a very chaotic and unsafe home has just as much trauma impact as a physical or sexual abuse crime."

The community is also critical in protecting children.

Experts say some people are hesitant about calling the child abuse hotline because they feel they don't know the whole story.

What you don't know, say investigators, is that you could be the first or the tenth caller.

To report child abuse in Nebraska - the hotline number is 1-800-652-1999.

In Iowa - 1-800-362-2178.

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