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Changing Systems to Protect Kids with Disabilities From Maltreatment


The article below was written by Kidpower Board Member Dr. Harold Johnson, Emeritus Professor of Education at Kent State University. For many years, Harold has been a passionate advocate for protecting the well being of children with disabilities.

Thanks to Harold’s leadership, personal safety knowledge and skills are becoming a much higher priority in the special education field. He has raised awareness of the need by providing documentation of the increased vulnerability of children with disabilities to different forms of maltreatment, including bullying, abuse, violence, and neglect.

In the United States, children with disabilities and their parents are required by law to have fair and equitable treatment. Individual Family Service Plans (IFSP) and Individual Education Plans (IEP) are developed for children and teens identified as having special needs – and become the basis for services that are provided to these young people and their families. Harold is leading a coalition of organizations in working together to enhance the field of special education by having personal safety objectives included in these plans.

The article below provides an overview of his work and has important information for anyone involved in special education or in advocating for the safety and success of young people with disabilities. We are very honored that Harold sees Kidpower as providing essential resources for families, schools, and organizations in implementing these objectives once they have been established.

Changing Systems to Protect Kids with Disabilities From Maltreatment
Harold A. Johnson, Ed.D.

Children with disabilities are among the most vulnerable members of society. This vulnerability is grounded in the reality that many of the children are both socially isolated and lonely. Many do not know they have the right to say “NO” and lack sufficient language skills to effectively share their emotions. Many children with disabilities also lack sufficient language skills to share who, when, where and what of their day-to-day experiences. Similarly, many of the children do not know how to recognize “risky situations,” do not understand what constitutes maltreatment, or what to do if someone scares, hurts, or threatens them. Finally, many children with disabilities do not understand their own emerging sexuality. As a result, children with disabilities are three to four times more likely to experience maltreatment as their nondisabled peers (Sullivan & Knutson, 2000).

Existing data further indicates that 25+% of children with disabilities will experience one or more forms of maltreatment between birth and 18 years of age (Jones, et al 2012). Unfortunately, most parents of children with disabilities, the professionals who work with them, and society as a whole are generally unaware of the children’s significantly higher risk for maltreatment.

This lack of awareness serves to increase both the duration and impact of maltreatment experienced by children with disabilities. The resulting degradation of the children’s health, behavior, language, and learning significantly diminishes their academic performance and success (Shakeshaft, 2004; Sullivan & Knutson, 2000; Wang & Holton, 2007; Willis & Vernon, 2002). The problem is systemic throughout the U.S. and must be addressed accordingly.

The Federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) dictates how U.S. children with disabilities are to be identified, assessed and educated. The law also prescribes procedural safeguards to ensure fair and equitable treatment of the children and their parents. The law further requires that the education programming of every children with disabilities be established via an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) (ages birth through 3 yrs.) or an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) (4-21 yrs.).

A growing collation of professional (DCDD & ACE DHH), parent (Hands & Voices), and prevention (Kidpower) organizations, are exploring the use of IFSPs and IEPs to prevent the maltreatment of children with disabilities. The coalition, under the heading of the “O.U.R. Children Project,” has developed a number of resources to guide parents and professionals as they assess, and then plan for the safety of children with disabilities. Documents such as “Silence is NOT an Option.” the “Safety Checklist” and “7 Kidpower Strategies for Keeping Your Child Safe” serve to increase awareness and understanding, while providing specific maltreatment prevention strategies and resources.

The resulting effort is described as “A U.S. Model for Policy, Planning, Professional Development and Collaboration.” Efforts are now underway to use the coalition, documents and model to enhance the entire U.S. field of Special Education via collaborative efforts with the nation’s largest organization of special education professionals, i.e., the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC). This effort is supported by a 4/12/16 motion by the CEC Interdivisional Caucus (IDC) and Resident Assembly (RA) “requests that the CEC Board of Directors recognize the urgency of the issue of maltreatment and trauma of children with disabilities. IDC urges the Board to take action through the development of a CEC position paper in order to positively impact the welfare of children and family.”

The motion, passed with strong and inclusive support by the leaders of CEC’s 17 Special Interest Divisions and CEC State Chapter representatives, provides an opening to enhance the maltreatment prevention vision, policy, standards, advocacy and professional development of the entire field of special education. If the CEC effort is successful, the “O.U.R. Children Project” coalition, documents, and resources will grow and evolve to a level that the U.S. education of children with disabilities will consistently and systematically include maltreatment prevention. The Kidpower community and knowledge base are uniquely situated to provide children, parents, professionals and schools with the critical knowledge and skills needed to inform the targeted prevention work. Together we can make a difference for ALL children, but especially those in greatest need of our understanding and care, i.e., children with disabilities.