Safeguarding OUR Children Who are Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing from Maltreatment

The Issue

As uncomfortable as the topic of abuse and neglect is, academic success and childhood safety go hand in hand. Children who are hungry, hurt or scared cannot concentrate on learning. As a result, child safety must be our first concern.

We read reports of child maltreatment (i.e. abuse and neglect) daily. These parental and community risk factors make children more vulnerable to maltreatment: disruptions in attachment, social isolation, lack of understanding of child development/unique needs, family dissolution, violence, criminality, drug or alcohol abuse or living in high poverty areas.

What is not reported is that children with disabilities face a three to four times greater likelihood of maltreatment than typically developing peers. While 27% of children with disabilities experience maltreatment before age 18, far more go undocumented. When child protective services is contacted, errors in best practices occur frequently, e.g., incidents should be investigated with expertise around deafness.

What we know

A child is most often maltreated by individuals they know (e.g., parents, relatives, “boyfriends” and other nonbiological caregivers, older children, neighbors, clergy, teachers, bus drivers, etc.) As a result, parents and professionals can follow these intervention strategies to limit a child’s maltreatment exposure:
  • Foster understanding of communication differences
  • Promote pragmatic language competencies (e.g., effectively sharing details about who, when, what, and where of daily experiences),
  • Reduce loneliness (e.g., age-appropriate, communicatively competent peers),
  • Enhance social maturity (e.g., ability to identify and avoid “risky” situations);
  • Understand what constitutes maltreatment, the right to say “No”, and what to do next if that right is not respected;
  • Support understanding of emerging sexuality;
  • Support the growing independence and self-determination; and
  • Parents and professionals understand the risk of maltreatment and how to safeguard children who are DHH.
Incorporating these strategies leads to successful social, linguistic, and academic outcomes. Given that babies and toddlers face the highest risk of maltreatment, early interventionists should be particularly aware of risks and intervention strategies.

What we don’t know

Navigating from awareness to targeted prevention or responsive actions within programs serving families is tricky. A critical mass of people with knowledge related to maltreatment and deafness is needed before we can effectively move into action. One-way Hands & Voices, a parent advocacy organization in the United States, has tackled this issue is by developing O.U.R. (Observe, Understand, and Respond) Children Safety and Success Project. O.U.R. needs assistance in discovering “Bright Spots”, those who are working or willing to work to address child maltreatment, to support needed action.

In addition, research identifying which maltreatment prevention curricula and teacher preparation program standards are effective in providing children who are DHH, their parents and the professionals who work with them the knowledge and skills needed to prevent, avoid or when necessary respond to maltreatment situations is required.

While the Centers for Disease Control Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) studies establish that child maltreatment effects last through adulthood, there is insufficient research concerning children and adults who are DHH. In addition, the long-term effects of trauma-informed practices focusing on “what has happened to this child” versus “what is wrong with this child?” Is unknown.


  1. Professionals and parents must enhance maltreatment recognition and reporting, while focusing on prevention and response.
  2. Professional preparation programs must embed effective maltreatment recognition and response curricula concerning children who are DHH.
  3. Efforts to educate families and the professionals they work with through use of the Hands & Voices Parent Safety Toolkit and other strategies is critical.
  4. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education acknowledges the need for additional research concerning child maltreatment, prevention, and response.
  5. Deafness-related organizations should collaborate with larger Deafness-related organizations to encourage policy change. An example is Hands and Voices working with the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), Division for Communication, Language, and DHH to actualize the recent CEC policy statement concerning prevention and response to child maltreatment.

We know we must move from recognition and reporting to prevention and response. Since 2009, Hands & Voices parents have led efforts to understand and prevent maltreatment of children who are DHH. Further collaboration between parents and professionals is needed to create systemic change for the safety and success for O.U.R. children.

Posted on July 12, 2019 by
Sara Kennedy, Parent

Harold Johnson, Ed. D.
Hands & Voices


Further reading