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Nursing News HighlightsNurses Leading Innovation

A Nurse’s Passion Inspires Innovative Child Abuse Screening Program

In observance of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, we’re sharing our interview with nurse innovator and educator Sheri Carson, DNP, CPNP-PC, who embraced the challenge of creating a comprehensive child abuse screening program and is hoping to inspire other nurses to bring their solutions forward.

Sheri Carson, DNP, CPNP-PC, always had an affinity for the health sciences. After helping care for her great-grandmother and volunteering as a candy striper in high school, she fell in love with nursing and embraced a career in pediatric nursing, combining her passions for health and children.

It was Sheri’s drive to help children, combined with her awareness of the national statistics on missed child abuse cases in emergency departments, that would motivate her to create a much-needed child abuse screening program. While nurses in the U.S. are trained and mandated to report child abuse, they are not mandated to screen. Her innovative framework helps healthcare workers identify the early signs of child abuse in healthcare settings, where many cases of child physical abuse often go undetected.

Now a full-time clinical instructor in the University of Arizona (UA) College of Nursing, we spoke to Sheri about developing her screening program, and how her experience has influenced the way she mentors and educates nurse leaders of tomorrow.

What inspired you to develop this innovative screening program for children?
I’ve worked in pediatrics my entire nursing career and really fell in love with the field. I later worked in an intermediate care unit and saw a lot of child abuse cases there, and to be honest I’m still haunted by a lot of what I saw. One of the first cases of child abuse I saw has stayed with me my whole life, and that was over 20 years ago.

After I became involved with our hospital's Child Abuse Review team in 2012, I became interested in improving child abuse screening and recognition statistics to reduce the risk of continued and escalating childhood abuse. In 2016, one of our pediatric emergency department attending physicians approached me and asked me if I would be willing to develop a screening program for the pediatric emergency department. I jumped at the chance to do so, as it was the opportunity I needed to develop something I so strongly believed in.

I was able to explore national and international research that existed for educational components, screenings, and tools, but after months of searching, I couldn’t find any comprehensive screening programs out there. We have a lot of resources for preventing abuse and that’s great —but it’s really not meeting or reducing the need for a program that identifies early cases of child physical abuse. I found that there is no program that addresses everything needed to identify child abuse cases. We have standardized protocols for evaluating and treating abuse, but no systematic protocol that gets us to that moment of identifying abuse.

In the United States, 5 children die every day from child abuse and neglect. And every year, over 6.5 million referrals are made to child protection agencies.[1] The U.S. has no standardized screening process to identify the early signs of child abuse in emergency departments across the country, which results in many cases of child physical abuse going unnoticed. Nurses are trained and mandated by federal law to report child abuse, but they are not mandated to screen. There are cases that we are missing because we don’t recognize the subtler signs of abuse, or abuse might not fit with the symptoms we are seeing. This is what I am working to change with my program.

[1] Child Abuse Statistics & Facts

What is the screening program you developed?
I wanted to create a comprehensive screening program, which would include provider education, use of a validated screening tool, and a systematic screening protocol, to see if it could help to increase screening for and recognition of child physical abuse in the emergency department.

The comprehensive, evidence-based screening program has three main components: a ‘validated screening tool’ to determine whether injuries are consistent with abuse, an educational component that prepares healthcare workers to screen for and recognize abuse, and a systematic screening protocol that guides nurses and other healthcare providers from the moment a child arrives in the emergency department until the result of the screening. The screening tool I used as part of my program was adapted from a validated child abuse screening tool developed in the Netherlands called the “Escape Instrument”, developed by Louwers et. al in 2012.[2] The title of protocol I created, which was copyrighted in 2018, is called the “Emergency Department Child Abuse Screening Protocol.”

By bringing together a previously validated screening tool with the educational session and Emergency Department Child Abuse Screening Protocol I developed, I was able to create a comprehensive child abuse screening program that helps to prepare and equip nurses and healthcare professionals with the resources they need to confidently screen for and recognize cases of child physical abuse.

[2] Louwers, E., Korfage, I., & Affourtit, M. (2012). Effects of Systematic Screening and Detection of Child Abuse in Emergency Departments. Pediatrics,130(3). Retrieved from

You were recently named “Nurse of the Week” by for your program. How does it feel?
It’s a gift to be able to mentor the next generation of nurses. It’s also a gift to be invited into people’s families to take care of the entire family unit in the ways that I have. But there’s still so much work to be done. I’ve been asked to give interviews and I’ve kind of pushed back because they wanted to focus on my award and not the solution. We need to focus on getting funding and grants to develop more screening programs, and legislators need to hear the need for these screenings. I’m so glad that I’ve been contacted by nurses and healthcare administrators across the country seeking to implement this in their hospitals. This needs to expand beyond my local medical center. I want there to be screening programs mandated in every hospital in the United States.

Do you have any advice for nurses with great ideas of their own?
Find your passion. Do your research and due diligence. Don’t think of it as another project but take the time to look at the evidence and what has or has not worked in the past, identify the risk factors and get into the literature.

Unexpected things are going happen, and some might not be easy—staffing challenges, monetary or organizational constraints— but you have to persevere. I tell my students to take a leap of faith, hope for the best, and don’t be afraid of failure. It took months for me to finalize my screening program, and now I’m being asked to give presentations on my work both locally and at national conferences. Based on the results of my project, the overarching health system for my hospital is now in the process of developing and implementing a standardized process for all their hospitals in Arizona, not just our local medical center. I was recently told that at a Texas Governor’s Emergency and Trauma Advisory Council meeting they passed mandatory pediatric screening for abuse. I’m so proud that my work is generating awareness about the need to screen and is contributing to real solutions.

Solving today’s healthcare problems takes new perspective, and nurses are best positioned to offer this perspective. But it also takes confidence. Nurses should find the people who will support them and their ideas, because that is key to making their solutions reality.

In addition to working as a full-time clinical instructor at The University of Arizona College of Nursing, Sheri Carson is also a per diem Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, Northwest Urgent Care at Orange Grove in Tucson, Arizona and is a volunteer Pediatric Nurse Practitioner for the University of Arizona College of Medicine's Tot Shots Clinics as part of the Commitment to Underserved People [CUP] program), where they provide free sports physicals and immunizations to underserved children throughout Pima county.

Sheri Carson’s work was published in the Journal of Emergency Nursing in November 2018. You can learn more and read her published article here.

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