Steps to Take Now if You Suspect Child Abuse

by ParentCo. November 05, 2015

You've probably crossed paths with a child suffering from abuse. You might not have known it - kids are adept at hiding the signs. But what can you do about it if you suspect abuse?

According to Childhelp, "Every year more than 3 million reports of child abuse are made in the United States involving more than 6 million children (a report can include multiple children)." According to the CDC, 27% of abuse victims were aged three years and under. Even with these staggering numbers, child abuse remains underreported. Unfortunately, understanding the reality of child abuse and the laws around it was part of my previous life as summer camp Program Director, and from working for the YMCA and other school-age programs. To better recognize, prevent, and raise awareness of child abuse, here’s what you can do to help.

First, What Is Child Abuse?

Child abuse manifests in physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and neglect. It can be a singular incident or occur over time. Child abuse is regarded as:
  • injury
  • death
  • risk of physical or emotional harm
It is caused by the active or negligent behavior of parents, caregivers, or someone in a custodial relationship with the child such as a coach or teacher. Though child abuse certainly includes physical harm, the stress induced by maltreatment can cause delays in brain development, plus that of the nervous and immune systems, which then can lead greater issues such as alcoholism, chronic illness, and depression in adult life.

Recognizing Child Abuse

There are many physical and behavioral signs that indicate that a child may be suffering from each type of abuse. For example, for physical abuse (intentional injury to a child) the signs include visible injuries on different places of the body that a child may be unable to explain. A child suffering from physical abuse may demonstrate aggressive behavior and fear, wearing long-sleeves inappropriate to the weather, immaturity, and emotional or behavior issues. Alternatively, sexual abuse, which 29.7% of adults report as having experienced as children, can present itself in different manners and diverges from the signs of physical abuse. A child suffering sexual abuse may demonstrate physical signs such as having problems sitting or symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases. Behavioral signs include anxiety and aggression, not wanting to change clothes for gym class, nightmares and problems sleeping, or communicating a advanced understanding of sex towards peers or adults. Emotional abuse, related to mental and social development, typically occurs long-term and can include the humiliation, rejection, terrorization, or isolation of the child. Children experiencing emotional abuse may be developmentally delayed, have speech problems or learning disabilities, or health and weight issues in addition to between emotional extremes and exhibiting anti-social behavior. Child neglect occurs when the child does not receive the care and support necessary for his or her “health, safety and well-being.” Child neglect is characterized by physical, emotional, medical, and educational neglect. Though the signs of each type of neglect vary, neglect generally persists as part of an overall pattern. A child suffering from neglect may not have appropriately sized or weather-related clothing, is consistently hungry or tired, may be smaller than most kids the same age, or have medical problems that have not been taken care of.

Disclosing Child Abuse

Sometimes a child may try to disclose abuse in an indirect way, such as by saying it happened to a friend or that he or she had heard about abuse happening to someone else. If a child communicates that he or she has experienced abuse, be supporting and calm, and reassure the child that you believe what they have told you. Also, provide a supportive environment by listening without passing judgment. The most important questions to ask - if these answers are not clear after the initial disclosure – are what happened, where, when, and who did it as these are the most critical answers to communicate to authorities.

Reporting Child Abuse

Unfortunately, child abuse is often not reported due to inadequate awareness regarding abuse and neglect and respective state laws. People with good intentions also fear making a situation worse, or thinking that someone else will intervene.

What You Should Do

You should report suspected child abuse if you have "reasonable cause, suspicion or belief based on your observations." It's that simple.

Reporting abuse or neglect can protect a child and get help for a family it may even save a child's life.

Child Welfare Information Gateway recommends contacting Childhelp, a national organization that provides crisis assistance and other counseling and referral services. Childhelp is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with professional crisis counselors who have access to a database of 55,000 emergency, social service, and support resources. All calls are anonymous. Contact them at 1.800.4.A.CHILD (1.800.422.4453). You can also call your local child welfare agency, available at or contact 911 or local law enforcement in an emergency. In each State, there are different regulations regarding mandatory reporters who are required by law to report child abuse. Mandatory reporters are professionals who are in regular contact with children such as social workers, teachers, nurses, doctors, counselors, child care providers, and law enforcement officers. In New York State, for example, directors of day and/or overnight summer camps and mental health professionals or anyone who reasonably suspects that a child is being abused are also included mandatory reporters. Note that in some States, any person who suspects child abuse or neglect is required to report it.

Preventing Child Abuse

Ultimately, preventing child abuse begins with creating safe and supportive environments for children and fostering healthy relationships. It is critical to emphasize and consciously develop "safe, stable, and nurturing relationships (SSNRs)." Improved parent-child relationships and active communication are two examples of strategies to prevent maltreatment in the first instance.



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