Child Abuse: What it is and What to Do About it

April is National Child Abuse Prevention month. We wanted to provide information to our readers on what child neglect and abuse is, how to spot it, and what to do when you think a child is being abused.

Reporting suspected child abuse can save a child’s life.  At times, adults are reluctant to report their suspicions. This comes from the idea that if they are not “your children” that it is none of your business. Many think that teachers or child care providers are the only ones that can report abuse. But neither is true. Ideally, we should all strive to protect all children’s safety and welfare. By reporting cases of suspected abuse, you become a child advocate.

At ChildSavers, we believe we are all responsible for our community’s children. That means we have a duty to care for children that may not be ours. The old adage of, “it takes a village to raise a child” is true, community shapes what a child will become. When a child is abused the whole community is affected (see info-graphic below). To ensure that our children grow up safe, happy, healthy, and ready to learn it is important to know what abuse are, the signs of abuse, and what to do when you suspect abuse.

The lifetime cost for one child who is maltreated is $210,012 Infographic

What is Child Abuse and Neglect?

Child abuse is defined by law in the Federal Child Abuse Prevention Treatment Act (CAPTA). As, “Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”

Neglect is failure on the part of a parent, guardian, or caregiver to provide for a child’s basic needs. Basic needs include failing to provide necessary food, shelter, or a lack of supervision. It also includes failing to provide a child with medical and mental health treatment. Failing to provide education or attending to the special education needs of a child are also neglect. Emotional neglect is failing to be attentive to a child’s emotional needs, psychological care, or allowing the child to use drugs or alcohol.

Signs of Child Abuse and Neglect

Below is a list of the signs of child abuse and neglect. It is important to keep in mind that these are meant to guide you in determining if a child is suffering from neglect or abuse. A professional may need to assess the situation to confirm your suspicions or to determine if assistance is needed to reduce the risk to the child.

Signs of abuse*:

  • Extreme changes emotions:
    • aggression, anger, hostility or hyperactivity
    • depression, anxiety, nervousness, or unusual fears
    • unusual shyness, or avoidance of being touched
    • (in infants) lying extremely still while surveying surroundings
    • excessive fear of a parent/guardian/caretaker
    • sudden loss of self-confidence
    • rebellious or defiant behavior
    • attempts at suicide
  • Changes in behavior:
    • antisocial behaviors such as withdrawing from friends or usual activities
    • changes in school performance
    • frequent absences from school
    • reluctance to ride the school bus
    • reluctance to leave school activities, as if he or she doesn’t want to go home
    • attempts at running away
    • speech disorders such as stammering or stuttering
    • eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, or obesity
    • delayed development of speech and motor skills in infants and young children
    • height or weight is below average for age
  • An apparent lack of supervision
  • Physical signs of abuse:
    • unexplained injuries, such as bruises, welts, fractures or burns (especially those found on bottom of feet, palms of hands, stomach, buttocks or immersion burns that cause “glove” or “sock” marks on hands and feet or doughnut shaped burn on buttocks and/or genitals)
    • injuries that indicate the use of an object such as electric cords, belts, or rope
    • injuries that don’t match a child or guardian’s explanation
    • untreated medical or dental problems
    • multiple injuries in different stages of healing on the body of the child indicating ongoing abuse

Signs of neglect*:

  • Physical signs:
    • poor growth or weight gain which is below the average for child’s age
    • poor hygiene and body odor
    • having lice, scabies, severe or untreated diaper rash, bedsores,
    • squinting
    • unsuitable clothing or missing key articles of clothing (underwear, socks, shoes)
    • being overdressed or underdressed for climate conditions.
    • untreated injury or illness
    • lack of immunizations
    • indicators of prolonged exposure to elements including multiple insect bites, colds, and excessive sunburn
  • Behavioral signs:
    • chronic hunger, tiredness, or lethargy
    • begging for or collecting leftovers
    • eating a lot in one sitting or hiding food for later
    • taking food or money without permission
    • poor record of school attendance
    • lack of appropriate attention for medical, dental or psychological problems or lack of necessary follow-up care
    • emotional swings that are inappropriate or out of context to the situation
    • indifference
    • unusual school attendance or chronic absenteeism
    • assuming adult responsibilities
    • reporting no adult at home

What do I do When I suspect Child Abuse?

When you see something, say something. It is better to report suspected abuse than to brush it off as nothing. By reporting abuse, you may be helping a child get away from dangerous, terrible situations that impact their lives long-term. Reporting abuse can intervene in a situation that can have negative long-term consequences to a child’s health and wellbeing. This intervention could result in therapy and other resources, which can counteract adversity and trauma, and help build resiliency.

If a child is in immediate danger, call 911. If some of the signs mentioned above seem familiar or you have seen them in a child you know, call Virginia’s Child Protective Services’ (CPS) 24-hour phone number at 804-786-8536 or toll free at (800) 552-7096, or visit their website for more information. If you call, you will reach trained Protective Service Hotline Specialists. Anyone can report suspected child abuse or neglect at any time. You do not have to be a teacher or child care provider. When you call, you may be asked to provide as much information as possible about the child, the alleged abuser and the incident. You do not need to give your name when you call, but if you choose to the local Department of Social Services (DSS) may contact you for further information and DSS will be able to inform you of actions that were taken.

*Sources for this blog post come from Child Welfare Information Gateway Factsheet (July 2013), Mayo Clinic’s Child Abuse Symptoms, the Tennyson Center for Children’s “Recognizing Child Abuse”, and Virginia’s Department of Social Services Child Protection Services website.

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