Child abuse and neglect is an issue that affects many lives in the United States – every 10 seconds, a report of child abuse is made and 6.6 million children are referred for help each year. As it negatively impacts many lives, it is important to be aware of what constitutes child abuse and neglect, as well as what you can do if you suspect, witness, or are experiencing child abuse.
Child abuse is broken down into multiple categories; physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional/psychological abuse, verbal abuse or neglect.
Physical abuse is defined as using physical force intentionally against a child that can harm their health, survival or activity. Physical abuse includes hitting, beating, kicking, shaking, biting, strangling, scalding, burning, poisoning, and suffocating.
Signs of possible physical abuse include:
- Injuries such as bruises, wounds, or burns that are not consistent with the explanation given for them
- Injuries that occur in places on the body that are not normally exposed to falls or play
- Injuries that have not received medical attention
- Behavioral extremes like becoming emotionally/socially withdrawn, aggressive, or depressive.
- Inappropriate or excessive fear of parent or caretaker.
- Unusual shyness, wariness of physical contact.
Sexual abuse is when a child is involved in a sexual act aimed toward the physical gratification or financial profit of the person committed to the act. Sexual abuse includes indecent exposure of the genitals to a child, asking or pressuring a child to engage in sexual activities, having sexual contact with a child, physical contact with the child’s genitals, or using a child to produce child pornography.
Signs of possible sexual abuse include:
- Any allegations made by a child concerning sexual abuse
- Excessive preoccupation with sexual matters and inappropriate knowledge of sexual behaviors for their age
- Urinary tract infections, unexplained stomach pains, or frequent sore throats
- Sexual provocation towards adults
- Inappropriate bed-sharing arrangements at home
Verbal Abuse, also known as reviling or ” verbal bullying,” is described as a negative defining statement told to the victim or about the victim, or by withholding any response, thereby defining the target as non-existent
Signs of possible verbal abuse:
- Yelling, shouting, swearing, continuously arguing, interrupting, talking over you, put downs, using loud threatening language and tone to cause fear, name calling, intimidating you, mocking you, abusive language.
Emotional abuse, also called psychological abuse, is defined as any act including confinement, isolation, verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, or any other treatment which may harm a child’s identity, dignity, and self-worth.
Signs of possible emotional abuse include:
- Depression, aggression, extreme anxiety, or any extreme changes or regression in mood or behavior
- Extreme shyness or passivity
- Sudden underachievement or inability to concentrate
- Seeking attention from adults and not playing well with other children
- Negative statements about themselves
- Highly aggressive or cruel others
Child neglect is the failure of the caretaker to provide food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision to the degree that the child’s health, safety, and well-being are threatened with harm.
Some possible signs of neglect include:
- Frequent absence from school
- Begging or stealing food or money
- Lacking needed medical and dental care
- Consistently dirty
- Frequently hungry or overeating junk food
- Untreated illnesses or physical complaints
What to Do If You Suspect or Witness Child Abuse
If you suspect a child is being abused, it’s critical to get them the help he or she needs. Reporting child abuse seems so official. Many people are reluctant to get involved in other families’ lives.
Understanding some of the myths behind reporting may help put your mind at ease if you need to report child abuse.
- I don’t want to interfere in someone else’s family. The effects of child abuse are lifelong, affecting future relationships, self-esteem, and sadly putting even more children at risk of abuse as the cycle continues. Help break the cycle of child abuse.
- What if I break up someone’s home? The priority in child protective services is keeping children in the home. A child abuse report does not mean a child is automatically removed from the home—unless the child is clearly in danger. Support such as parenting classes, anger management or other resources may be offered first to parents if safe for the child.
- They will know it was me who called. Reporting is anonymous. In most places, you do not have to give your name when you report child abuse. The child abuser cannot find out who made the report of child abuse.
- It won’t make a difference what I have to say. If you have a gut feeling that something is wrong, it is better to be safe than sorry. Even if you don’t see the whole picture, others may have noticed as well, and a pattern can help identify child abuse that might have otherwise slipped through the cracks.
To report suspected child abuse or neglect, or to talk to someone to figure out if what you’re observing is reportable, you can call your local law enforcement agency, the National Child Abuse Resource or dial 911.