Child abuse can be defined as any act by a parent, guardian, or other caretaker towards a child that results in serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, neglect, or death. When a parent, guardian, or other caretaker is responsible for the abuse, it constitutes domestic violence. Abuse towards a child that is committed by anyone other than a parent, guardian, or other caretaker is still considered child abuse, but is not considered domestic violence.
Currently, child abuse constitutes domestic violence in 11 states. Regardless of categorization, child abuse is a prevalent and serious issue that is important to understand, and stop. Child abuse affects millions of families in the United States, with more than 3 million referrals of child mistreatment reported every year. In this country, every day, five children die as the result of child abuse.
Types of Abuse
Physical: Physical abuse is any action by a parent, guardian, or family member that results in harm, injury, or the death of a child. This includes, but is not limited to, hitting, slapping, scratching, burning, throwing, and/or choking. Harm to a child is considered abuse whether or not it was intended. The only exception to this rule, is spanking as a means of discipline. Spanking is not considered child abuse, so long as it does not result in serious injury.
Sexual: Sexual abuse occurs when an adult engages in sexual activity with a child, exposes the child to sexual material or acts, and/or uses a child for sexual purposes. Sexual activity with a child includes fondling, oral sex, and/or penetration, whether vaginal or anal.
Sexual exposure includes inappropriate sexual discussion, showing a child pornography, and/or forcing a child to view sexual organs or witness sexual acts. Using a child for sexual purposes can refer to forcing the child into prostitution, or using him or her to manufacture pornography.
Emotional: Emotional abuse is the infliction of emotional distress or anguish on a child by the parent, guardian, or other caretaker. This may include yelling, shaming, criticizing, ignoring, humiliating, blaming, threatening, isolating, or otherwise corrupting the child. Emotional abuse may also include exposing a child to extreme or frequent violence.
Neglect: The term “neglect” refers to the failure to provide the appropriate care, supervision, and/or support that a child needs for his or her health, safety, and overall development. Physical neglect includes the failure to provide food, shelter, appropriate clothing, hygienic needs, and/or adequate medical care.
Inadequate supervision includes leaving the child alone for extended periods of time, leaving the child with an inappropriate or unqualified caregiver, deserting a child, or exposing a child to unsafe or unsanitary environments. Educational neglect includes denying a child access to school on a regular basis, or failing to attend to special educational needs.
Signs of Abuse
There are many signs, both physical and behavioral, that can indicate that a child has been abused. Whether a child presents just one or several of these indicators, it’s important to recognize them in order to report the abuse. It’s also important to realize that children often present differently than adults. There are general signs of abuse that can result from any or all types of abuse, and there are signs of abuse that are specific to certain forms of abuse.
Changes in behavior such as being more anxious, depressed, withdrawn or aggressive
Apprehension about or fear of going home
Sudden weight gain or loss, not explained by other factors such as puberty
Difficulty sleeping: appearing fatigued or tired
Decreased school attendance
Difficulty concentrating and lowered school performance
Engaging in risky behaviors such as drinking, using drugs, and/or sexual activity
Bruises, burns, starches, and scars
Broken or sprained bones
Delay between injury and seeking medical care
Appearing afraid of parent(s)
Wearing long-sleeves out of season
Violent themes in art or fantasy
Aggressive behavior, or otherwise acting out toward peers, teachers, and/or animals
Parent(s) keeps children out of school, and/or absent from extracurricular activities
Parent takes child to different doctors for each injury
Bruising on/around genitals
Difficulty walking or sitting
Unexplained sexually transmitted diseases
Extreme apprehension about changing clothes in front of others, such as in a locker room for gym class, etc.
Sexual behavior or sexual knowledge beyond what is appropriate for his or her age/level of maturity
Obsessive preoccupation with body image
Parent is possessive or jealous
Parent relies on child for emotional support
Anti-social behaviors including violence, stealing, and lying
Depression and/or suicidal tendencies
Extreme weight fluctuation or obesity
Habits such as rocking, sucking, and/or biting
Parent often yells, criticizes, and/or ignores child
Parent has trouble controlling anger and other difficult emotions
Indicators of malnutrition (below average height and weight, discolored hair and skin, etc.)
Untreated injuries and illness
Often hungry and/or dehydrated
Clothing that is too small, dirty, or inappropriate for the season
Poor hygiene such as not bathing or brushing teeth
Parent is indifferent or inattentive towards child
Parent relies on child for care
How to Report Child Abuse
If you suspect a child is being abused, there are several ways you can report it. First, if you feel that the child is in an emergency you should immediately contact the police. You can also call your local child protective or welfare agency. You can find the contact information for your local agency by visiting http://www.childwelfare.gov/. You may also contact the Child-help National Child Abuse Hotline by calling (800) 422-4453. This hotline can provide advice and assistance as well as local referrals.