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Child Abuse: Recognizing the Signs and How to Report It

Child abuse is an ongoing problem that exists in many homes in communities throughout the United States. This month is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and a good time to improve public awareness of this crime.

5 Common Types of Child Abuse

Child abuse commonly takes five different forms, such as:

  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Neglect
  • Sexual abuse or exploitation
  • Institutional abuse

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse occurs when a minor is beaten or otherwise injured by an abuser. Often, the abuser is someone close to the child, such as a family member.

Physical abuse may occur through punching, kicking, extinguishing a lit cigarette on the child’s skin, striking the child with an object or other acts that cause injury. Some of the signs that a minor is suffering physical abuse include:

  • The child showing fear at going home or being around a particular person
  • Bruises at various stages of healing
  • Burn marks on the child’s skin
  • No medical attention for the child’s injuries

[Related article: Preventing Human Trafficking through Education and Training]

 Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is another common form of abuse. With emotional abuse, a minor may hear threats of physical injury from the abuser, or the minor is constantly berated in front of other people or while alone.

Emotional abuse also occurs when the abuser:

  • Tells a child that he or she is worthless
  • Informs that the child that he or she would be better off dead
  • Criticizes the child or calls the child derogatory names

Often, the young person does not receive support from other family members or from a parent who is also being abused. The emotional abuse of a minorcan have lifelong implications because it damages the child’s self-esteem and adversely impacts emotional development.

Abusers can be other family members, schoolteachers and many others who have frequent communication with the child.

The signs of emotional abuse in children include:

  • A lack of self-worth
  • Depression
  • Significant relationship problems due to a lack of trust
  • Avoidance of certain people
  • Withdrawal from friends
  • An extremely judgmental attitude towards themselves or others
  • The inability to control emotions

Neglect as a Form of Child Abuse

Neglected children are also common in our society. Neglect occurs when children do not receive the support, tools or resources to succeed from adults. For instance, children who are not provided with adequate childcare, medical care, food, clothing, education or shelter may be neglected.

The indicators of neglect include:

  • No visits to a dentist or a pediatrician for regular checkups
  • Malnutrition
  • Developmental or health problems that are not treated
  • Dirty or inadequate clothing
  • A home without running water or electricity
  • Bad behavior due a lack of guidance or parenting

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse occurs when a child is forced into committing a sexual act without consent. Often, the abuser is someone who has gained the child’s trust, such as a teacher, an online “friend” that the child has been convinced to meet or a member of the clergy. The abuse may occur within a home or outside of a home.

In addition to physical sexual abuse, sexual abuse can include non-touching behaviors such as:

  • Voyeurism
  • Exposing the child to pornography
  • Forcing the child into committing pornographic acts

Sexual abuse is often the precursor to sexual exploitation. Sexual exploitation commonly involves a child who is forced into sex trafficking; a human trafficker will compel the child into committing sexual acts for the trafficker’s profit.

The signs of sexual abuse or exploitation include:

  • Bruising in unusual places
  • Unexplained sexually transmitted diseases
  • An unusual fear of certain adults

Human traffickers who participate in child sexual abuse or exploitation commonly groom the young person at first. They gain the trust of a child through false promises, declarations of affection, gifts or money.

Institutional Abuse

Institutional abuse usually occurs in a location where the child is normally expected to be safe. These locations may include a school, community center, a residential care setting such as a group home or a workplace.

Institutional abuse may involve:

  • Restriction the child’s movement to exert power over the child’s location or departure
  • Inappropriate confinement
  • Poor hygiene
  • A lack of personal possessions

How to Report Abuse

Teachers, friends, community members, clergy, medical professionals and first responders are in the best position to observe if a child is being physically abused. If you suspect that child abuse is occurring to a child you know, you should immediately act. Report your concerns to authorities such as local law enforcement or the child protective services in your state.

If you suspected that a child may be in immediate danger, call 911. Make careful observations of the signs of abuse and be sure to report them to authorities.

Sometimes, it is difficult for law enforcement or child protective services to confirm abuse. Parents or caregivers are likely to deny that the abuse is occurring, and the child may be coerced into lying if authorities ask questions about the suspected abuse.

From my experience in law enforcement, I have found that with the exception of serious child abuse cases – such as cases involving serious physical harm or death – abuse and neglect often occurs because an adult does not understand how to properly parent or care for the child. For instance, parents sometimes have a misunderstanding of when a child is old enough to be left alone.

The national hotline to report child abuse is 1-800-4-A-Child. Also, the Child Help Hotline offers a map of all 50 states to help people file an official report of child abuse in their state.

More Work Is Needed to Prevent Child Abuse

According to Prevent Child Abuse America, there are various child wellness and child welfare organization around the United States that developed systems and programs to protect children and support families. The work of these organizations, in addition to responsible adults, can go a long way in preventing child abuse.

Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Sadulski is an Associate Professor within our School of Security and Global Studies. He has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. Jarrod can be reached through his website at for more information.

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