How to define, indentify and report child abuse. Your actions can save the life of a child.
Children's Rights Foundation

Children's Rights Foundation



What is Child Abuse?

Although there are many formal and acceptable definitions of child abuse, the following is offered as a guide;

Child abuse consists of any act of commission or omission that endangers or impairs a child's physical or emotional health and development.

Child abuse includes any damage done to a child which cannot be reasonably explained and which is often represented by an injury or series of injuries appearing to be non-accidental in nature.

The Major Forms Of Child Abuse Are:
  • Physical abuse, including neglect or lack of adequate supervision;
  • Emotional abuse or deprivation;
  • Sexual abuse.
Who Inflicts The Abuse?

Child abusers are found among all socio-economic, religious and ethnic groups and are most often ordinary people who are trapped is a stressful life situation with which they cannot cope satisfactorily.

A child abuser is usually a person closely related to the child such as a parent, step-parent, or other caretaker.

The child abuser is seldom a total stranger.

How Can I Identify Child Abuse?

It is important to remember that child abuse is not usually a single act, but a repeated pattern of behavior. This is true of all types of abuse, physical, emotional and sexual. You may wonder how you can identify the child abuse victim. The following symptoms are offered as general guidelines to help you.

Physical Abuse

Symptoms to watch for include:
  • Bruises or welts appearing on the body, especially those which reveal the shape of some object which was used to produce them e.g. sticks, belts, buckles, electrical cords, a hair brush, etc.;
  • Bruises which are unexplained, or located on parts of the body which usually do not get bruised in the bumps and falls which occur in a child's everyday living. It is normal for a child to get bruises on his shins, knees, elbows or forehead occasionally - it is suspect for a child to be bruised on the eyes, mouth, back, buttocks, genital areas, thighs or calves;
  • Small circular burns appearing on face, arms, hands, buttocks, or soles of feet which may have been inflicted by a cigar or cigarette;
  • Burns with a "sock" or "glove-like" appearance on hands or feet and "doughnut" shaped burns on the buttocks. These types of burns are usually caused by either dipping or forcing the child to sit in scalding liquid;
  • Burns which leave a pattern outlining the object which was used to make the burn such as an iron, electric burner, heater or fireplace tool;
  • Burns caused by rope friction, usually found on legs, arms, neck or torso as the result of having been tied up.
Other injuries to be concerned about:
  • Unexplained fractures to nose, face, ribs, legs or other parts of body;
  • Injuries in various stages of healing which appear in a regular pattern or are grouped together;
  • Other types of abrasions or lacerations appearing on the body which have no apparent reasonable explanation;
  • Human bite marks, especially those that are adult sized;
In addition to outright abuse, physical neglect may be indicated by such things as:
  • Child continually hungry;
  • Consistent lack of cleanliness or an intense obsession with cleanliness;
  • Clothing not suitable to weather conditions;
  • Evidence that child's physical and medical needs are not being met;
  • Lack of supervision especially in dangerous situations or while participating in activities which extend over long periods of times;
  • Behavior that does not appear "normal" e.g. severe anxiety around other children or adults, anti-social behavior in the form of hostile aggression, or withdrawn behavior accompanied by depression.
Emotional Abuse and Deprivation:

The negative effects of emotional abuse can be as devastating to a child's development emotionally, intellectually and behaviorally as are the injuries sustained by physical abuse. Most physical abuse is accompanied by emotional abuse as well. Although this type of abuse is often difficult to recognize and identify, the best interests of the child should be the first concern in reporting this type of abuse. Close attention should be given when it is suspected that the emotional abuse is the result of a willful act creating mental suffering for the child. Since emotional abuse often has no visible physical signs, there are those who have resorted to inflicting this type of abuse on their children believing it is less likely to be reported. Therefore, awareness of the potential harm of this type of abuse is crucial.

Indicators of emotional abuse include:
  • Behavior which indicates apathy or depression;
  • Behavior which is anti-social and hostile in nature;
  • Loss of appetite, refusal to eat and/or in the case where the child feels deprived of love, food may be used as a substitute, often resulting in obesity.
Sexual Abuse

Sexual exploitation, molestation and incest are additional devastating types of child abuse. The societal taboos surrounding this type of abuse have kept it from widespread exposure. Therefore, until recently it has received the least amount of publicity, keeping it a hidden form of abuse.

The nature of sexual abuse makes it difficult to observe and therefore often more difficult to report. The guidelines given here for detection of sexual abuse are by no means comprehensive. Symptoms given here may exist singly or in various combinations. It is essential to remember that this form of abuse makes the child both a victim and prisoner. Those children who seek help are often accused of lying, as adults usually do not want to believe them.

In addition, the victim of sexual abuse is most often pressured into secrecy about the sexual activity by the abuser, leaving the child feeling helpless and guilty for his behavior with no place to turn for help and no acceptable way out.

Sexual abuse should be suspected if:
  • Child expresses or implies involvement in sexual activity with parent or other adult;
  • Child's clothing appears stained, torn or bloody;
  • Child reports pain, itching, bruises or bleeding in the genital area;
  • Child has been diagnosed as having venereal disease of eyes, mouth, genitalia and/or anus;
  • An unwanted pregnancy occurs and victim is hesitant to reveal partner;
  • Child expresses presence of severe emotional conflict at home but is fearful of intervention;
  • Child demonstrates withdrawn behavior, refuses to participate or dress appropriately for physical activities, and/or appears to spend extended periods of time in a fantasy world;
  • A young child demonstrates as exaggerated knowledge of or interest in adult sexual behavior evidenced by either seductive actions and conversations, or fear of intimate contact with others;
  • A child is known to be the victim of other forms of abuse by parent(s).
  • It is important to remember when children report information related to sexual topics or suspicious activities they need to be believed. It may be a cry for help.

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Children's Rights Foundation
P.O. Box 195661
Winter Springs, FL 32719
Phone: 407-834-9797
Nationwide Hotline: 800-329-KIDS(5437)