Thousands of children suffer silently from abuse and neglect every day. Imagine your home not being a place of comfort but instead, a place where you are frequently harmed, screamed at, anxious or fear for your life. Realizing that a child is suffering and reporting it to the proper authorities can make a significant impact on his or her life. Sometimes, it can even save a child’s life. However, you won’t be able to speak up for those who can’t if you don’t know the signs that suggest abuse is happening. While there are many different types of abuse and neglect, we’re sharing the signs of the five most common:
Neglect is when a parent or guardian fails to take care of their child’s basic needs. Basic needs are those that the child needs for survival; for example, food, clothing, medical care, shelter and education. Some signs of neglect are easy to spot, while others may be a little harder. If the child is frequently seen in dirty clothes or wears clothes that are not seasonally appropriate such as sporting shorts and a t-shirt in 30-degree weather, has strong body odor or appears to be malnourished, they may be experiencing neglect.
Neglect and abandonment often go hand in hand. Some states do not list abandonment as a type of abuse or neglect, but in the state of Texas, it is recognized as such. Abandonment is when a child is left to fend for them-self without knowing where their parent is or whether or not the parent is returning. A situation is also considered abandonment if the child is seriously harmed while the parent or guardian is away. Take note if a child has had many absences from school, or if you spot a child stealing food from a store or restaurant. Make sure to listen carefully to the child. Sometimes they will tell you that they have been abandoned by mentioning that no one is home to take care of them.
3. Physical Abuse
This form of abuse can be easier to notice, but tricky to confirm. Common signs of physical abuse are bruises, cuts or other physical injuries that the parent or child can’t explain; the child may frequently seem scared or cower in the presence of adults. The child may even try to tell you that they are being harmed. Watch the child’s reaction when it’s time for them to go home. Are they excited and ready to go, or do they cry and beg you not to make them go home? A child’s reluctance to go home may be their plea for help and safety.
4. Emotional Abuse
Also commonly referred to as psychological abuse, emotional abuse is the hardest form of abuse to identify and is even more difficult to prove. A child may be suffering from emotional abuse, or damage to their self-worth or emotional development, if they exhibit overly aggressive or passive behavior, if they are developmentally delayed, or if they act in a manner that doesn’t match their age – ex) adult-like or infant-like. An example of adult-like behavior could be taking on a parenting role toward younger children in the family. Infant-like behavior could be banging his or her head against the wall. Remember that all forms of abuse are not independent of one another. While emotional abuse can be difficult to identify, it often occurs in addition to some of the more identifiable forms of abuse.
5. Sexual Abuse
The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) defines sexual abuse as “the employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of any child to engage in, or assist any other person to engage in, any sexually explicit conduct or simulation of such conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct; or the rape, and in cases of caretaker or inter-familial relationships, statutory rape, molestation, prostitution, or another form of sexual exploitation of children, or incest with children.”
If you are concerned that a child is being sexually abused, listen carefully to see if the child talks about sex or seems to know things about sex they shouldn’t know at their age. A child may be a victim of sexual abuse if they wet the bed, have nightmares, frequently run away, have difficulty sitting or walking or display a lack of desire to change clothes for physical activity at school. A drastic change in appetite can also be a sign of sexual abuse.
Armed with this knowledge, you play an important role in protecting those who cannot protect themselves. Keep in mind that if a child exhibits one of these symptoms on its own, that doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is being abused or neglected. What appears to be a symptom of passive behavior could just be a personality trait, or what looks like an unexplainable bruise could just be a minor playground injury that they don’t remember receiving. Use your best judgment and make sure you’re trained in the signs so that you feel confident in your decision.
You don’t need to be a family member or close friend to report a situation of suspected abuse or neglect. If you suspect that a child is experiencing abuse or neglect, report it online to the Texas Abuse Hotline or call toll-free 24/7 at 1-800-252-5400.