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Learning More About Child Abuse

What is Child Abuse?

Child abuse is when a parent or caregiver, whether through action or failing to act, causes injury, death, emotional harm or risk of serious harm to a child. There are many forms of child maltreatment, including neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, exploitation and emotional abuse.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is nonaccidental physical injury (ranging from minor bruises to severe fractures or death) as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting (with a hand, stick, strap, or other object), burning, or otherwise harming a child, that is inflicted by a parent, caregiver, or other person who has responsibility for the child. Such injury is considered abuse regardless of whether the caregiver intended to hurt the child. Physical discipline, such as spanking or paddling, is not considered abuse as long as it is reasonable and causes no bodily injury to the child.

Neglect

Neglect is the failure of a parent, guardian, or other caregiver to provide for a child’s basic needs. Neglect may be:

  • Physical (e.g., failure to provide necessary food or shelter, or lack of appropriate supervision)
  • Medical (e.g., failure to provide necessary medical or mental health treatment)
  • Educational (e.g., failure to educate a child or attend to special education needs)
  • Emotional (e.g., inattention to a child’s emotional needs, failure to provide psychological care, or permitting the child to use alcohol or other drugs)

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse includes activities by a parent or caregiver such as fondling a child’s genitals, penetration, incest, rape, sodomy, indecent exposure, and exploitation through prostitution or the production of pornographic materials. Sexual abuse is defined by CAPTA 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 other form of sexual exploitation of children, or incest with children.”

Emotional or Psychological Abuse

Emotional or psychological abuse is a pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of selfworth. This may include constant criticism, threats, or rejection, as well as withholding love, support, or guidance. Emotional abuse is often difficult to prove, and therefore, child protective services may not be able to intervene without evidence of harm or mental injury to the child. Emotional abuse is almost always present when other types of maltreatment are identified.

Abandonment

Abandonment is now defined in many States as a form of neglect. In general, a child is considered to be abandoned when the parent’s identity or whereabouts are unknown, the child has been left alone in circumstances where the child suffers serious harm, or the parent has failed to maintain contact with the child or provide reasonable support for a specified period of time. Some States have enacted laws—often called safe haven laws—that provide safe places for parents to relinquish newborn infants. Child Welfare Information Gateway produced a publication as part of its State Statute series that summarizes such State laws. Infant Safe Haven Laws is available on the Information Gateway website: https://www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/ laws_policies/statutes/safehaven.cfm

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is an element of the definition of child abuse or neglect in many States. Circumstances that are considered abuse or neglect in some States include the following:

  • Prenatal exposure of a child to harm due to the mother’s use of an illegal drug or other substance
  • Manufacture of methamphetamine in the presence of a child
  • Selling, distributing, or giving illegal drugs or alcohol to a child
  • Use of a controlled substance by a caregiver that impairs the caregiver’s ability to adequately care for the child

Signs of Abuse

  • Overall, any unexplained changes in a child’s body or behavior are red flags that abuse could be occurring.
  • Physical Abuse: Any injury (bruise, burn, fracture, abdominal or head injury) that cannot be explained
  • Sexual Abuse: Fearful behavior (nightmares, depression, unusual fears, attempts to run away), abdominal pain, bedwetting, urinary tract infection, genital pain or bleeding, sexually transmitted disease, extreme sexual behavior that seems inappropriate for the child’s age
  • Emotional Abuse: Sudden change in self-confidence, headaches or stomachaches with no medical cause, abnormal fears, increased nightmares or attempts to run away
  • Neglect: Failure to gain weight (especially in infants), desperately affectionate behavior, voracious appetite, and stealing food

 

What are the health effects of child abuse?

Outcomes of child abuse can result in both short and long term injury, and even death. In most cases, children who are abused or neglected suffer greater emotional than physical damage. A child who has been abused or otherwise severely mistreated may become depressed or develop suicidal, withdrawn, or violent behavior. An older child may use drugs or alcohol, try to run away, or abuse others. The younger the child is and the closer the child’s relationship to the abuser, the more serious the emotional damage will be. As adults, they may develop marital and sexual difficulties, depression or suicidal behavior. With early intervention and treatment, these outcomes may be avoided.

Source: Child Welfare Information Gateway. Available online at https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/factsheets/whatiscan.cfm