Girl being abused

What to Do If You Suspect Child Abuse

You may be thinking that, as a family outsider, intervening in an abusive situation is not your place. There are certain professions in which you are a mandatory reporter (usually jobs in law enforcement, child care, or school faculty) requiring you to report any suspected abuse to your local child welfare agency. Whether you have to or not, alerting officials to potential abuse can help remove a child from a dangerous situation.

What are some common signs of abuse?

Child abuse, be it physical, emotional, or sexual, affects a child’s behavior. Signs of abuse aren’t always as evident as physical harm. Be aware of these more subtle indicators of abuse, especially if they are reoccurring:

  • He or she is excessively absent from school
  • He or she wears clothes that conceal injuries (ex. Wearing a hoodie through the summer)
  • Reluctance to go home, or leave with certain people
  • Immature behavior, such as bedwetting or thumb-sucking
  • Aversion to doing the wrong thing—and a reaction of fear when having done so
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Age-inappropriate knowledge or display of sexual behavior
  • Difficulty sitting, walking
  • Refusal to communicate—abusers may threaten to harm a child if he or she tells anyone about their “secret”

Neglect is an equally serious form of child abuse. If a child isn’t adequately cared for at home, he or she may be continually hungry or inappropriately dressed for the climate. The child may act as a caretaker to his or her siblings, or may be constantly left unattended in public spaces or at home.

When a child confides in you, listen.

The last thing you should do is deny the credibility of a child’s story. Let the child explain what’s happened and take the role of a supporter, not a skeptic. Phrases of disbelief such as “I don’t think your parent would do that” or “that doesn’t sound like something that person would do” can discourage him or her from further bringing these matters to light. Due to social stigma, boys may be particularly reluctant to tell adults about sexual abuse. Discussing abuse is difficult enough; don’t press the child for additional information.

If you see something, say something.

You don’t need photographic evidence to report suspected abuse. Make use of a photographic memory where you’re lacking in physical proof: be as specific as possible. Include repeated incidents, dates of occurrence, and as much detail as you can. Call the police if you believe a child is in immediate danger. You can find information about your local child welfare agency here.  Mandatory reporters may be called to act as a witness or continue to look out for the child; others may not be contacted after reporting. If you continue to see signs of abuse after reporting, don’t be reluctant to report again. 

Last Updated: March 24, 2015