Recognizing and reporting child abuse

No one wants to imagine a scenario in which a child is threatened or unsafe. Unfortunately, children find themselves confronting abusive situations every day.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines child abuse as any emotional, physical mistreatment, neglect or sexual abuse perpetrated by an adult in a role of responsibility on someone who is under the age of 18. Everyone, whether they have children of their own or work with children or even those people who do not routinely interact with children, can do their part to protect children by learning to recognize the warning signs of child abuse.

For the last year-plus, people all over the world have been told to stay close to home to curb the spread of COVID-19. But home may not be the safest place for children who suffer at the hands of their guardians. Furthermore, job loss, grief and unprecedented stress resulting from the pandemic may exacerbate abusive situations or even precipitate them in homes where violence has never been an issue.

According to Josie Serrata, Ph.D., a co-owner of Prickly Pear Therapy and Training, stress and social isolation can increase the risk of domestic violence. Dr. Jamye Coffman, who serves as medical director of the Center for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, fears growing numbers of abuse cases as the nation continues to reel from the effects of the pandemic and the stresses brought on by illness, unemployment and even food insecurity.

There is an additional component in the mix as well. In many instances, school officials and teachers are some of the first people to recognize potentially abusive situations in children’s homes. But with many school districts opting for all-virtual instruction, school staff may not be in position to spot signs of abuse. Plus, children who may normally go to their teachers or principals for help no longer have that secure option away from home.

These factors make it even more important for the general public to educate themselves about possible signs of child abuse; they may be a hurting child’s only advocates. Here are some signs of potential physical and emotional abuse.

• Unexplained injuries, such as bruises.
• Depression or excessive crying.
• Sudden changes in the child’s behavior or demeanor.
• Poor hygiene and unsuitable clothing.
• Lack of energy or constant hunger.
• Increase in attention-seeking behaviors.
• Increased absences from school.
• Witnessing an adult excessively pinching, slapping or tripping a child.
• Knowledge of an adult withholding sleep, food or medication from a child.
• Seeing a child flinch when touched.
• A child wearing inappropriate clothing for the season to cover up injuries.

Individuals are urged to take action if they suspect a child is being abused. People should contact their local child protective services agency and file a report. Those unsure of how to proceed can contact law enforcement or a school guidance counselor as well.

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