Staying Aware: Recognizing The Signs of Child Abuse

Being aware of the signs of one of society's greatest problems

5 min read

Several years ago, not long after we had moved to the small town where I am living now, a child died in her home because of severe abuse and neglect from her parents. She lived just down the road from me in a house that we had actually viewed before deciding on the one that we purchased.

It was devastating for the entire community. So many people came forward to say that they’d suspected something was not right but had no idea just how bad it was. Hearts were broken because so many felt, “If only we’d known…It was right here next door. How could we not know?” 

The family was fairly new to the neighborhood, and most likely those who lived just next door weren’t aware of the child’s routines, etc., enough to notice any signs. Sadly, this is more common than we realize. 

Since I was new to the town, and could not see her house from my own, I was completely unaware of this family. In retrospect, many neighbors shared that they wish they’d noticed more, and admittedly, so do I. 

It was a hard case to notice, however, since the girl hadn’t been outside of the home in a while. That’s perhaps the one sign we all should have noticed but simply didn’t understand its significance. 

Many times, people simply are not aware of the signs to look for. Others don’t want to be seen as a nuisance or a busybody. They don’t want to be “THAT neighbor.”

So, what can we do? What can you do to protect kids from abuse? How can you tell if a child is being abused? What are the signs to look for? Let’s take a look.

It’s Sadly More Common Than You Think

Child abuse has sadly always been an issue for humanity, and recently, the number of cases is on the rise. In fact, one in every seven kids has suffered some sort of abuse or neglect … just in the past year. The most common form of child abuse is child neglect, with physical abuse, sexual abuse, and psychological abuse following closely behind, in that order.

Many kids are exposed to more than one form of child abuse simultaneously. Those who are neglected will often suffer physical abuse, and psychological abuse often goes hand in hand with other types of child abuse. Abuse is almost evenly split between males and females, with girls being abused at a rate of 51% and boys at a rate of 48.6 %.

Of the kids who were placed in foster care in 2018, 62% of them were removed from their families after being abused. Many of them were abused by someone other than a parent. 

Child Abuse Has Devastating Effects 

Child abuse happens most often in poorer families, and children under the age of one year are most vulnerable to death from abuse, making up about half of all childhood abuse deaths. 

Adult survivors of child abuse tend to suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, substance abuse disorders, eating disorders, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They were also more likely to smoke, drink, use drugs, and have unsafe sex.

So how can you tell if a child is being abused? What are the signs to look for?  Let’s break down thoughts that pediatrician Esther Smith recently shared with WFMY news station out of Greensboro, NC.

If You See Something, Say Something

One of the most important things to remember about stopping child abuse is if you see something that makes you think that a child is being abused, you should definitely speak out. In some states, only doctors, clergy, nurses, teachers, social workers, etc. are mandated reporters, but in some states, such as North Carolina, every adult is considered as mandated to report it if they see signs of child abuse or neglect. 

It is not your job to investigate and discover if abuse is actually taking place. That is the job of social workers, family services, and the police. Your job as a responsible adult is to report any reasonable suspicions that you have.

What to Look For

Bruising - While all kids will get scrapes and bruises, you should watch for bruising that is out of the ordinary. Handprint bruising where a child’s arm has been grabbed is one example. Stripes such as from a belt or stick is another. You should also be aware of any bruising around a child’s throat, no matter how faint.

Mood Changes – While changes in a child’s mood don’t always signify abuse, there is most likely still an underlying cause that needs to be addressed. Behavior problems such as aggression, severe anxiety, sadness, or becoming withdrawn can all be signs of abuse in the home.

Clothing Issues – Have you noticed that a neighborhood child is always wearing the same dirty, worn clothing? While poor families may not be able to afford the newest styles, clothing should still be cleaned and ideally should be changed daily. Especially if the child in question is always dirty, this could be a sign of neglect. Dirty, worn clothes alone are not necessarily abusive, but if paired with other signs, you may need to report it.

Underweight and Pale – Like clothing issues, this sign alone does not always signify abuse or neglect but paired with other signs it could be an issue. While an underweight, pale child could be suffering from some sort of sickness, they may also be undernourished. 

Never Seen Outside of the Home – This is the one sign that those of us in my town didn’t see at the time. If a child stops playing outside, changes their routine suddenly and is not seen, or stops going to school, church, etc., then there could be abuse in the home. 

What You Can Do

There are several things that you can do if you suspect a child is being abused. Most states have some sort of phone line such as Crimestoppers, where you can call and report suspicion of a crime. Most importantly remember that you do not have to prove your suspicions, simply report them.

You might also call the school the child attends if you have access to that information. Teachers and other school workers are knowledgeable about what to look for in child abuse cases.

You can also call the local child protective or family services, or the local police. In so many neighborhoods where a child has died from abuse, people will lament, “I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t want to be the nosy neighbor.” Do it. Be THAT neighbor. You may just save a child’s life.