Child abuse is common.  More than 2.5 million cases of child abuse and neglect are reported each year in the United States.  One-third of these involve physical abuse, and one-half involve neglect.  Studies show that one in four girls and one in eight to nine boys will be sexually abused before they are 18 years old.  The news is so full of reports of child maltreatment that you may sometimes wonder how safe your child is.

• Types of abuse

Physical abuse involves injuries to a child’s body.  It can include bruises, burns, broken bones, head injuries and injuries to internal organs.  Sexual abuse is any sexual activity that a child cannot comprehend or reasonably give consent.  It includes acts such as fondling, oral-genital contact, genital and anal intercourse, exhibitionism, voyeurism and exposure to pornography. Child neglect can include physical neglect (withholding food, shelter, protection or other physical necessities), emotional neglect (withholding love, comfort, or affection) or medical neglect (withholding needed medical care).  Psychological abuse results from all of the above, but it can also be associated with verbal abuse.

• Where abuse occurs

Most child abuse occurs within the family.  Neglect and mistreatment of children is also more common in families living in poverty and among parents who are teenagers, drug or alcohol abusers, or abusers of spouses or partners.

• Recognizing child abuse
The first step in helping abused or neglected children is learning to recognize the signs of child abuse and neglect.  Think of child mistreatment when these signs appear, especially repeatedly or in combination.

Signs of physical abuse: A child may have unexplained bruises, whelps, swelling or burns.  Look for age-inappropriate injuries, injuries that appear to have a pattern such as marks from a hand or belt, or repeated injuries. The child may be fearful, shy away from touch, or afraid to go home. A child may wear long-sleeved pants and shirts on a hot day to cover skin injuries.  Physically abusive caregivers may display anger management problems and excessive need for control.  Their explanations of an injury may not be consistent with the injury, and an adult partner may show signs of injuries as well.

Signs of child neglect: A child may consistently be dressed inappropriately for the weather; have ill-fitting, dirty clothes and shoes; consistently bad hygiene; or untreated illnesses and injuries.  The child may be poorly supervised.  The caregiver may have problems with drugs or alcohol, disregard the child’s safety, or delay necessary health care for the child.

• Reporting suspected child abuse

Many people are reluctant to get involved in the lives of others. This may be sometimes appropriate, but not when a child is in danger of harm.  If you suspect a child is being abused, reporting your suspicion may protect the child and get help for the family.  The report should be made when abuse is suspected; commonly you will not know with absolute certainty that abuse is occurring. Reporting is through the child abuse hotline.  The Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline toll-free number is 1-800-482-5964.  You do not have to give your name.  When your reporting of suspected abuse results in substantiation by an investigator, the abuse can stop and treatment begin. The child can regain self-confidence and trust.  Parents can benefit from agency support, parent training and anger management.  If you do not report, additional and perhaps more severe injuries may occur.

• Lasting effects of child abuse
Although physical injuries can last a lifetime, especially when they involve infants and young children, most abused children suffer greater emotional than physical damage.  An abused child may become depressed, withdrawn, violent, or suicidal.  An older child may use drugs or alcohol, run away, or abuse others.  The effects may last throughout life, damaging the victim’s sense of self and ability to have healthy relationships.  Even their long-term physical health and life span have been found to be adversely affected.

• Children can be helped
Sources of abuse or neglect must be eliminated.  A loving home and a caretaker who will protect and nurture are extremely important.  Counseling by trained mental health professionals can help children overcome the emotional effects of maltreatment.  Abused infants and children can be helped!

Center for Children at Risk
University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences
Department of Pediatrics
Arkansas Children’s Hospital
1 Children’s Way, Slot 512-24A
Little Rock, AR  72202
(501) 364-1013