Each year during April, Child Abuse Awareness month, we have the opportunity to be a light to the most vulnerable in our population, our children, who are facing abuse in unprecedented numbers. If you have been reading the news, you will know the current shelter-in-home or quarantine mandates have created an environment in which the incidence and severity of all forms of abuse have increased(1). Particularly now, children are at great risk as they find themselves without reprieve from families who are under extraordinary stress. And if you’re like the rest of us, you’ve not only read it, you been overloaded with news like this and the intensity of it all might be making you feel overwhelmed or even numb. So when everything feels this overwhelming, how can we possibly be a light? We believe it is by educating ourselves about child abuse and its various forms and how to respond to it that we will become a much needed light to children most in need.
Child maltreatment is any act that results in actual or potential harm or the threat of actual or potential harm to a child(2). Child abuse can be caused by any parent, caretaker, or custodian of a child such as a coach, teacher, therapist, physician, clergyperson. It happens in every culture and all socioeconomic environments. Child abuse includes physical, sexual or emotional abuse and neglect. It is reported that at least 1 in 7 children experienced child abuse and/or neglect within the past year, and likely many more(3). The number of child abuse reports that Child Protective Services investigated or otherwise responded to increased by 8.4% from 2014 to 2018. The 2018 data shows that more than four-fifths (84.5%) of victims suffer a single type of maltreatment, while more than 15 percent (15.5%) of all child victims are subject to two or more forms of maltreatment. Of the single-form cases, 60.8% are neglect cases, 10.7 percent are physically abused only, and 7.0 percent are sexually abused only. An estimated 1,770 children died of abuse and neglect in 2018 at a rate of 2.39 per 100,000 children in the national population(4).
There are a wide variety of red flags that you may witness or hear about when a child is experiencing abuse. Based on wisdom from Stanford University School of Medicine(5), the Mayo Clinic(6) and Child Welfare (7), these are some common indicators of child physical abuse:
- Not wanting to go home or be around their parents;
- Social issues;
- Eating issues;
- Seems afraid of their parent/s;
- Frequent medical problems, especially stomach-related;
- Regular absence from school or other activities; and
- Unexplained injuries or injuries that do not match the explanation.
It’s crucial that those of us who work or interact with children not only be on the alert for these symptoms but that we take precautionary measures when other actions raise suspicions within us. The tragic loss of eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who was abused to death by his parents, reveals to us just how devastating the consequences can be when those who work within the checkpoints against child abuse do not take the signs seriously.
It’s reported that Gabriel showed his teachers multiple times that things were not alright at home, such as when he asked them if it was “normal” to bleed after being hit by a belt. When this information was reported to child services, they did not consider his situation to be high risk enough to remove him from his abusive home upon investigating. Later, after his death, investigators found his blood-stained clothes all over the house, signs that should not have been missed.
Children are helpless to remove themselves from abusive situations without the advocacy of adults. Typically, first responders to abused children are teachers or other school personnel, coaches, clergy or physicians. These caregivers are trained to recognize signs of physical abuse and are mandated reporters. Now that children are out of school, and refraining from other regular activities that take place outside the home, they are not coming into regular contact with people equipped to intervene when they notice the signs of abuse. The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline has seen a 10 percent increase in calls(8). At the same time, social workers and state agencies have had to scale back due to social distancing restrictions. So right now, it’s important for you to remember that you might need to play the role of a first responder and report suspected child abuse.
During the time shelter at home and quarantine efforts are in place, make a special effort to reach out to your neighbors, friends and acquaintances to check in on them.. Make sure that they and their children are doing well. Take note of any signs of distress. Show some compassion for the added strain we are all under. Even parents who do not normally struggle with anger or self control are struggling now. They might need you to gently remind them that it is important they take a personal time out to regain calm before their anger escalates into physical maltreatment.
If you become seriously concerned about the well-being of a child, call the police or Child Protective Services. Just follow your gut. If you’re still unsure, we recommend you call the national child abuse hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child and tell them what you are hearing and seeing that is causing concern. They will help you decide if you should report. You can also learn more about how your state defines various forms of abuse and whether it will keep your abuse report confidential or not at https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/laws-policies/state/.
If you are a parent who is struggling with your own anger right now, do not struggle alone. Please get help by calling the national hotline (1-800-4-A-Child). They will direct you to agencies who can help you.
We are all in this together. If you are looking for more information about child abuse make sure you are subscribed to our blog. We will be publishing content to help you recognize the signs and support a child throughout their healing journey all month long. Please know we are here to encourage you and support you in any way we can.