Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect
Child abuse and neglect are common in our country, unfortunately. Statistics show that at least 1 in 7 children has experienced child abuse or neglect in the past year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This estimate is likely higher because many cases go unreported.
In 2020, 1,750 children died of abuse and neglect in the United States. That’s almost five child abuse-related deaths per day.
And in western Pennsylvania alone, approximately 100 children are admitted to UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh each year due to nonaccidental trauma.
Who Is At-Risk?
Child abuse and neglect happen at every socioeconomic level, across all ethnic and cultural lines, and within all regions and levels of education. Boys and girls are maltreated in equal numbers.
However, children ages 4 and younger are at the greatest risk for severe injury and death from abuse. The most common abusers are parents, other family members, or an unmarried partner of a parent.
Children who suffer maltreatment are at higher risk for certain issues later in life. These issues include:
- Cognitive or developmental delays
- Emotional difficulties
- Harm to the development of nervous and immune systems
- Other health problems.
It is important to recognize, help prevent, and report suspected child abuse and neglect because its lasting effects can impact us all. Small acts from everyone in a community can help save a child from harm.
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Recognizing Child Abuse
The first step is to recognize child abuse.
It is important to note that a single sign does not necessarily mean maltreatment has occurred. However, if signs appear repeatedly or in combination, a closer look at the situation may be warranted.
Child abuse can be physical, emotional, or sexual, may involve neglect of a child by someone who has responsibility for the child. It is common for more than one type of abuse to occur at a time.
Physical abuse involves nonaccidental physical injury, including hitting, kicking, biting, burning, choking, shaking, and throwing. It often leaves bruising at different levels of healing, marks on the body consistent with objects or handprints, or unexplained bruises, black eyes, or broken bones.
A child being physically abused may wear clothing inappropriate for the weather (e.g., long sleeves in hot weather to hide bruising). They also may seem reluctant to go home or fearful of their parents.
Withholding love, support, or guidance from a child is emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is as strong a predictor of child developmental impairment as physical abuse.
Emotional abuse includes rejecting, isolating, verbally assaulting, threatening, blaming, belittling, or shaming the child in a persistent chronic pattern. The caregiver may appear unconcerned about the child. The child may show overly compliant or demanding behavior, or be extremely passive or aggressive. They may speak of attempting suicide or they may show a lack of attachment to the parent.
Engaging a child in sexual acts, exposing a child to sexual or indecent activities, or exploiting a child through pornographic material is sexual abuse. The detrimental effects of sexual abuse extend far beyond childhood.
These children often have a loss of trust and feelings of guilt. They may show signs of regression, such as bedwetting, rocking, head banging, stranger anxiety, withdrawal from family and friends, suddenrefusal to change clothes in gym, or refusal to participate in physical activities. The adults may appear extremely protective and limit contact of the child with other children.
Neglect is failing to provide for the basic needs of a child, including food, clothing, shelter, proper hygiene, education, and medical attention.
Neglect also can involve abandoning a child or putting a child in unsupervised or dangerous situations. The child may miss a lot of school, beg or steal from classmates or friends, or lack medical or dental care. They may have dirty clothes or clothing inappropriate for the weather.
Preventing Child Abuse
Each of us is responsible for preventing child abuse and neglect. It takes a village to raise a child – and individuals in the community can play a role in preventing child abuse by helping families raise safe, healthy, and productive children.
Most parents don’t want to harm their children. Abusers are more likely to have been abused themselves and don’t know other ways to parent. Or they may suffer from mental or chronic health problems, struggle with substance abuse, and have high stress and a lack of support.
Parenting is one of the toughest and most important jobs. We all have a stake in ensuring parents have access to the support they need to be successful parents.
How To Help a Family
You can start by getting to know your neighbors and forming a supportive community. If you see a family with young children when they’re under stress, offer to give them a break by:
- Babysitting or keeping kids occupied for a few hours.
- Running an errand for them.
- Getting them through the checkout line faster.
You also can volunteer for organizations that help children in the community.
How to Help a Child
In the United States of America, there are approximately 3 million reports of child abuse and neglect each year involving 6 million children. It is the right and responsibility of everyone in the community to report suspected child abuse or neglect.
If a child discloses that they are a victim of abuse, first believe them, listen to them, and don’t be critical or negative of the child or parent. Assure the child that they are not to blame and report the incident.
In Pennsylvania, report concerns for child abuse and neglect to ChildLine 1-800-932-0313.
You can make a report by contacting your local child protective services agency or police department. You do not need to have evidence or actual knowledge of abuse to make a report. You should have reasonable cause, heightened concerns, or belief based on observation.
Reporters can be anonymous, but giving your name may help the investigation. Good Faith Laws protect reporters from legal liability. Trust your instincts. Reporting your suspicions may protect the child and get help for a family who needs it.
How to Help Yourself
If you are a parent under stress, find ways to regain your self-control. Here are a few ways to help you collect yourself in a moment of frustration or anger:
- First, put your child in a safe place.
- Take 10 long, deep breaths. Hold your breath after the inhale and let it out slowly. .
- Call a friend or family member.
- Play some calming music.
- Sit down and take a few minutes to relax.
Never be afraid to apologize to your child if you lose your temper and say something in anger that you didn’t mean to say.
The Child Advocacy Center (CAC) at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh provides comprehensive evaluations for children and adolescents who may be victims of physical or sexual abuse, or neglect. They recommend keeping these tips in mind:
Monitor your stress levels.
If you find yourself becoming irritated or stressed, it is OK to take a timeout before the situation escalates. If you feel you are losing patience, call the Warmline at 800-641-4546. Family Resources, a nonprofit organization that seeks to prevent child abuse by supporting families, offers the Warmline free of charge to parents who need to talk with someone about their frustrations.
Remember that all babies cry.
If your baby is crying, check your baby’s basic needs:
- Is it time to eat?
- Do they need a diaper change?
- Are there signs of sickness?
If your baby is not sick or hurt, but continues to cry, it is OK to put your baby in a safe place – such as a crib or infant seat – and let them cry while you take a break or call someone for relief.
It is important to stay calm and to remember that it is never OK to shake a baby. Shaking a baby can lead to serious head injury or even death.
Be cautious of who you bring in as caregivers for your children.
It is important to choose your child’s caregivers wisely to prevent injury. Before leaving your child with anyone – including a babysitter, family member, friend, or significant other – understand how they will be caring for and treating your child. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Does this person want to watch my child?
- Will my child be in a safe place with this person?
- Has this person been a good caregiver to other children?
- Can I trust this person not to use violence, alcohol, or substances around my child?
- Have I had a chance to watch this person interact with my child before I leave?
If the answer is to any of these questions is, “No,” you might want to think twice about that person as a caregiver.
Evaluate your own use of substances or alcohol.
Consider how these substances change your decision-making ability or your personality. Do you yell? Do you hit? Does it change you in some other way?
Closely supervise your children while they are on the Internet.
Even if you have parental controls set on your computer, many pornography sites still are accessible. Teens and pre-teens can easily access the sites’ chat rooms where they can meet people who may harm them.
Reach out for guidance on positive parenting skills.
Community centers, churches, schools, and physicians all can help you access learning materials on developing good communication skills, applying appropriate discipline, and responding to children’s physical, developmental, and emotional needs. Understanding appropriate developmental milestones also may help you set reasonable expectations for a child.
Create social connections.
Social connections with family, friends, and the community can give encouragement and help improve your parent-child relationships. Concrete community supports that assist with food, clothing, housing, and access to health care also may be available. You can contact your physician for information about these services.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
About UPMC Harrisburg
UPMC Harrisburg is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Harrisburg includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.