Child abuse is a serious threat to children’s safety and well-being. And since child abusers can be children’s parents or caretakers, they can often cover up or deny that abuse has occurred. That means it’s important for everyone to know how to recognize common signs of child abuse.
Since child abuse comes in many forms, the symptoms also come in many forms. Physical, mental and sexual abuse all have specific indicators that research has shown to be common signs of abuse. So whether you’re around children often or you see them only infrequently, you can look for the following warnings of child abuse.
Remember that any one of the below signs does not necessarily mean a child has been abused or neglected; these are guidelines to use in context with a child’s development and behavior. But a combination or any pattern of warning signs should alert you that the child may be suffering maltreatment.
This includes causing or threatening to cause physical injury to a child. Children who have suffered physical abuse may:
- Have unexplained bruises, fractures, burns, cuts or other marks or injuries
- Have multiple injuries that occurred at different times (are in different stages of healing)
- Move uncomfortably or complain of soreness
- Frequently return from weekend or other absence with injuries
This can include failing to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter or health care to a child under one’s care. Children who suffer from this type of neglect may:
- Beg for or steal food, or often say they are hungry
- Have poor hygiene and/or wear unclean clothes
- Report that they are frequently home alone
- Have untreated medical needs
Sexual abuse includes sexually assaulting or exploiting a child or allowing a child to be used in sexually explicit material such as photos. Child victims of sexual abuse may:
- Have difficulty sitting or walking
- Say they have pain or itching in their genital area
- Engage in highly sexualized play
- Have an age-inappropriate understanding of sexual behavior
Mental abuse or neglect
This includes failing to provide emotional nurturing or being emotionally abusive toward a child. Children who have suffered mental abuse or neglect may:
- Have frequent stomach aches or headaches
- Behave cruelly toward other children or animals
- Exhibit age-inappropriate behavior such as thumb sucking, head banging, or rocking
- Have speech disorders or learning problems
What to do if you suspect abuse or neglect
If you suspect that a child has suffered mistreatment, call the Virginia Department of Social Service Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-552-7096. Important items to remember about the hotline are:
- You do not have to prove that abuse has occurred; child protective services (CPS) workers will investigate all reports.
- You may report anonymously; if you do choose to report your name, it will not be released to the family who was reported.
- If your report is made in good faith, you are immune from civil and criminal liability, under Virginia law.
- Recognizing, Reporting and Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect in Virginia PDF. Accessed May 23, 2019.