Signs of Child Abuse and Neglect

Any intentional harm or maltreatment to a child under the age of 18 by a parent, caregiver or person in a custodial role, such as a teacher or clergyman, is considered child abuse or child neglect. You can help an abused or neglected child by learning how to recognize child abuse and neglect and knowing when and how to report it. Here's a brief guide to the process.

How to Recognize Child Abuse and Neglect

A child who's being abused or neglected may be afraid to tell anyone about the abuse because they fear or want to protect the offender. For this reason, it's important for you to be able to recognize abuse or neglect and report it on the child's behalf.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse involves causing physical harm or injury to a child. Signs of physical abuse include:

  • Frequent unexplained injuries, such as burns, bruises, bite marks or broken bones
  • Increased alertness or watchfulness
  • Wears inappropriate clothing to hide injuries, such as sweaters on hot days
  • Reluctance to change for, or partake in, physical activities, such as swimming or gymnastics

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse involves exposing a child to sexual situations or materials. Signs of sexual abuse include:

  • Trouble sitting or walking
  • Sexual knowledge or behavior that's inappropriate for his or her age
  • Unexplained stomach aches or genital pain
  • Frequent urinary infections

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse involves exposing a child to frightening, threatening, humiliating or intimidating language or behavior. Signs of emotional abuse include:

  • Extreme behavior, such as extreme passivity or shyness
  • Loss of self-esteem or self-confidence
  • Social withdrawal
  • Sudden lack of concentration or underachievement

Child Neglect

Child neglect involves failing to provide for a child's basic needs. Signs of child neglect include:

  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Untreated dental or medical problems
  • Frequent lack of adult supervision
  • Excessive hunger

The presence of a single warning sign doesn't mean that child abuse or neglect is occurring, but when these signs appear repeatedly or in combination, you should take a closer look at the situation.

When to Report

If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, report it immediately. A professional can then decide whether your concerns warrant an investigation or a referral to another service.

Where and How to Report

If the child requires emergency attention, call 911. Remember to inform the emergency personnel that you suspect the child is being abused or neglected.

If the child doesn't require emergency attention, call any of the following to share your concerns:

  • Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: This toll-free national hotline is available 24/7 and provides free access to trained crisis counselors. The counselors can't report child abuse or neglect on your behalf but can offer crisis assistance, information and referrals. Contact the Helpline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).
  • Your local child protective service or law enforcement agency: Each state has its own system for receiving and responding to reports of child abuse and neglect. Many states have a toll-free number you can call to report your concerns. To find out who to call, consult the Child Welfare Information Gateway publication, State Child Abuse Reporting Numbers.

Reports of suspected child abuse or neglect are confidential by law. Unless you're a mandated reporter, you can file a report without giving your name.