Most child abuse and neglect happens behind closed doors, so the signs aren’t always obvious and often fall into a gray area. You may see a child with multiple unexplained bruises. Maybe it’s a little one wandering around the neighborhood alone. Or maybe you see a stranger lose their cool at the grocery store and they smack their kid.
What would you do?
Would you recognize that as a sign of child abuse? Would you know who to call? Would you call?
There is usually a history of abuse when a child dies from maltreatment. Rarely is it a case that one day a child is fine and the next day is dead.
Most of us know the law requires certain people to report potential child abuse or neglect. This includes health professionals, church leaders, child guardians, school personnel or anyone else responsible for the care of the child. Neighbors and the general public also have an obligation to keep children safe.
Most cases go unreported because people are scared to get involved.
People tend to think it’s none of their business, and that they shouldn’t interfere with other families. Other reasons: They’re in denial that anything wrong is happening. They fear they will be dragged into court. They worry they will break up a family. Even so, it is better to do something than to do nothing at all.
There are too many cases in the news where neighbors or even family members knew a child was being hurt or being beaten. They heard screams, and they did nothing. It’s in the best interest of the child for you to make a phone call to CPS or the police, and to discover everything is OK, rather than do nothing because things can get worse and a child may end up seriously injured or dead.
Let's explore some of the most common questions about how and when people should get involved when they suspect child abuse or neglect.
No obvious abuseScenario: Someone you know has become aggressive with their child, and it’s clear things aren’t quite right even if there’s no obvious abuse - yet.
What to do immediately: It is acceptable to step in. Make a comment like: “Parenting is a tough job.” Or using humor to let the parent know you’ve been there: “Kids can really act up, can’t they?”
Making a quick comment can calm the parent down.
What you shouldn’t do: The cardinal rule is don’t criticize the parent, because you will immediately antagonize the parent who may take it out on the child later.
Next steps: Turn the attention to the child, so you can talk about what’s best for him or her. Mention resources, such as support groups or churches, and ask how you can help, perhaps by watching the child for a few hours every other week.
The tense moment you witnessed usually isn’t a one-time thing, so don’t reach out once and just let it go. If the problem continues, call CPS or police. If what you witnessed makes you uncomfortable, go with your gut and call CPS or police. Let the professionals decide what’s going on.
Obvious signs of abuseScenario: You don’t have an established relationship with the potential abuser - as in the case of a neighbor, for example - and you hear or see abuse next door.
What to do immediately: Call CPS or 911.
A common misconception is that calling CPS will result in the state removing the child from the family, which is not true. Sometimes it helps get some available services to the family that they may not know about and need. If you feel threatened or worried about repercussions, you can always provide information anonymously.
What you shouldn’t do: Do not investigate the situation on your own. Let the professionals handle it because you don’t want to put yourself in danger or escalate the situation.
Next steps: If the situation persists and no one has responded, call again. Experts advise against getting personally involved.
What to do immediately: Make a quick comment and try to calm the parent down.
Even when it’s a stranger, all it takes in a situation like this is to smile at the parent and say, "It is so hard sometimes, I remember when I was there."
It’s more likely for a parent that feels embarrassed to take anger out on the child. If the parent knows other people understand what they are going through, then they are likely to calm down.
What you shouldn’t do: Don’t criticize. Again, that will only anger the parent more.
Next steps: If the situation continues to escalate, and the parent physically harms the child, call the police and try to get a license plate number. Don’t intervene personally because you could put yourself in danger.
Potential neglectScenario: You see a young child wandering the streets or any public place alone.
What to do immediately: Try to locate the parent. If you’re in a store, help the child find the parent.
The parent is not supervising their child and the child is not safe.
What you shouldn’t do: Don’t criticize the parent. Don’t discipline the child personally. Don’t walk away and ignore it.
Next steps: If you can’t find the parents, call the police or CPS.
Warning signs to look for in children that may indicate abuse or neglect:
A child that is unhappy or hungry frequently
A child with unexplained bruises, burns or sores
A child with unexplained bruises, burns or sores in unusual areas on their body - bottoms of feet or on their back
A child at any age that has a bruise in their ear (it takes a lot of force to bruise an ear)
Any infant that can not roll over, sit or walk by themselves that has bruises
A child that wears dirty or ill-fitting clothes on a regular basis
A child that misses a lot of school
A child that is unsupervised outside or being left home alone
A child that talks about family violence
Parents or children that harm animals or pets.
A child that expresses fear of something or someone
A child that has trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or is having nightmares.
Numbers to call:911, if the abuse is happening in public or needs immediate police attention
National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) Crisis Counselors Available 24/7
Sources: Suzanne Schunk, director of family-support services for Southwest Human Development; American Humane Association