Is it Abuse?

What are some common indicators of abuse?

Sometimes a child will openly tell a trusted adult that he or she is being physically or sexually abused. At other times, our suspicions may be aroused by physical or behavioral signs that are suggestive of abuse, especially when many of them occur together in an individual child.

Children are always getting bumped and bruised, but there are some injuries which are less likely to occur as a result of normal rough-and-tumble childhood activity. When children fall or bang into things, they are most likely to injure their chins, foreheads, elbows, knees, or shins. Bruises on the upper arms, thighs, back of the legs, buttocks, and rectal or genital area, are more likely to result from some kind of assault. Of course, this might not always be the case, and there may be a perfectly reasonable explanation for how the injury occurred. It is when the child and parent cannot come up with a reasonable explanation—and especially when this happens over and over again—that we need to look further. Other possible signs of physical abuse are injuries that show the outline of an object— for example a belt buckle, coat hanger, hot iron.

Sometimes, children who have been sexually abused will show obvious physical signs of the experience. More frequently, there are no such indications. There are a variety of behaviors that might suggest abuse, especially when a number of them occur in the same child, but it is important to realize that these behaviors also occur in children who have not been abused. These might include a child showing a degree of sexual knowledge beyond what would be expected for his or her age, a preoccupation with his or her own private parts or those of others, inappropriate seductiveness, excessive fear of persons of the opposite sex, withdrawn behavior, secretiveness, or dramatic changes in behavior or school performance. These are not reasons to report abuse in and of themselves, but they might be reasons for a trusted adult to initiate a talk about how things are going with the child.

How does being abused affect children?

No two children react in exactly the same way when they have been exposed to abuse, domestic violence, or violent crime. However, there are certain issues which tend to surface in one way or another. Some children are left in a state of high arousal, making it hard for them to calm down, concentrate, and behave appropriately. They may be so preoccupied with thoughts of what has happened—or trying to avoid those thoughts—that they cannot participate in the normal activities of childhood.

Children may have feelings of guilt for what occurred, or believe that they are “damaged goods.” Their ability to trust may have been deeply affected, and they may no longer feel safe in the world. Sometimes, children deal with feelings like these by behaving as if the opposite is true, and take unnecessary risks in order to prove that they are not vulnerable.

In the wake of abuse and domestic violence, there are often many disruptions to the life of a family. If a perpetrator needs to leave the home, a family may need to make drastic reductions in its standard of living, or even move to a shelter. Family members may be split in their loyalties, and an already victimized child may find him or herself the scapegoat because he or she is seen as responsible for what has happened.

What is the difference between discipline and abuse?

The purpose of discipline is to train and educate a child. It should be appropriate to the behavior it addresses, and to the developmental level of the child.  It must never be a way for a parent to express his or her own frustration and rage. Many of today’s adults grew up in homes where some kind of spanking was a fact of life, and they don’t think that they were any the worse for it. At Children’s Safety Project, we believe that there are better ways of handling misbehavior. However, in the State of New York it is legal for parents to administer a “reasonable amount of corporal punishment” without penalty to themselves. Practically speaking, any physical punishment that causes actual injury—i.e. bruising of the skin—may be considered to go beyond this limit, regardless of the behavior that provoked it. Other ways in which punishment may be considered unreasonable would be when the child does not have the capacity to understand the purpose of the discipline, when it is degrading or prolonged, or when it is applied to vulnerable organs such as the head or genitals.

Whom should I notify if I suspect that someone is struggling with abuse?

Many professionals, including medical personnel, school officials, law enforcement personnel, and social service personnel, are mandated reporters. This means that they are legally obligated to report instances of suspected child abuse they have encountered while performing their work duties. Private citizens are not mandated reporters, but they are encouraged to call the State Central Registry—known as the Child Abuse Hotline—if they have cause to believe that a child is being abused. The caller’s identity will be kept confidential. Even if no evidence is found to support the suspicions, there is no penalty to the caller if the call was made in good faith. The Hotline number, which can be called at any hour, is: 1 (800) 342-3720.

A child protective specialist will need to know the name and address of the child and the responsible parent. He or she will also ask about the extent of the child’s injuries, the risk of harm, and any prior suspicious injuries. The specialist will analyze the information and determine whether it is sufficient to register a report.

What else can I do?

As parents, it is important to provide our children with an atmosphere that lets them know that they can tell us about anything that is making them uncomfortable, and that we will take them seriously. We need to set a precedent where their wishes about their physical boundaries are respected. Children should be taught how to assert themselves directly when somebody is doing something they don’t like. Too often, children are encouraged to hug and kiss all adults indiscriminately, whether they want to or not, and are made to feel guilty if they don’t want to.

As citizens, we need to be aware that physical abuse often occurs when parents are overwhelmed by too many stresses and too few supports. Anything we can do to provide families with adequate financial security, housing, medical care, mental health services, and child care will relieve the burdens that sometimes lead to parents taking their frustrations out on children. Education that helps parents learn about appropriate expectations for children at different stages of development, and non-corporal methods of discipline, can also be vital.