How To Report and Get Help for Child Abuse

Harmful behavior comes in many forms. Knowing how to best help an abused child can be difficult. Resources are available to address child abuse. 

Child abuse is one of the most devastating crimes. It can take many forms, and it always causes harm to the child.

This article can help you understand the following topics for reporting child abuse:

Abused children may require the following:

  • Counseling
  • Help from child protective services (CPS)
  • Legal advocacy
  • Other assistance from social services

It's important to note that while child abuse cases are tried in criminal courts, decisions directly affecting the welfare of a child are typically handled in family court. The well-being of young children is supported in multiple courts and by various professionals.

Recognizing the Signs of Child Abuse

Some of the warning signs of child abuse include:

  • Unexplained burns, cuts, or bruises
  • Withdrawal from peers
  • Fear of going home
  • Internal injuries or broken bones
  • Extreme thirst or hunger
  • Far-fetched stories about how injuries were sustained
  • Lack of cleanliness or personal hygiene
  • Unusual knowledge of sex at a young age
  • Fear or extreme behavior around certain genders or age groups

Child abuse victims often are too scared or ashamed to tell anyone about their ordeal. Additionally, they may encounter skepticism if they do tell someone.

This is especially true if the alleged abuser is a relative or family friend. Other victims may be in denial despite showing signs of abuse. Some might be conditioned to believe that abuse is a normal part of childhood.

For these reasons, looking out for signs of child abuse is essential. If there are signs of suspected abuse, it is better to take action to ensure the child's safety.

How To Report Child Abuse: The Basic Process

Each state has slightly different child abuse laws and procedures. Prosecuting charges like assault, battery, or child endangerment will look different in every state.

To stop child abuse, you must look out for the telltale signs of abuse (listed above).

Once you suspect a child is harmed, you'll want to report child abuse and get them the help they deserve.

The best way to get help for child abuse is to report it to local authorities. They will conduct an investigation and potentially prosecute the abuser.

Organizations dedicated to preventing abuse may also have helpful resources and information.

What Types of Child Abuse Need To Be Reported?

All forms of abuse need to be reported. Most states recognize five types of dependant abuse.

Maltreatment of a child includes:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Sexual exploitation
  • Emotional abuse
  • Neglect
  • Abandonment

While mental health and psychological abuse aren't always defined in state laws, they may fall under the emotional abuse category.

Domestic violence is considered a separate crime from child abuse. All states will have avenues to seek domestic violence orders against the abuser if the abuser meets the familial criteria of the domestic violence statutes.

It is common for households that experience child abuse also to have spousal abuse or domestic violence situations.

Tips for Adults Who Suspect Child Abuse

Trustworthy adults can help abused children get the protection and emotional support they need.

Here are some tips for adults who suspect that a child is being abused:

  • Call a child abuse prevention organization such as Childhelp.
  • Use the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) for more information and the next steps.
  • Don't jump to conclusions. Kids often get banged up when they play (or get into fights with peers). Ask a child what happened to gauge their response.
  • Encourage the child to document the incidents of abuse.
  • Tell trusted adults but be wary. You don't want to risk someone inadvertently influencing the child by having the child over-interviewed.
  • If you're the alleged victim's parent or legal guardian, schedule the child for a doctor's exam and/or psychiatric evaluation.
  • Be aware that children with disabilities can be at higher risk or have more difficulty communicating the abuse.

Who Are Mandatory Reporters for Child Abuse?

Certain people are designated as "mandated reporters" or "mandatory reporters." This means they're obligated by law to report suspected child abuse.

State laws decide who is a mandatory reporter. They usually include people in professions that have access to children, such as:

  • Teachers
  • Counselors
  • Clergy or religious organization staff
  • Physicians
  • Nurses
  • Daycare staff
  • Child care providers
  • School staff
  • Coaches

Failure to report by a mandatory reporter can lead to criminal charges. In some states, everyone is a mandatory reporter. This means that anyone who has reason to believe a child is being abused is at risk of criminal punishment for not reporting.

Anyone with a reasonable belief that child abuse is occurring who does not report it can face criminal liability. For example, under California child abuse laws, failure to report child abuse is a misdemeanor.

Failure to report by a mandatory reporter or filing false reports can be a crime punishable by a fine and/or jail sentence.

After Filing a Case: Using Child Advocacy Centers

If a case is filed, the abused child (and non-abusing family members) may need the help of a Children's Advocacy Center (CAC).

CACs are publicly funded entities that work with local police and CPS officials. Together, they help abused children get the care and services they need.

Sometimes CPS can't make a legal case because of a lack of evidence. Even in instances where police and CPS fail to take action, CACs can help facilitate a forensic interview, take photos, collect evidence, and provide medical care.

Often the evidence gathered by CACs is presented to prosecutors for consideration.

Getting Children Out of an Abusive Environment

The criminal justice system will handle a case against an alleged abuser. However, family courts generally handle the child's welfare.

This may include placement in a foster home or counseling services. If the abuse was at the hands of a custodial parent, it could lead to termination of custodial rights or restriction of visitation rights.

In some child abuse or neglect cases, the offending parent may temporarily have to report to a social worker. One example is a mother leaving a child in the car while making a quick grocery stop.

Children in imminent danger of abuse are usually removed and placed temporarily in a foster home. This term can refer to residential facilities, emergency shelters, group homes, or supervised independent living arrangements. The child will live there until authorities determine the caregivers and home are safe for the child to return.

Family Foster Care

Children in family foster care are placed with a member of the family or a nonrelative who has been pre-approved by the state. The foster care providers will give the child care, support, and shelter. Sometimes, a whole family can also be involved in family foster care. An entire family foster care usually happens when a parenting youth needs shelter and models in healthy parenting.

Treatment Foster Care

Treatment foster care is given to children and adolescents with specific behavioral, emotional, or medical needs. This type of foster care is designed to provide health care and nurturing to the child in a more structured environment than regular foster care. Treatment foster care is also a cost-effective option used instead of residential treatment. Treatment foster care, or therapeutic foster care, is less restrictive than a residential facility but still offers needed support to the child.

Other Planned Permanent Living Arrangements (OPPLA)

In extreme cases where home life is not safe again, the child may be permanently removed from the home. They will be placed for long-term foster care or adoption with another family.

"Other planned permanent living arrangements" (OPPLA) is a term used to replace "long-term foster care." With OPPLA, children are expected to stay in foster care until adulthood. In this situation, the child remains in the custody and maintenance of the child welfare agency. But this foster care service is offered only when other options — such as relative placement, legal guardianship, or adoption — have been ruled out.

Reporting Child Abuse to the State

In most states, the process begins with an anonymous phone call from the child or a relative, parent, witness, or mandatory reporter.

The authorities who take the call will ask questions about what happened or what was observed. The authorities will ask additional questions to determine the credibility of the allegations.

A Child Protective Services worker will begin an investigation if a formal report is taken. The investigation may involve speaking with the child, their family, and other adults in the child's life.

The following is a sampling of state child abuse reporting procedures:

  • California – California Child Protective Services will determine whether an in-person response is necessary after the initial report. Call your county's emergency response hotline to report child abuse or neglect.
  • Illinois – Investigations into child abuse must be opened within 24 hours of the report or sooner if the child is at risk of imminent harm. Roughly one in four hotline calls result in a formal report and investigation.
  • Texas – Anyone who suspects child abuse must report it to the state's Department of Family and Protective Services. A reporter can choose whether to make the report confidentially or anonymously. The time frame for investigations varies by the severity of the allegations.

Visit the list of phone numbers and web addresses of state agencies maintained by the Child Welfare Information Gateway. This list will help you contact the agency responsible for receiving and investigating child abuse and neglect reports in your state.

Federal Assistance for Reporting Child Abuse

As with most crimes against individuals, child abuse is prosecuted by state and local law enforcement agencies in state courts.

However, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provides support through its Child Welfare Information Gateway. This organization promotes the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline.

The hotline provides anonymous crisis assistance, counseling, and referral services 24 hours a day and seven days a week. The number to call is 1-800-422-4453.

Organizations That Offer Child Abuse Prevention Programs

The Children's Bureau compiled an extensive list of agencies, nonprofit organizations, and resource centers that handle child abuse. The partnerships aim to combine expertise and resources to address the issue of child abuse and neglect in the country.

The following are the top three agencies included in the list.

American Academy of Pediatrics

The American Academy of Pediatrics is a nonprofit organization. The organization produces education and professional training materials on topics about pediatrics. They aim to secure children, infants, and young adults' mental, physical, and social health and well-being.

Children's Advocacy Centers

Children's Advocacy Centers check and treat abused or children at risk of abuse. The center provides a safe shelter for these children and gives a coordinated response to victims of abuse and neglect. They also offer various social services and programs. Included among these services are parenting education and therapeutic counseling. These programs aim to improve the child's mental health and well-being.

Children's Bureau Learning and Coordination Center

The Children's Bureau Learning and Coordination Center provides strategic communication and logistic services to boost engagement and outreach efforts that address issues relevant to child welfare and development.

When To Call an Attorney To Report Child Abuse

If you've witnessed child abuse or are a victim of abuse, the experience can leave you feeling powerless.

One of the reasons people may not report child abuse is out of fear that it will break up a family and result in the child's placement in foster homes. However, child abuse itself breaks up a family. There are a variety of possible outcomes that could result from reporting abuse, all of which would be in the child's best interest.

You're not alone when it comes to reporting child abuse. It's never too late to act. There are family law attorneys in your area who can provide you with real solutions and peace of mind.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • You can seek new child custody arrangements during an abuse case
  • Child abuse can affect legal rights to custody
  • An attorney can help create orders of protection

Always report suspected child abuse to law enforcement. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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