Children need love and support, which is why child abuse is so devastating. Knowing how to get help for child abuse (and summoning the courage to do so) can be difficult, but resources are available. Abused children may require counseling, help from child protective services (CPS), legal advocacy, or other assistance. 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.
Recognizing the Signs of Child Abuse
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 (especially if the alleged abuser is a relative or family friend). Other victims may be in denial despite showing signs of abuse, perhaps conditioned to believe that abuse is a normal part of childhood.
For these reasons, it's important to look out for signs of child abuse. Some of the warning signs of child abuse include:
- Unexplained burns, cuts, or bruises
- 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
Reporting Child Abuse
The best way to get help for child abuse is to report it to local authorities, who will conduct an investigation and potentially prosecute the abuser. Organizations dedicated to preventing abuse may also have helpful resources and information. 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, via the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) for more information and next steps.
- Don't jump to conclusions: kids often get banged up when they play (or get into fights with peers).
- Encourage the child to document the incidents of abuse and to tell as many other trusted adults as possible.
- If you're the alleged victim's parent or legal guardian, schedule the child for a doctor's exam and/or psychiatric evaluation.
How to Get Help for Child Abuse: Mandatory Reporters
Certain people are designated as "mandatory reporters," meaning that they're obligated by law to report suspected child abuse. Mandatory reporters are designated by state laws, but usually include people in professions that have access to children, such as teachers, physicians, and nurses. Failure to report by a mandatory reporter can lead to criminal charges.
In some states, everyone is a mandatory reporter. 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 is a misdemeanor.
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 to help abused children get the care and services they need. Even in instances where police and CPS fail to take action (perhaps for lack of evidence), 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 Out of an Abusive Environment
While the criminal justice system will handle a case against an alleged abuser, family courts generally address a 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 - such as a mother leaving a child in the car while making a quick grocery stop - the offending parent may temporarily have to report to a social worker. But children in imminent danger of abuse are usually removed and placed temporarily in a foster home until authorities determine that the home is safe for the child. In extreme cases where this does not happen, the child may be permanently removed from the home and placed for adoption with another family.
Learn How to Get Help for Child Abuse from an Attorney
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 and there are a variety of possible outcomes that could result from reporting abuse, all of which would be in the child's best interest. It's never too late to act and there are family law attorneys in your area who can provide you with real solutions and peace of mind.