Recognizing Child Abuse and Neglect: Signs and Symptoms
The first step in helping abused or neglected children is learning to recognize the signs of child abuse and neglect. The presence of a single sign does not prove child abuse is occurring in a family; however, when these signs appear repeatedly or in combination you should take a closer look at the situation and consider the possibility of child abuse.
If you do suspect a child is being harmed, reporting your suspicions may protect the child and get help for the family. Contact your local child protective services agency or police department. For more information about where and how to file a report, call the Childhelp USA® National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD®).
State Child Welfare Agency Websites
Includes links to State child welfare agency websites in all 50 States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. Links to Spanish translations of websites are provided when available.
These results are current as of Saturday, March 26, 2016 unless otherwise noted.
District of Columbia
U.S. Virgin Islands
The following signs may signal the presence of child abuse or neglect.
- Shows sudden changes in behavior or school performance.
- Has not received help for physical or medical problems brought to the parents’ attention.
- Has learning problems (or difficulty concentrating) that cannot be attributed to specific physical or psychological causes.
- Is always watchful, as though preparing for something bad to happen.
- Lacks adult supervision.
- Is overly compliant, passive, or withdrawn.
- Comes to school or other activities early, stays late, and does not want to go home.
- Shows little concern for the child.
- Denies the existence of—or blames the child for—the child’s problems in school or at home.
- Asks teachers or other caretakers to use harsh physical discipline if the child misbehaves.
- Sees the child as entirely bad, worthless, or burdensome.
- Demands a level of physical or academic performance the child cannot achieve.
- Looks primarily to the child for care, attention, and satisfaction of emotional needs.
The Parent and Child:
- Rarely touch or look at each other.
- Consider their relationship entirely negative.
- State that they do not like each other.
The following are some signs often associated with particular types of child abuse and neglect: physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. It is important to note, however, these types of abuse are more typically found in combination than alone. A physically abused child, for example, is often emotionally abused as well, and a sexually abused child also may be neglected.
Consider the possibility of physical abuse when the child:
- Has unexplained burns, bites, bruises, broken bones, or black eyes.
- Has fading bruises or other marks noticeable after an absence from school.
- Seems frightened of the parents and protests or cries when it is time to go home.
- Shrinks at the approach of adults.
- Reports injury by a parent or another adult caregiver.
Consider the possibility of physical abuse when the parent or other adult caregiver:
- Offers conflicting, unconvincing, or no explanation for the child’s injury.
- Describes the child as “evil,” or in some other very negative way.
- Uses harsh physical discipline with the child.
- Has a history of abuse as a child.
Consider the possibility of neglect when the child:
- Is frequently absent from school.
- Begs or steals food or money.
- Lacks needed medical or dental care, immunizations, or glasses.
- Is consistently dirty and has severe body odor.
- Lacks sufficient clothing for the weather.
- Abuses alcohol or other drugs.
- States that there is no one at home to provide care.
Consider the possibility of neglect when the parent or other adult caregiver:
- Appears to be indifferent to the child.
- Seems apathetic or depressed.
- Behaves irrationally or in a bizarre manner.
- Is abusing alcohol or other drugs.
Consider the possibility of sexual abuse when the child:
- Has difficulty walking or sitting.
- Suddenly refuses to change for gym or to participate in physical activities.
- Reports nightmares or bedwetting.
- Experiences a sudden change in appetite.
- Demonstrates bizarre, sophisticated, or unusual sexual knowledge or behavior.
- Becomes pregnant or contracts a venereal disease, particularly if under age 14.
- Runs away.
- Reports sexual abuse by a parent or another adult caregiver.
Consider the possibility of sexual abuse when the parent or other adult caregiver:
- Is unduly protective of the child or severely limits the child’s contact with other children, especially of the opposite sex.
- Is secretive and isolated.
- Is jealous or controlling with family members.
Consider the possibility of emotional maltreatment when the child:
- Shows extremes in behavior, such as overly compliant or demanding behavior, extreme passivity, or aggression.
- Is either inappropriately adult (parenting other children, for example) or inappropriately infantile (frequently rocking or head-banging, for example).
- Is delayed in physical or emotional development.
- Has attempted suicide.
- Reports a lack of attachment to the parent.
Consider the possibility of emotional maltreatment when the parent or other adult caregiver:
- Constantly blames, belittles, or berates the child.
- Is unconcerned about the child and refuses to consider offers of help for the child’s problems.
- Overtly rejects the child.
Child Welfare Information Gateway
CHILDREN’S HEALTH INSURANCEInsureKids Now!
The Children’s Bureau (CB) is within the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Administration for Children and Families, of the Department of Health and Human Services. CB seeks to provide for the safety, permanency and well being of children through leadership, support for necessary services, and productive partnerships with States, Tribes, and communities.
Federal Interagency Workgroup on Child Abuse and Neglect (FEDIAWG)
Children’s Bureau, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
FEDIAWG consists of more than 40 Federal agencies whose missions are directly involved in addressing the problem of child abuse and neglect. The workgroup meets on a regular basis to exchange ideas and develop plans concerning child maltreatment programs and activities. The FEDIAWG website describes the goals of the workgroup, offers workgroup resources, and lists Federal member agencies.
The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) is dedicated to the prevention of child abuse. Serving the United States, its territories, and Canada, the hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with professional crisis counselors who, through interpreters, can provide assistance in over 200 languages. The hotline offers crisis intervention, information, literature, and referrals to thousands of emergency, social service, and support resources. All calls are confidential.
The hotline has received more than 2 million calls since it began in 1982. These calls come from children at risk for abuse, distressed parents seeking crisis intervention and concerned individuals who suspect that child abuse may be occurring. The hotline is also a valuable resource for those who are mandated by law to report suspected abuse, such as school personnel, medical and mental health professionals and police and fire investigators.
What to expect when calling the hotline:
When calling 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453), a qualified crisis counselor will answer and assist you, if you:
- Need help and want to talk to a counselor.
- Are in physical or emotional crisis and need support and encouragement.
- Need to be connected to the best possible resources in your area.
- Have questions about the signs of child abuse.
- Need to find out how to report known or suspected abuse.
- Have questions about the reporting process and what you might expect through the process.
- Want to learn about Childhelp programs that will address you or your child’s needs.
- Want to learn about resources available to parents, grandparents and caregivers.
- Need emotional support as a survivor of abuse.
- Want a referral to an agency, counseling or other services near where you live.
- Want literature mailed to you. (Allow two weeks for delivery via the U.S. Postal Service.)
- Want information on how to make a donation to Childhelp.
- Childhelp crisis counselors cannot come to the home where the abuse is happening and take away the child or teen who is in danger of being hurt and put them in a new home.
- The Childhelp Hotline crisis counselors can’t make the child abuse report for you, but we are here to help you through it.