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Signs of child abuse: What to look for and what to do

By Kurt Manwaring, Contributor | Posted - Feb 24th, 2012 @ 10:39pm

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Child abuse is a serious problem across the globe and in Utah. Four to five children die on a daily basis in this country because of abuse, and in Utah, at least one incident of child abuse is confirmed every day.

Adding to the prevalence of child abuse is a lack of information about how to recognize and report it.

Recognizing abuse

Typically, child abuse is broken down into four general categories — although abused children usually manifest symptoms that overlap from one category to another. The four categories of abuse are: (1) physical abuse, (2) neglect, (3) sexual abuse and (4) emotional maltreatment.

Each of these forms of abuse leaves a trail of signs that can be recognized in both the abuser and the child. While these bread crumbs of abuse are not always indicative that abuse is taking place, they are nonetheless signs that should be viewed with appropriate alertness by those who witness potential incidents of child abuse.

Ask a Cop:

Physical abuse

Some of the most common signs of physical abuse include:

  • Children with “unexplained burns, bites, bruises, broken bones or black eyes.”
  • Children who appear scared by parents and “ (protest or cry) when it is time to go home from school.”
  • Parents or other adults who are unable to explain how their children in their care were injured or who offer conflicting or unconvincing explanations about the injuries.
  • Parents or other adults who describe the children in their care “as ‘evil’ or in some other very negative way.”

Some of the most common signs of neglect include:

  • Children who are constantly dirty and children who aren’t appropriately dressed for the weather.
  • Children who state “there is no one at home to provide care.”
  • Parents or other adults who seem “indifferent to (the children in their care) … apathetic or depressed.”
  • Parents or other adult caregivers with substance abuse problems (including alcoholism).
Sexual abuse

Some of the most common signs of sexual abuse include:

  • Children who have “difficulty walking or sitting.”
  • Children who “demonstrate bizarre, sophisticated or unusual sexual knowledge or behavior.”
  • Parents or other adult caregivers who are “secretive or isolated.”
  • Parents or other adult caregivers who “describe marital difficulties involving family power struggles or sexual relations.”

Emotional maltreatment

Some of the most common signs of emotional maltreatment include:

  • Children who demonstrate “extremes in behavior, such as (being) overly compliant or demanding.”
  • Children who appear to be “inappropriately adult … (or) infantile.”
  • Parents or other adults who demonstrate a lack of concern for the children in their care and who refuse “to consider offers of help for the (children’s) school problems.”
  • Parents or other adults who “overtly reject the (children in their care).”
Common questions about reporting child abuse

Responsible adults or other observers are often the only glimmer of hope for children who are unable to defend themselves or ask for help. An awareness of the common signs of child abuse, both as manifest by children and their parents or caregivers, is a critical first step in protecting children. However, if there is suspicion that abuse is taking place, it is also important to come forward and help put an end to the tragedy.

Common questions about reporting child abuse include:

What if I think child abuse is taking place but it turns out I’m wrong?

Reporting child abuse is one example of a situation where it is better to be safe than sorry.

Reporting child abuse is one example of a situation where it is better to be safe than sorry.

Abused children are very often unable to ask for help. Utah law is designed to protect the well-being of these children and accordingly requires “any person who has reason to believe a child has been subjected to abuse or neglect to immediately notify the nearest Utah Division of Child and Family Services or law enforcement agency.”

Not reporting abuse is replete with severe consequences for the children you suspect of being abuse and is also against the law. When it comes to child abuse, it is far better for everyone involved to be safe than sorry.

Will it make things worse if I report abuse?

The consequences of reporting suspicion of abuse and being wrong may cause temporary discomfort for some families, but the consequences of suspecting abuse and failing to report it puts children at risk for continued abuse — and even death. If you suspect abuse is taking place, the proper and lawful thing to do is make the initial report and then let the authorities investigate.


Can I choose to remain anonymous?

Yes. While it is preferable to provide your name and contact information so authorities can follow up with you if necessary, you can make your report anonymously. What information should I have when making a report?

When making a report, it is helpful to have as much information as possible. In particular, take notes on the “who,” “what,” “when” and “where” of the abuse.

What happens after I make a report?

Once you have made a report, the authorities will prioritize the case based upon “the immediate risk/danger to the child.” Depending on the severity of the case, contact will be made within 60 minutes, 24 hours or three working days. Some cases are not investigated, but the decision of whether to investigate is not made until a report has been called in.

For those cases that are investigated, authorities have a number of options at their disposal and will do all in their power to ensure the safety of the child or children in question.

How to report child abuse or get involved

If you think you know of a situation where child abuse is occurring, you can report the problem by calling the Utah child abuse hotline at 1-855-323-3237.

If you believe someone is in immediate danger, call 911 immediately.

Additional resources

Kurt Manwaring is pursuing a graduate degree in public administration at the University of Utah. He is the managing member of Manwaring Consulting, LLC and a former court appointed special advocate for abused and neglected children.

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