Sometimes it starts as a nagging feeling that something is just not right. You notice a child who seems very withdrawn or fearful. She may not want to go home. She might cringe at a sudden movement, expecting to be hit. She may seem unkempt or have a strong body odor. There could be unexplained bruises or other injuries. Or she could become overly aggressive and angry at a slight provocation. She might seem like a little adult, trying to take care of those around her. You think maybe you should ask about her, but you are not sure.
Most abused and neglected children will not speak up themselves. If that rare event happens to you, the most important thing to do is remain calm and believe what the child is telling you.
Do not overreact emotionally or ask probing questions. Simply let the child tell her story, and tell her that she is very brave and that this is not her fault. Then report what you have been told to the proper authorities.
It is not difficult to find out how to report suspected child abuse or neglect. But taking that step requires both thoughtfulness and courage. Suspected abuse should be reported to the local child protection services, or to local law enforcement.
People hesitate to report for several reasons. You may not be sure that what you observed actually was abuse or neglect. This judgment is best left to the professionals. The case will be carefully investigated and appropriate action taken.
Another reason for hesitating is fear that your name will be revealed. Reporting in these cases is anonymous. In many states, you will not be required to give your name. Simply state what you have seen, and leave the rest to the authorities.
Not wanting to interfere in someone else’s family may also be the reason that people do not call. But children are not able to help themselves in these situations. They need the intervention of competent and caring adults.
Fear that you may be breaking up a family could also come into play. But that is seldom true. Abused children and their families need immediate help and support.
In many cases, the family can simply be treated while intact if the situation is not too severe. If children must be removed from the home, it is better for that to happen than for the situation to continue.
Child abuse and neglect occur at all socioeconomic levels. And most abusers do love their children. They may be mentally ill, or perhaps they were abused as children and don’t know how to parent appropriately. The entire family will need help to overcome the effects of abuse and neglect.
Many states have mandatory reporting laws. Information about the laws in your particular state is available on the state child protective services website or hotline. You could also check the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline, 1-800-422-4452 (1-800-4-A-CHILD).
More information regarding these issues is available at www.helpguide.org and www.childwelfare.gov.