Empty colorful swings at the park

Signs of Child Abuse

Child abuse offenders come from all ranks, races, religions and income levels. As hard as it can be to imagine, an abuser can be your neighbor, co-worker or even friend. The Department of Defense and the Family Advocacy Program are committed to addressing, preventing and ending child abuse. Do your part to keep kids safe: learn what child abuse is, who’s at risk, how to recognize the signs of abuse, and how you can help.

What defines child abuse

The Department of Defense defines child abuse as injury to, maltreatment of, or neglect of a child by a parent, guardian or caregiver so that the child's welfare is harmed or threatened. Child abuse generally falls into one of the following four categories:

  • Neglect includes the failure to provide for a child's basic needs.
  • Physical abuse is defined as physical harm to a child by actions such as punching, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting or burning.
  • Sexual abuse includes sexual activity toward or involving a child.
  • Emotional abuse includes a pattern of behaviors that have a negative effect on the child's psychological well-being, including constant criticism, threats and rejection.

Who is at risk

Although there is no definitive checklist, the following circumstances could put a child at greater risk for abuse:

  • Premature infants with ongoing health problems
  • Infants who were exposed to drugs or alcohol in the womb and cases in which the parent continues substance abuse after the birth
  • Young, isolated parents who are separated from extended family and lack other social support
  • Families with severe financial, housing or employment problems
  • Families under extreme stress such as those dealing with mental illness, substance abuse, deployments or highly demanding jobs.

These factors do not mean the family will experience abuse, but they do increase the risk for abuse.

How to recognize the signs of child abuse

You can help keep your community safe by recognizing the signs of child abuse and reporting it when you see it. Here are some examples of child abuse:

  • A mother leaves her 2-year-old child unsupervised at home while she runs a quick errand.
  • A parent puts a young child in the bathtub and leaves the room to talk on the cell phone or play video games.
  • A father disciplines his unruly teenage son by hitting him with a belt, leaving bruises, cuts and welts.
  • A young parent puts some alcohol or Benadryl in his or her child's bottle so the child will go to sleep faster.
  • A parent frequently tells the child they're no good and should never have been born.
  • A family member engages in sexual behavior with a child by touching the child inappropriately or making the child participate in sexual activities
  • A young parent shakes a baby to try to get the infant to stop crying.

How you can help

Reporting child abuse only takes a minute. Err on the side of safety. If you think a child is being abused, report it today. Reporting is a way to prevent further abuse and get the family the help they need. Everyone has a moral obligation and, in many cases, a legal responsibility to take action to stop abuse. Here are some ways you can help.

  • Call 911 or the military police if you witness violence or know someone is in immediate danger.
  • Report suspected child abuse or neglect—by law, you must report it. Make your report to the installation FAP or the local child protective services office. You can also call your state's child abuse reporting hotline or contact Childhelp at 800-4-A-CHILD (422-4453).
  • Ask for help. Parents can contact their installation's FAP for counseling and other support services to help address issues that are causing stress within the home. Whatever the issue, Family Advocacy Program can find the resources to help relieve the stress on the family.

Remember, a child abuse offender can be of any age, gender, rank or race. He or she may be a parent, babysitter, extended family member, sibling, coach, teacher or religious leader. Pay attention to the warning signs of abuse.