Signs of Abuse

There are many misconceptions about child abuse.  Here are some facts that we hope will help you understand the issue of child abuse and the prevalence of child abuse in the United States, Nebraska, and Iowa.

In Nebraska, all citizens are mandated reporters.  We all have the responsibility to report when we suspect a child is being abused.  To make a report, call the Nebraska Health and Human Services Child Abuse Reporting Hotline at 1-800-652-1999.

Iowa law defines classes of people who must report child abuse within 24 hours when they reasonably believe a child has suffered abuse.  These mandatory reporters are professionals who have frequent contact with children, generally those who work in health, mental health, education, law enforcement, child care, and social work.  To make a report, call the Iowa Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-362-2178.

Signs of Possible Neglect

  • Seem inadequately  dressed for the weather (e.g., shorts and sandals in freezing temperatures)
  • Appear excessively listless and tired (due to no routine or structure around bedtime)
  • Report caring for younger siblings (when they themselves are underage or are developmentally not ready to do so)
  • Demonstrate poor hygiene or smell of urine or feces
  • Seem unusually small or thin or have a distended stomach (indicative of malnutrition)
  • Have unattended medical or dental problems, such as infected sores or badly decayed/abscessed teeth
  • Appear withdrawn
  • Crave unusual amounts of attention, even in eliciting negative responses in order to obtain it

Signs of Possible Physical Abuse

  • Extensive bruises, especially in area of the body that are not normally vulnerable (e.g., behind ears)
  • Bruises of different colors (which may indicate various stages of healing)
  • Frequent bruises around the head or face, the abdomen or midway between the wrist and elbow
  • Bruises in specific shapes, such as handprints, hangar marks, or belt buckles
  • Marks that indicate hard blows from an object, such as an electrical cord or other whip-like object that makes a burn around the body
  • Bruises on multiple parts of the body (which may indicate blows from different directions)
  • Unexplained internal bleeding that might be observed as discoloration under the skin or blood filled lumps
  • Extreme sensitivity to pain or complaints of soreness and stiffness or awkward movements as if caused by pain
  • Adult-sized, human bite marks
  • Burns, especially those that appear to be from objects such as cigarettes, irons, etc.
  • Injuries for which the explanation given is inadequate.

Signs of Possible Sexual Abuse

  • Bruising in the inner thigh or genital area
  • Have difficulty walking or sitting
  • Complaints of genital or anal itching, pain, or bleeding
  • Frequently vomiting
  • Becomes pregnant at a young age
  • Have a sexually transmitted infection
  • Exceptionally secretive
  • Advanced sexual knowledge, more than what is age appropriate
  • Extreme compliance of withdrawal
  • Overly aggressive
  • Inordinate fear of males or females
  • Seductive behavior
  • Sleep problems; nightmares
  • Crying without provocation
  • Sudden onsets of wetting or soiling in their pants or bed
  • Suicidal ideation or gestures
  • Frequently running away
  • Cruelty to animals, especially pets
  • Firesetting behaviors beyond curiosity
  • Self-mutilation; cutting, burning, scratching themselves

Risk Factors for Maltreatment

  • Born prematurely, low birth weight
  • Perceived as unusual  or different in terms of appearance or temperament
  • Unhealthy, congenital abnormalities
  • Has a physical/emotional/developmental disability
  • Lives in poverty
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Presence of crime/violence
  • Single parent homes
  • Parents with a lack of education
  • Domestic violence
  • Mental illness of the caregiver

Behavioral Clues of Child Maltreatment

  • Aggressive, oppositional, defiant
  • Coming to school early and staying late to avoid going home
  • Extreme risk taking behaviors, fearlessness
  • Described as “accident-prone”
  • Low achieving
  • Cheat, steal, or lie (may be related to high expectations at home)
  • Regressive or immature behavior
  • Shrinks away from physical contact

Signs of Possible Emotional Abuse

  • Extremes in behavior (maniacally happy or very depressed)
  • Withdrawn
  • Self-destructive, self-mutilating
  • Destructive behavior
  • Cruelty to others, including animals
  • Rocking, thumb-sucking that is developmentally inappropriate, or head-banging
  • Enuresis; wetting or soiling one’s self at an age that is developmentally inappropriate
  • Substance abuse
  • Physical manifestations, such as frequent stomachaches or headaches or unexplained weight gain or loss

Child / Parent / Family Dynamics

Child abuse occurs in family systems, so when looking for signs of child abuse, do not only hone in on the child.  The parent and family dynamics may hold just as many, if not more signs than seen in the child alone.  Such as:

  • Parents who have unrealistic expectations of physical or academic performance for a child
  • Parents who were abused or neglected as children
  • Parents who look to their child to meet their own personal/emotional needs
  • Families blaming one child for all of their problems
  • Insistence of using physical discipline in school
  • Families who rarely interact with each other, seem cold and distant