In Abuse

Definition of Child Abuse and Identifying an Abused Child

Child Abuse!

Child protective agencies work hard to help the child abused and the parents get the help they need to become a loving family again. However, children in abusive homes can go unnoticed and technology cannot predict those at risk.

Child abuse happens:

  • In all religions
  • At any socioeconomic level
  • In every ethnic group
  • At all educational levels

Knowing the signs of abuse and the definition of each type may help a child get out of an abusive home.

The definition of child abuse

The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) broadly defines child abuse as:

“Any recent act, or failure to act, on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act, or failure to act, which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”

Most states recognize and define these four types of child abuse:

A few states add abandonment and parental substance abuse to the list. Lawmakers in each state create specific definitions of the types of abuse and the punishment for those found guilty.

Each instance of child abuse leaves life-long scars that affect every aspect of life as the child grows into an adult. For example:

Approximately 30-percent of all abuse victims will abuse their own children.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse on a child occurs when a parent or caregiver purposely inflicts physical injuries like bruises, broken bones or life threatening fractures, on a minor by:

  • Hitting them with any object or hands
  • Kicking
  • Biting
  • Shaking
  • Throwing
  • Stabbing
  • Choking
  • Punching

A child abused physically can go unnoticed until a tragedy puts them in the headlines.

Recently, a Florida mother called emergency operators to report a car had hit her 3-year old daughter and fled the scene. The toddler died and at autopsy, the coroner discovered her injuries did not come from a car.

Investigators also found bruises, in different stages of healing, on the toddler’s brother. Orange County sheriffs arrested the 22-year old mother and charged her with the suspected abuse of her 2-year old son. She will remain jailed while investigation into her daughter’s death continues.

Physically abused toddlers have no way to tell the outside world what happens. Older children go to school and interact with others who may notice injuries. Some clues that a toddler suffers abuse include:

  • Stunted development
  • They avoid going to a parent or an abusive caregiver
  • They have injuries in different stages of healing
  • Injuries in odd places like the insides of arms and legs, the genital area or back
  • The child’s parents do not have the injuries checked by a doctor

Older children stop doing well in school, drink alcohol, take drugs or participate in dangerous activities.

Reporting these signs of abuse can save a child’s life

Sexual abuse

The definition of child abuse in these cases begin when a parent or caregiver persuades, coerces, induces, entices or employs a child to act in, or assist in sexual activities. These activities include producing any form of sexually explicit images; rape, sodomy; incestuous relationships; and the sexual exploitation or molestation of children.

Girls experience sexual abuse more often than boys do, statistically. Boys, however, report abuse less often than girls do, which makes gathering information difficult.

Studies show these common factors in most abuse cases:

  • The victim knows the abuser
  • More men than women sexually abuse children
  • Heterosexual men sexually abuse children more often than homosexual men

Victims of sexual abuse often feel at fault and withdraw from family and friends. They experience depression and anxiety into adulthood and can have sexual issues throughout their lives.

Children of sexual abuse suffer from eating problems, bet wetting, nightmares and can have problems in school. Socially, a victim of sexual abuse will withdraw or refuse to participate.

Sexually abused children often keep the abuser’s actions secret because of threats made by the criminal or the shame and guilt they feel.

Erin’s Law

Erin Merryn, a survivor of sexual abuse as a child, decided to use her tragic past in a positive way.

She lobbied congress to pass a bill that allows sexual abuse education in public schools. Since the bill passed in 2010, 15 states have adopted the curriculum. Erin’s Law teaches children how to tell someone about the abuse they suffer and to realize they have no fault in the act.

Merryn became a victim of sexual abuse at the age of 6 when a friends uncle began molesting her during visits to her friend’s home. At 8-year old, Erin’s family moved and she had no more contact with the friend who was also a victim of her uncle.

When Erin went to a family gathering 3-years later, her beloved cousin began sexually abusing her. This abuse went on for two years until Erin’s sister told her their cousin assaulted her, as well. The cousin, after the girls told their mother and she called authorities, received counseling with no jail time.

The angry teenager acted out in school and home until she decided to use her experience to help others.

Erin wants all children to learn that danger does not only come with strangers.


Neglected children have parents or caregivers who do not provide their basic needs. The basic needs of a child include:

  • Physical needs like food and shelter
  • Medical care
  • Education
  • Emotional support

Neglected children have no structure at home and often drink or experiment with drugs to escape their loneliness. They will often miss school or runaway without their parents noticing or filing a police report.

In some cases, the neglect reflects a poverty-stricken family who can no longer support the child. These children will lose weight; lose interest in school and other activities. The child may go to a friend’s home for a sleepover and stay as long possible for the food and shelter.

Substance abuse and neglect

Several states have added parental substance abuse as a form of child neglect. Children whose parents abuse drugs or alcohol are 4-times more likely to experience abuse or neglect than other children.

In Virginia, for example, a 5-year old found standing in the median of a busy roadway told officers her mother had died in the car.

Investigators found the 31-year old woman lying across the front seat of a nearby car with a syringe lying on the floor of the car near her.

Neglect also increases the child’s chances of becoming an adult who:

  • Is 9-times more likely to exhibit criminal behavior
  • Contributes to the two out of three people in drug and alcohol treatment that report childhood neglect and abuse
  • Will seek help in a substance abuse program before the age of 18

Emotional abuse

The definition of child abuse when inflicted on a young person’s emotions proves difficult to detect. The symptoms can stay hidden until adulthood when social anxieties, low self-esteem and other mental disorders begin showing.

Parents who constantly criticize, withhold love, or fail to support their child cause emotional damage that stunts a child’s development intellectually and socially.

Child protection agencies normally cannot detect emotional abuse unless evidence of physical or sexual abuse are present. Children may not realize the abuse takes place as it begins in early childhood and becomes part of their normal home life.

Emotionally abused children often stay on the sidelines of activities. They will refuse to participate in fear of harsh criticism from others. Or, they may act out in attempts to gain the attention of any adult.

Helping a child abused emotionally takes time. Words often last longer than a slap or silence. Involve the child in activities and:

  • Praise them often
  • Suggest they try activities that involve other children
  • Read to the child often
  • Slowly introduce physical affection like hugging

Parents who emotionally abuse children need to seek counseling to learn ways to control how they speak to their children. Child protective agencies can remove the abused child from the home and in some states, the parent or caregiver arrested.

Children become victims of abuse by adults who bully those weaker than them. Reporting abuse can save a child from broken bones, sexual molestation, starvation and mental illness. It also saves future generations from suffering an endless cycle of abuse and neglect.

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