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Children are not responsible for their abuse, or responsible for stopping it. Rather, adults in the community are responsible for identifying signs that abuse is occurring. The first step in helping abused or neglected children is learning the signs of child abuse and neglect.
First and foremost, if you notice any extreme or unexplainable changes in behavior, this is an indication that abuse may have occurred. General behavioral changes include the child being detached or withdrawn; unusual or excessive fear, or fear of a particular person; hypervigilance; and changes in sleep or school performance.
Sometimes, behavioral changes show up as risk-taking behavior. This could include running away, substance use, truancy, self-harming behavior, or fear of going home. Young children, in particular, may “re-enact” abuse through repetitive play that portrays some aspect of the traumatic event. This type of play lacks imagination and variety.
- Abuse related to bodily injury may involve bruises, burns, marks that are unexplained, or repeated injuries over time. Some children will wear extra layers of clothing to cover marks and bruises.
- Signs of sexual abuse may include acting out sexually, fear or resistance to removing clothing, regression (i.e. thumb sucking or bedwetting), or medical issues like bladder infections, sexually transmitted infections, or pain when going to the bathroom.
- We are learning more and more about human trafficking as well. Signs of trafficking include chronic running away, access to material things that youth typically cannot afford, or having a much older, controlling, or domineering partner.
- Signs of serious physical neglect include inadequate weight gain or growth, delays in physical development, persistent hunger, lack of hygiene or personal care items, or consistently soiled clothing. Physical neglect can also include lack of supervision, untreated medical conditions, or depriving a child of food, water, heat, and shelter.
In addition to noticing the signs in children and intervening when we see them, community members can learn the signs of grooming behavior in other adults. Often, people who commit child abuse show a pattern of behavior. As a community, we can pay close attention to people who: insist on hugging/tickling/wrestling with a child, even when a child says “stop”; spend time alone with children; introduce special attention to a child, like gifts, money, etc.; encourage unhealthy behaviors (alcohol, smoking, viewing pornography); destroy the child’s trust in others (No one will believe you if you tell); or isolate the family from the community.
Naming and discussing these behaviors and setting norms for how our organizations and community groups will operate improve our ability to prevent child abuse before it occurs. Learning and practicing the skills of being an “upstander” will help each of us to do the right thing to interrupt abusive behaviors. Remember, if you suspect abuse you can report it to Child Line at 1-800-932-0313.
Finally, if a child tells you about abuse, DO NOT panic! Adults can respond to disclosures of child abuse by following three simple steps: Listen, Believe, ACT!
First, take the time to listen to the child and thank them for telling you about the abuse. Make time and find a quiet space to talk with the child. Do your best to keep your reactions calm and neutral. Many children fear negative reactions, being blamed for the abuse, or making the situation worse by telling.
Next, let the child know that you believe them, and care about them. Share how you will take action, and as much as you know about the process that will follow. If you don’t know, offer to look into it together. Even if you are not sure of the details or if what the child is sharing qualifies as abuse, they are still seeking your help and guidance for a difficult situation.
Then, Take Action. If there is immediate risk to the child’s safety or imminent danger, call 911. Any community member can make a report of suspected abuse to Childline at 1-800-932-0313. Reports are kept anonymous. Mandated Reporters are REQUIRED to make a report by law. You can also assist the child in getting medical care, access to food or clothing, and helping them to connect with a safe person to talk about what happened.
You are not in this alone. Along with Lebanon County’s Children & Youth Services agency, our community has many other local resources for investigating and supporting children and families after child abuse. This includes free mobile trauma therapy through the Community Health Council, support groups, trauma therapy and counseling services through SARCC; shelter services and advocacy for family violence through Domestic Violence Intervention, forensic interviews and medical exams at the Children’s Resource Center, and the 211 Information and Referral support system through United Way of Lebanon County.
Ali Perrotto is CEO of the Sexual Assault Resource & Counseling Center (SARCC).