April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. To honor this month, we’ll be defining various forms of abuse, how to spot it, and exploring the legal frameworks designed to prevent it. Child maltreatment is not just a social concern; it’s a legal battleground where justice and protection intersect.

What Defines Abuse, and How Do I Spot It?

Child abuse takes on many forms, encompassing a range of mistreatment inflicted upon a child. As adults, we are responsible to act when we see these signs of child abuse, and we need to know what to look out for.

  • Physical abuse, involving acts of violence or harm.
  • Emotional abuse, which inflicts psychological pain or distress.
  • Sexual abuse or exploitation, violating a child’s trust and boundaries.
  • Medical abuse, where a child’s medical needs are neglected or manipulated.
  • Neglect, where basic needs such as food, shelter, and safety are unmet.

Physical abuse is the easiest to spot. Some indicators would be unexplainable bruises or marks, or behavioral changes like withdrawal, fearfulness, and aggression. Parents abusing their children may cause them to skip school or activities, or the child may exhibit reluctance to go home. It is also common for these children to experience a regression in developmental milestones or unusual attachment behaviors.

Emotional or verbal abuse will often manifest itself as social isolation or difficulty forming relationships at a young age. These kids may avoid group activities and feel extremely shy around their friends and adults. If emotional abuse is present within the home, the child may have unexplained physical complaints like headaches or stomach aches. They often struggle with low self-esteem or self-worth because the parent is actively tearing them down at home. This low self esteem often manifests as self-harming behaviors or expressions of feeling worthless.

Sexual abuse can be hard to spot in comparison to other forms of abuse. However, some signs to look out for would include:

  • Asking vague questions or making vague statements about topics such as secrets, unusual ‘games’, or adult behaviors.
  • Sexual themes in artwork, stories, play etc.
  • Unusual or new fears, sometimes around touch, being alone, being with a particular person or in a particular place
  • Showing knowledge of sexual behavior beyond their developmental age.

Medical Abuse, also known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy, occurs when a caregiver exaggerates, fabricates, or induces illness in a child to gain attention or sympathy. It can be difficult to detect, but here are some signs that a child may be experiencing medical abuse:

  • The child may have many doctor visits, hospital stays, or trips to the emergency room for unclear symptoms.
  • The symptoms reported may not match medical findings or may change when the child is not with the suspected caregiver.
  • The caregiver may not want to share information or medical records with healthcare providers.
  • The caregiver may administer medications inappropriately, either overdosing or under-dosing the child.
  • The caregiver may not want to leave the child alone with medical professionals. They might also become too involved in medical discussions and decisions.

Neglect is the most common form of abuse. The signs of child neglect may be small, but noticeable to the trained eye. If you notice a child that is consistently unhygienic, this may be a sign that they are not receiving proper care at home. The child does not have adequate clothing (wearing shorts with no jacket during the winter, or wearing the same clothes every day).

The child may be left alone for extended periods, or they may be unsupervised in dangerous situations. The child may struggle academically because of a lack of support or resources at home. They may have difficulty completing homework assignments or may fall behind their peers.

The child may frequently complain of hunger or appear underweight due to child maltreatment. They may hoard or steal food, or express excessive interest in food when it is available.

As parents, teachers, doctors and caretakers, it is our job to stay aware. It is of the utmost importance to speak up if you observe anything concerning. Preventing abuse (or further abuse) by CPS or your local police department can make or break the child’s upbringing.

How Large is the Issue?

Approximately 5 children die every day because of child abuse. About one in seven children in the US have experienced child abuse or neglect in the last year. Many instances of child abuse or neglect go unreported, suggesting that the actual number of affected children may be higher than the reported.

Tragically, in 2020, 1,750 children in the United States lost their lives at the hands of abuse and neglect. Tragically, in 2020 alone, 1,750 children lost their lives because to abuse and neglect in the country.

What Legal Action Can I Take to Prevent This?

It’s crucial to recognize that every form of abuse against children can lead to both legal actions and criminal prosecution. It’s important to note that all states have laws in place against assault, battery, and homicide, which also extend to protect children from physical harm.

Some states have extra laws that focus on defining these crimes when they involve children, labeling them as child abuse. Laws in each state aim to stop and punish any cruelty towards children, like hitting, mental harm, or neglect. 

In Oklahoma, we have some specific laws in place to protect and provide to  children who experience abuse. The Oklahoma Child Abuse Reporting Law mandates certain professionals, such as teachers, healthcare providers, and law enforcement officials, to report suspected cases of child abuse or neglect to the Department of Human Services (DHS) or law enforcement. Oklahoma also has criminal statutes that specifically address child abuse, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. Perpetrators can face charges ranging from misdemeanors to felonies, depending on the severity of the abuse and its impact on the child. 

Addressing child abuse and neglect involves a comprehensive system of civil laws and government agencies. These entities work tirelessly to intervene, ensuring the safety of abused children by either removing them from harmful environments or providing necessary support and treatment to both the child and their families.

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