It happened behind closed doors, during extended family visits. Little Jake had trusted his uncle, and was too young to know what was really happening—sexual abuse. It wasn’t until years later that his parents found out. They couldn’t believe it happened to their son. Unfortunately, child abuse is all too common in the United States; it seems to be an epidemic that must be stopped. The best thing you can do to protect children is to be informed, know the signs, and follow your gut.
Did you know that 683,000 children were abused in 2015 in the United States? That’s according to the National Children’s Alliance, which also said that young children are the most at risk; those children who are one year or younger were victims at 24 per 1,000. In 2015, over 1,600 children died from abuse and neglect in the U.S.
Child abuse occurs at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and at all levels of education, according to National Child Abuse Statistics. Many people who are in jail, are undergoing drug rehab, or have psychiatric issues were abused as children, so it definitely leaves its long-term mark. According to the British Journal of Psychiatry, those who are victims are more likely to become abusers, especially among males. Most of the time—78 percent of the time—abuse comes from the victim’s parent or parents, or someone else they know.
What does child abuse look like?
There are many ways to abuse children, and neglect is the number one way, with three-fourths of abused children receiving neglect. Signs of neglect can include hunger and lack of food, causing the child to be malnourished, and even stealing or hoarding food when it becomes available. Neglected children may also not be bathed regularly, causing them to smell bad, have matted hair, and unkempt clothes. They may have unresolved medical issues and may be constantly tired. They may even not be attending school or may be absent quite often. At various times, the child may also say things that would lead you to believe that they are not receiving good care at home.
About 17 percent of children suffer physical abuse. It’s pretty normal for kids to have bumps and bruises, but physical abuse is different. If a child has more than the usual number of bumps and bruises, or the story doesn’t seem to make sense, and the severity, location, and frequency of the injury seems suspect, then it could be physical abuse. For example, it’s not typical for the inside of the legs and arms, the back, and the genitals to be injured—that could be a sign of physical abuse. Another indication that it is physical abuse is that no medical attention was sought, and that physical abuse has happened before.
About 8 percent of children suffer sexual abuse. According to the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse, up to 90 percent of sexual abuse victims never tell their stories.
The Mayo Clinic offers these symptoms of possible sexual abuse:
- Sexual behavior or knowledge that’s inappropriate for the child’s age.
- Pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection.
- Blood in the child’s underwear.
- Statements that he or she was sexually abused.
- Trouble walking or sitting or complaints of genital pain.
- Abuse of other children sexually.
Related: Child Abuse Laws
What should you do if you suspect any type of child abuse?
If you are not sure, see what you can find out by keeping a log of things you see, talking to the child about bruises or behaviors, and asking a trusted friend who also knows the child for their perspective, etc. Don’t dismiss your suspicions if the signs are pointing to abuse.
In the end, if you suspect abuse, you must report it. If that child is being abused, they most likely will not or are not able to seek outside help. You may be that child’s hope for the abuse to stop. Call Child Protective Services, which investigates millions of cases every year, or local law enforcement. Many states also have numbers you can call to report child abuse, and you can elect to remain anonymous. Do a quick online search to find the number in your state.