April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, a time to recognize that child abuse and neglect is a problem nationwide — in every state, in every community. It happens much more than we want to acknowledge, across all races, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds. In fact, an estimated 683,000 children were victims of child abuse in 2015 alone.
Child abuse is when someone whether through action or failing to act, causes injury, death, emotional harm, or risk of serious harm to a child. The perpetrator is typically not a random stranger. Ninety percent of the time, the perpetrator is someone the child has a relationship with – relative, babysitter, caregiver, coach, teacher, or priest.
There are four common types of child abuse:
- Physical – when a parent or caregiver causes any non-accidental physical injury to a child
- Sexual – when an adult uses a child for sexual purposes or involves a child in sexual acts.
- Emotional – when a parent or caregiver harms a child’s mental and social development, or causes severe emotional harm
- Neglect – when a parent or caregiver does not give the care, supervision, affection and support needed for a child’s health, safety and well-being
Child abuse is not usually just one physical attack or just one instance of failure to meet a child’s most basic needs. Usually it is a pattern of behavior that takes place over a period of time. The longer child abuse continues, the more serious it becomes, the more difficult it is to stop, and the less likely the child will make a full recovery. Many children are afraid to tell anyone. They think they will be blamed or no one will believe them. They will keep quiet out of fear or because the abuser is someone close to them that they love. Parents also tend to overlook signs and symptoms of abuse because they don’t want to face the truth. These are some reasons why cases surface many years later and why so many cases have never been reported.
Supervision of, and involvement in, your child’s activities are the best ways to prevent child abuse outside the home. Always investigate if your child says he/she has been mistreated or if your child undergoes a sudden, unexplained change in behavior. If you suspect your child has been abused, get help immediately through your pediatrician or a local child protective agency.
Child abuse is not always obvious. The good news is knowing some of the common warning signs, helps catch the problem as early as possible.
Warning signs of physical abuse
- Frequent injuries or unexplained bruises, welts, or cuts
- Is always watchful and “on alert,” as if waiting for something bad to happen
- Injuries appear to have a pattern such as marks from a hand or belt
- Backs away from touch, flinches at sudden movements, or seems afraid to go home
- Wears inappropriate clothing to cover up injuries, such as long-sleeved shirts on hot days
Warning signs of neglect
- Clothes are ill-fitting, filthy, or inappropriate for the weather
- Hygiene is consistently bad (unbathed, matted and unwashed hair, noticeable body odor).
- Untreated illnesses and physical injuries
- Is frequently unsupervised or left alone
- Is frequently late or absent from school
While physical abuse and neglect might be the most visible, emotional and sexual abuse also leave deep, lasting scars.
Warning signs of emotional abuse
- Excessively withdrawn, fearful, or anxious about doing something wrong
- Shows extremes in behavior, such as overly compliant or demanding behavior, extreme passivity or aggression
- Doesn’t seem to be attached to the parent or caregiver
- Acts either inappropriately adult (taking care of other children) or inappropriately infantile (rocking, thumb-sucking, throwing tantrums)
Warning signs of sexual abuse
- Trouble walking or sitting
- Displays knowledge or interest in sexual acts inappropriate to his/her age
- Makes strong efforts to avoid a specific person, without an obvious reason
- Doesn’t want to change clothes in front of others or participate in physical activities
- An STD or pregnancy, especially under the age of 14
Allegations of sexual abuse have become an increasingly disturbing occurrence. As more of these cases by religious leaders come to light, more victims are finding the support they need to come forward with their stories.
I have handled cases of child sexual abuse in my career. It is an enormous problem and, in some instances, made worse by the refusal of certain institutions to recognize the problem, punish the guilty, and move our precious children out of harm’s way. I have written a novel, Betrayal of Faith, which depicts the extraordinary conspiracy of evil and criminal behavior that one institutional defendant engaged in to protect its reputation and cover up child sexual abuse. In particular, it tells the story of how one family copes with a priest’s abuse of children as well as the difficult legal process a family has to navigate to achieve justice.
While our legal system may provide justice to innocent victims of abuse, a cause is only as strong as the people who support it. If you want to do more to support children and families in your community and prevent abuse before it ever occurs, volunteer your time or donate money to child-serving organizations in your community. You can also support Prevent Child Abuse America, an organization that works to prevent the abuse and neglect of our nation’s children by building awareness, providing education, and inspiring hope to everyone involved in the effort. Help make a difference during Child Abuse Prevention Month.
Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.
Attorney, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series. Mark Bello is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.