Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on UNC Health Talk.
Child abuse can occur in any family, anywhere, and it affects people of all income levels, races, ethnicities and faiths. Whether you’re a parent, someone who works with children or simply an adult in a child’s life, you can help prevent child abuse and neglect.
Here are three ways to do your part.
1. Know the signs and symptoms of abuse and neglect.
It’s difficult reading, but all adults who are around children should familiarize themselves with the many signs and symptoms of child abuse and neglect. Physical abuse, emotional abuse and sexual abuse may manifest in varied ways in children.
For example, when it comes to physical abuse, unexplained injuries can be a red flag, but also pay attention to changes in behavior.
“Kids can have a change in their behavior, whether it be that they’re more compliant (than usual) or they can be more aggressive or upset,” says UNC Health pediatrician Dr. Molly Berkoff, who is the section head for child maltreatment at the UNC School of Medicine. “That wouldn’t always indicate that they’re being abused, but it would raise a concern for what’s going on with that child.”
Often, though, there are no obvious signs or symptoms. That’s why it is important for parents to have good communication with their children and teach them the correct names for body parts and the rules of safety, Dr. Berkoff says.
“Talk to them about how there are certain areas that you don’t share with other people and they don’t share with you,” says Jessica Guice-Albritton, program manager of the Child Medical Evaluation Program at UNC Health. “And that if any kind of touch bothers you, you can tell a grown-up that you trust.”
2. Make sure your children know not to keep secrets.
If you’re a parent, talk to your children about the importance of being honest with you and why they should not keep secrets.
“Make sure that you have open and honest conversations with them and they understand they won’t get in trouble when they’re telling you something that’s factual. Let them know you want to help problem-solve and your job is to keep them safe and healthy,” Dr. Berkoff says.
When it comes to abuse, especially sexual abuse, it’s important not to get upset with your child if he or she waited to tell you.
“It can be really difficult for parents to comprehend that something happened to their child and their child hadn’t shared that with them already, but it’s still really important for parents to validate what happened to their child,” Guice-Albritton says.
A good tactic to help keep your children safe is to have them identify another trusted adult, besides a parent, whom they can talk to if they have a problem. This could be another caregiver, a relative or even the parent of a close friend.
3. Report suspected child abuse.
If you are concerned that a child you know is being abused, you can ask him or her open-ended questions. For example, “It looks like there’s something on your face that wasn’t there yesterday. Can you tell me about that?”
Avoid introducing a narrative or putting words in the child’s mouth. Try to manage your emotions so the child isn’t alarmed by your reaction.
“Help them give information to you so that you understand what is happening in the child’s own words,” Dr. Berkoff says. “You want to create a safe and comfortable environment for a child to share information. You want to avoid a child being reluctant to share information if they worry they will get in trouble or upset you.”
If you’re concerned that your child or another child has been abused, seek help immediately. Depending on the circumstances, contact the child’s doctor, your local child welfare agency, the police department or a 24-hour hotline, such as the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at (800) 422-4453.
If the child needs immediate medical attention, call 911.
Healthcare professionals are legally required to report all suspected cases of child abuse to the appropriate county authorities or the police. In many states (including North Carolina), every citizen is considered a mandated reporter, which means you are required by law to report suspected child abuse.
“You don’t need to prove there’s been maltreatment when you make a report,” Guice-Albritton says. “All you need is a suspicion, and then child welfare professionals will determine whether or not it meets the criteria for investigation.”
It is uncomfortable to make a report of suspected child abuse, but it is critical for keeping children safe.