Frequently Asked Questions
What is child protection?
What accounts for the decline in abuse and neglect rates?
How are abuse and neglect defined?
How many children are seriously injured or die because of abuse and neglect?
Do official figures tell us how many children are actually abused and neglected?
What agencies are currently responsible for responding to reports of abuse and neglect?
What happens when a child is reported abused or neglected?
Is child maltreatment a health issue for children and adults?
What are some other consequences of child maltreatment?
Are current policies or programs enough to keep children safe from maltreatment?
Why is child abuse still an issue?
Are there better ways of preventing and addressing reports of child maltreatment?
Is it possible to make changes that will keep children safe and help them to grow up healthy, loved, and thriving?
Can these changes in a few communities be replicated across the country?
Dealing with the Everyday Pressures of Parenting
What to Do if You Suspect A Child Is Being Abused or Neglected
Q. What is child protection?
A. Child protection is keeping children safe from child abuse and neglect. This is the foundation on which child protective services (CPS) is established and should always be the first goal of any CPS response. The CPS response begins with the assessment of reports of child abuse and neglect. If CPS determines the child is at risk of abuse and neglect or has been abused or neglected, CPS should ensure the child and his or her family receive services and supports from the public child protection agency and the community.
Q. What accounts for the decline in abuse and neglect rates?
A. The reasons for this drop in both the number of children reported and in the number of cases where abuse or neglect was substantiated probably varies from state to state. In some jurisdictions, it may be the result of changes in state policies or procedures for handling child abuse reports rather than an actual decrease in the number of children reported and maltreated. In others, CPS reforms may mean more children are receiving help before they are seriously injured, leading to a real decrease in the number of children hurt by abuse and neglect.
Q. How are abuse and neglect defined?
A. State and federal laws define what forms of child abuse and neglect must be reported to authorities. These definitions vary from state to state. The CWLA Standards for Services for Abused or Neglected Children and Their Families provide the following generally accepted definitions of child maltreatment:
Q. Do official figures tell us how many children are actually abused and neglected?
- Physical Abuse. Physical acts by parents or caregivers that cause, or could have caused, physical injury to the child.
- Neglect. Failure of parents or other caregiver, for reasons not solely due to poverty, to provide the child with needed, age-appropriate care, including food, clothing, shelter, protection from harm, supervision appropriate to the child's development, hygiene, education, and medical care.
- Sexual Abuse. Sexual activity, by a parent or other caregiver, with a child, including but not limited to any kind of sexual contact through persuasion, physical force, or other coercive means; exploitation through sexual activity that is allowed, encouraged, or coerced; and child prostitution or pornography.
- Emotional Maltreatment. Parental or other caregiver acts or omissions, such as rejecting, terrorizing, berating, ignoring, or isolating a child, that cause or are likely to cause the child serious impairment of his or her physical, social, mental, or emotional capacities.
A. No. Most experts maintain that many abused children are not reported to authorities. And many reported cases may not be substantiated because the harm to the child is not obvious to investigators. Sexual abuse, for example, often leaves no physical evidence unless the child is examined immediately after it occurs. The Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, conducted in 1995, estimates that the real incidence of abuse and neglect may be three times greater than the numbers reported to authorities. In 1995, the Gallup Organization polled parents nationwide and concluded that child maltreatment is far more prevalent than the official data suggests. Gallup estimated some 3 million children were victims of physical abuse alone--18 times greater than the number of children identified by authorities as victims of physical abuse in 2002. An estimated 1 million children are believed to be victims of sexual abuse--11 times the official figures for 2002.
Q. What agencies are currently responsible for responding to reports of abuse and neglect?
A. Government CPS agencies, law enforcement, and the courts all carry statutory mandates to respond to the concerns of abused and neglected children and their families. Other government services, including certain public assistance programs, mental health, juvenile justice, public health, and substance abuse supplement the work of these mandated agencies. Community-based programs provide placements for abused and neglected children and their parents. Services help children who cannot remain at home safely, parents who need support and training programs, and family members who need health, mental health, and other treatment services.
Q. What happens when a child is reported abused or neglected?
A. CPS and/or law enforcement typically receive reports of maltreatment and determine what sort of response is warranted in each case. Depending on the nature and seriousness of the report, law enforcement or CPS may make an initial visit to the home to ensure the child's immediate safety. In the most serious cases, law enforcement will intervene to provide immediate safety for all parties and decide whether an arrest or further criminal investigation is warranted. CPS will also investigate and assess the situation to decide whether mandated services or civil court intervention is required. They are also responsible for helping to put in place a plan for safety and services to the children and families. This may include child care, medical care, parenting education, housing, family supervision, drug treatment, or a placement for the child.
Many states are embracing a differential response. This approach allows agencies to provide services and supports to families who need assistance to keep their child(ren) safe without conducting a formal investigation and without a formal determination that child abuse or neglect has occurred.
Q. Is child maltreatment a health issue for children and adults?
A. Yes. To begin with, many abused and neglected children start their lives with significant health problems. For example, some are born with low birthweights because their mothers have not had adequate prenatal care. Other children are prenatally exposed to illegal drugs, alcohol, HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases. Research has shown that children who are born with these and other health problems are especially vulnerable to maltreatment when their parents do not have needed parenting skills or are unable to manage the stress that comes with providing for their special care needs.
Some children require immediate medical assistance to treat the injuries that result from physical or sexual abuse. For example, infants who survive being shaken, slapped, hit, or tossed against a wall are likely to require care for physical trauma leading to blindness, brain injury, and retardation. Children who are neglected often miss routine immunizations and pediatric care. Others have not been treated for illness or injuries whose effects would be minor if treated promptly. Untreated, these illnesses can result in hearing loss, impaired vision, and other impairments that affect a child's ability to learn and grow.
Some neglected children experience drops in I.Q. due to lack of proper stimulation and care from adults. An estimated 30%-40% of children in the child welfare system have chronic medical problems, including delayed growth and development, HIV infection, neurological disabilities, malnutrition, and asthma. Twenty percent of children in foster care have serious developmental disabilities, such as mental retardation, cerebral palsy, and learning disabilities.
Q. What are some other consequences of child maltreatment?
A. The effects of child abuse and neglect can be devastating. A growing body of evidence suggests the experience of abuse and neglect inhibits a child's healthy psychological, emotional, cognitive, and social development and can impair adult functioning. As they get older, children who have been abused and neglected are more likely to perform poorly in school, commit crimes, and experience emotional problems, sexual problems, and alcohol/substance abuse. Research indicates that adult women who have experienced physical or sexual abuse as children show exaggerated levels of stress hormones. This persistent change in the body increases the risk of psychopathological conditions. Negative effects of abuse and neglect can be reversed, but timely identification of the maltreatment, and appropriate intervention, are necessary.
Q. Are current policies or programs enough to keep children safe from maltreatment?
A. No. Americans are increasingly troubled by the many problems they see with the existing system of child protection. First, they are concerned that child deaths reported in the media are evidence that authorities are failing to protect all children who need assistance. At the same time, they also believe that uncalled for or disproportionate reactions to minor family problems have traumatized some families. Their concerns are well-founded. Although CPS agencies are able to help many children and families, current policies do not ensure that the right level of intervention reaches the right children at the right time.
Q. Why is child abuse still an issue?
A. State officials tell us they are ill-equipped to handle the range of concerns abused and neglected children and their families experience. Their limited resources go to the most serious cases of maltreatment, while other families with less serious problems receive little, if any, attention. Families where there is abuse and neglect experience a range of social and health problems. Most states site parental alcohol and drug abuse as their most pervasive child safety concern. Poverty, economic stress, housing, mental health problems, and adult domestic abuse are also significant issues affecting the well-being of children.
Parenting ability is also a concern, particularly for teen parents and inexperienced young families who have a poor understanding of child development. Limited community resources complicate these problems. These vast social problems cannot be solved easily. They most certainly cannot be solved within the limited mandate and resources of government agencies. They must be tackled broadly, beginning with comprehensive community education and planning efforts that are only beginning to take shape in a few communities. These efforts must be supplemented by a strong response from government to the most serious child safety concerns.
Q. Are there better ways of preventing and addressing reports of child maltreatment?
A. Yes. CWLA believes current child protection efforts must be improved so no further harm is done to children who have already been abused and neglected. Even more important, we believe the only true child protection response will occur when we prevent abuse and neglect in the first place. As with most health concerns, we must not confuse the treatment of the symptoms or even treatment of the disease with finding a cure. A comparable analogy might be our search for a cure for cancer. While we work to improve early detection, and we find quicker and more effective ways to treat cancer, our real goal is to stop it altogether. To date, our efforts in child abuse have not focused adequately on prevention. For example, we provide parenting education only after parents have failed. We provide placement only after children are hurt, and we provide treatment for problems when correcting them has become nearly impossible.
Q. Is it possible to make changes that will keep children safe and help them to grow up healthy, loved, and thriving?
A. Absolutely. We already know what it takes to raise healthy, safe children. Most parents do a pretty good job of raising their children--although most would like to do better. We also know some will fail if they do not receive assistance early on, and that a very few parents cannot and will never be able to provide adequately for their children. What is needed is a concerted national effort to ensure that all of these families have support and resources available to them before they encounter problems.
Public commitment to and involvement in the prevention of child abuse continues to be high. A 1999 survey conducted by Prevent Child Abuse America found that when observing an act of abuse or neglect, more than half of the general public and almost two-thirds of all parents would take some action to reduce the child's risk of further harm. More than half of the individuals electing not to intervene in these cases were uncertain as to what action to take or felt the situation was "none of their business." More is also needed for families who are already experiencing problems or where serious harm cannot be averted. In these circumstances, interventions must be swift and of sufficient intensity to ensure child safety.
Q. Can these changes in a few communities be replicated across the country?
A. Yes, changes in a few communities can and must be replicated nationwide. On the national level, this can be accomplished through a skillfully executed plan that helps inform Americans about what children need to grow up safe, healthy, and thriving. On the local level, changes will require a mobilization of new partners, including families, community agencies, public officials, civic organizations, businesses, and the citizenry at large.
If we all work together, we can effect large scale changes in attitude, behavior, and the way in which we currently conduct services to strengthen families--while protecting children from abuse and neglect. This effort will require a new way of thinking, an identification and configuration of resources, and a long-term commitment to change the culture. CWLA has the experience, the skill, and the national and local networks to make this goal viable.
English, Diana. (1998) The Extent and Consequences of Child Maltreatment. The Future of Children, 8, 39-53.
Heim, Christine; Newport, D. Jeffrey; Heit, Stacey; Graham, Yolanda. P.; Wilcox, Molly; Bonsall, Robert; Miller, Andrew H.; & Nemeroff, Charles B. (2000, August). Pituitary-Adrenal and Autonomic Responses to Stress in Women After Sexual and Physical Abuse in Childhood. Journal of American Medical Association 284 592-597.
National Center on Child Abuse Prevention Research. (April 1999). Current Trends in Child Abuse Reporting and Fatalities: The Results of the 1998 Annual Fifty State Survey. Chicago: Prevent Child Abuse America.
Administration for Children and Families (2004). Child Maltreatment 2002: Reports from the States to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data Systems. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Dealing with the Everyday Pressures of Parenting
1. Stop... take time out to calm down, reflect.
2. Go for a walk or run. Work off your frustration through exercise.
3. If someone can watch the children, get away...go outside, go in another room, give yourself a little time alone.
4. Turn negative energy into something productive... clean house, do yard work, tackle some other job you've been putting off.
5. Tune out - turn on some music, watch television, or read a book until you are ready to deal with the problem.
6. Talk with someone else about your feelings..call a friend or a helpline.
7. Write your feelings down on paper.
8. Don't let anger build and build. If your feelings don't go away, get help.
For more information about parenting see our Positive Parenting Page.
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