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Recognizing and Reporting Abuse and Neglect

When COVID-19 unexpectedly invaded our world, life changed very quickly. Lockdowns were put into place across most of the United States. The purpose of this piece is not to dissect decisions made by our leaders. Those decisions have been very difficult ones to make. Rather, we want to highlight one likely outcome of the lockdowns. The sad reality is that home is not a safe place for every child. Child advocacy professionals are predicting that as restrictions lift, and children living in abusive situations who were isolated at home begin to interact again with teachers, doctors, and other child care professionals, there will be a surge of reports made to the Division of Family Services in each state. Many states reported a decrease in calls during the lockdowns, which has concerned social workers, because this signals that children may be suffering in silence, without the usual oversight of trusted adults in their lives. The pandemic has added a layer of complexity for children in vulnerable places.

It is important for people who work with children to know the signs of child abuse and to know how to report when they suspect this is occurring. These are very sensitive topics and decisions. Making a call to report is not one that should be taken lightly. It is a tragedy both when abuse is not reported, and also when innocent families are reported without merit.

The following are signs of child abuse and neglect to keep in mind:

  1. Visible signs of injury (burns, bruises) that are not able to be explained, or perhaps the explanation does not make sense.

  2. Change in behavior (i.e. suddenly withdrawn, angry, or anxious) that cannot be explained by child or parent.

  3. Regressive behavior (i.e. a child resumes younger habits such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting).

  4. Fear of going home (this is different from disappointment at leaving because the child is having fun).

  5. Inappropriate sexual behavior

  6. Lack of hygiene, or wearing clothes not appropriate for the weather.

  7. Change in school performance.

In Delaware, the child abuse hotline can be found by calling 1-800-292-9582. A report can also be filed online here. Professionals such as teachers, doctors, nurses, and law enforcement officers are considered mandatory reporters. However, any citizen can call if they have serious reason to believe abuse or neglect may be taking place. Therefore, it is important for anyone who works with children in any capacity to be aware of the process. Once a report is made, there are several steps and potential outcomes to the investigation process. More information about that can be found here.

Often times, a family may be going through a difficult circumstance, but there is no abuse or neglect occurring. Sometimes, families simply need support. In addition to coming alongside families personally, there are resources in the state of Delaware of which you can make parents aware. By calling 2-1-1, parents can be connected with a program called “Help Me Grow.” This is a program designed to connect parents of young children to services to help them flourish physically, emotionally, and socially. More information can be found here. If you do not live in Delaware, your state’s website will have similar information.

Please join us in praying for children who have been in homes these past few months which are not safe. Join us in praying for trusted adults in their midst who will pick up warning signs, and for social workers responding to these calls.

Note: It is very important for caregivers to understand that sometimes, symptoms of trauma overlap symptoms of abuse. By “trauma”, we mean something that has occurred in a child’s life that has nothing to do with being abused by the current caregivers. Because of the overlap, it is important to understand the difference before making a call unnecessarily which could bring trauma to stable families. For example, a child who has been placed in a loving home but who has a history of abuse from previous caregivers may exhibit some of the symptoms stated above. Or, even a child who simply has anxiety can exhibit some of these behaviors. Barring extreme circumstances, the best approach is to know the family and their situation before making a decision about next steps. Please be keeping an eye out for the next blog posts in this series, which will give you more ideas about how to discern these sensitive situations. We hope it is a starting point for your own further research:

  1. Tangible ideas for accommodating children with special needs in your church.

  2. How to interact with a child who has a history of trauma.

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