April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, a time specifically set aside to bring awareness to child abuse, how to prevent it, and how to identify victims of abuse. Child abuse victims are not only young children; they are children of all ages. Abuse is not always at the hands of parents or caretakers. As child care and out-of-school care professionals, Child Abuse Prevention Month is a reminder to be diligent in recognizing red-flag behaviors that can help identify the children who suffer abuse at home or in other areas of life. So what are those “red-flag” behaviors? And more importantly, how can you know when to offer support or report a problem?
All children will explore their environments and sometimes end up with bruises, scrapes, and cuts. However, frequent injuries or injuries that occur in the same area of the body may be a red flag. In accidents, injuries tend to be to one side of the body, so bruises or injuries to the eyes or to both sides of the head/body should be looked into. Unexplainable or inconsistent reasons for injuries, from children and as well as parents or caregivers, are also a red-flag. This includes difficulty or pain with walking or sitting and bruises in various stages, which may indicate a history of injury.
Change in Behavior
Children experiencing abuse often have unexpected changes in behavior. For example, a child may all of the sudden become destructive, disruptive, withdrawn, or passive. These sudden changes in behavior or extreme behaviors can be a sign that something is not right with the child. Inappropriate sexual suggestiveness, age-inappropriate knowledge, and victimization of other children are also red-flag behaviors. Children who are abused often seek additional attention, sometimes in negative ways.
Fear of Going Home
A strong desire to stay with a child care or out-of-school program, a fear of the child’s parent or caregiver, or fear of an anticipated family event can indicate something more than not wanting to leave a fun place.
Stealing or Begging for Food
At various stages of development, children can seem to eat their weight in food! These times are often tied to growth spurts, especially in later grade school years. Children who steal or beg for food, however, may not be getting the amount of food or nutrition they need at home. This could be caused by low income parents lacking the resources to provide adequate nutrition, or could be the result of food being deliberately withheld. Supports are available for families that need help providing the appropriate nutrition for their children.
Lack of Care
Struggling families often have trouble with getting basic resources. Parents often work more than one job and may find it difficult to fully provide the safe, nurturing environment children need to thrive. Dirty, torn, or inappropriate clothing, poor personal hygiene, lack of medical or dental care or children left unsupervised can indicate abuse or neglect.
Keep in mind that parents who genuinely love and care for their children as best they can may still not be able to fully provide the resources needed. Again, there are supports available for families that can help them to meet their children’s needs; however families may not be aware of these supports or how to connect to them.
There are many other signs of possible child abuse or neglect, and by New York State regulation all child care and out-of-school care professionals must regularly get training on child abuse and maltreatment. It is important to remember that seeing any of these red-flags does not mean that abuse, maltreat, or neglect is being experienced by the child, but it is something to be aware of and take into consideration.
Child care providers can be a vital part of not only prevention but reporting child abuse and neglect. As care providers, we are mandated reporters of child abuse and maltreatment. But it’s not just a state mandate: it’s our job to ensure the children in our care are safe and healthy ensure they reach their full potential.