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Recognizing the Signs of Child Abuse


There is no way to predict who will abuse a child. Offenders come from all ranks, races, religions and income levels. The Department of Defense is committed to addressing and ending child abuse. The Family Advocacy Program works to prevent abuse by offering programs to support vulnerable families before it happens. If abuse does occur, the FAP has trained staff to investigate reported incidents and respond accordingly.

The following information will help you recognize suspected child abuse, learn how to report it and find assistance through the military and civilian communities.

Defining child abuse

The DoD defines child abuse as injury to, maltreatment of, or neglect of a child so that the child's welfare is harmed or threatened. For the FAP to be involved, alleged victims of child abuse or neglect must be under age eighteen or, if older, be incapable of self-support due to physical or mental incapacity and in the legal care of a service member or military family member. Child abuse generally falls into one of the following four categories:

Neglect. This includes the failure to provide for a child's basic needs.

Physical abuse. This is defined as physical harm to a child by actions such as punching, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting or burning.

Sexual abuse. This includes sexual activity toward or involving a child.

Emotional abuse. This includes a pattern of behaviors that have a negative effect on the child's psychological well-being, including constant criticism, threats and rejection.

Who is most at risk

There is no definite way to determine if a child will be abused, as every family situation is different. For example, a single, young mother with very little support might be an extremely attentive and devoted parent, or she might become overwhelmed with the responsibilities of parenting alone.

Although there is no definitive checklist, the following circumstances could put a child at greater risk for abuse:

  • Infants born prematurely with ongoing health problems.
  • Infants exposed to drugs or alcohol while in the womb. This puts a child at greater risk for further abuse after birth.
  • Young, isolated parents separated from their extended families and lacking other social support.
  • Families with continued or severe financial, housing or employment problems.
  • Families under extreme stress. Mental illness, deployments, highly demanding jobs and other situations can subject families to excessive and ongoing stress.

Even if all of these factors occur within a family, it does not mean that the family will experience abuse. These are just some factors common to families that do end up experiencing abuse.

A person who was abused as a child may or may not become a child abuse offender as an adult. In fact, being abused as a child may make an adult more sensitive to the emotional and physical harm of abuse and its impact on a child's long-term health and well-being.

Recognizing the signs of child abuse

Child abuse offenders can be of any age, gender, rank or race. He or she may be a parent, babysitter, extended family member, sibling, coach, teacher or religious leader. For some individuals, the abusive incident may be an example of poor judgment or a one-time act of violence not characteristic of their relationship with the child. Other offenders may abuse a child frequently, using inappropriate discipline or withholding food or basic care and necessities.

Although this is certainly not an exhaustive list, here are some examples of child abuse:

  • A mother leaves her two-year-old child unsupervised at home while she runs a quick errand.
  • A parent puts a young child in the bathtub and leaves the room to talk on the cell phone or play video games.
  • A father disciplines his unruly teenage son by hitting him with a belt, leaving bruises, cuts and welts.
  • A young parent puts some alcohol or Benadryl in his or her child's bottle so the child will go to sleep faster.
  • A parent frequently tells his or her child that the child is no good and should never have been born.
  • A family member engages in sexual behavior with a child, touching the child inappropriately or making the child participate in sexual activities for videotaping, pornography or the Internet.
  • A young parent shakes a baby to try to get the infant to stop crying.

How you can help

If someone you know is experiencing extreme stress or facing difficult circumstances, they can contact the installation’s FAP or Family Support Center for counseling and other support services to help address issues that are causing stress and anxiety within the home. For instance, if the family is having major financial problems, the Family Support Center might refer them for financial counseling and help them access emergency financial resources. If a young mother and father are feeling stressed and overwhelmed after bringing their newborn home from the hospital, they might be referred to the New Parent Support Program for help and support.

Everyone has a moral obligation, and in many cases a legal responsibility, to take action to stop abuse:

  • If you witness violence or know someone is in immediate danger, call 911, or the military police if you are on an installation.
  • If you suspect child abuse or neglect, by law you must report it. Make your report to the installation FAP or the local Child Protective Services office. You can also call your state's child abuse reporting hotline or contact Childhelp (800-4-A-CHILD [422-4453]).
  • Each installation that supports military families will have an FAP point of contact to receive reports of abuse. The number to call will be publicized throughout the military community, or you can call your installation's Family Support Center or visit Military INSTALLATIONS for a locator.

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