Children's Health

Intervention is Key to Stopping Child Abuse

Three million cases of suspected child abuse are reported in America annually. Whether it occurs behind closed doors at home or in public places, the number of reported cases continues to grow. Despite human instinct to stop abuse, many people witness it and simply don’t know what to do.

“Observing a child being mistreated is an awkward situation,” said Deb Simms, M.D., division chief, child protection team, Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “It’s natural to be uncomfortable around abusive or what you think is potentially abusive behavior. It causes people to question the best way to respond to ensure the safety of a child.”

Child abuse consists of anything that endangers or impairs a child’s physical or emotional health. Abuse includes any damage done to a child which can’t be reasonably explained. It is often represented by an injury or series of injuries that appear to be non-accidental in nature.

“A confrontational or angry response to child abuse may escalate a parent’s anger,” said Simms. “This will only further endanger a child. Try to have a conversation with parents out of the ear shot of others, so the parents aren’t embarrassed. Sympathize with the frustration you see parents experiencing while being non-judgmental.”

Simms and her colleagues with the Child Protection Team at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital offer the following intervention tips for dealing with an abusive situation:

  • Offer understanding and assistance. Your calm, sympathetic, physical presence is likely the most effective response.’
  • Sometimes a parent’s anger is fueled by embarrassment at the scene a child is making. Try saying one of the following:
    • “Children sure can wear you out. Is there anything I can do to help?”
    • ‘”It looks like you’re having a difficult time. May I help you with anything?
    • “Children his/her age can be a handful. May I get him/her a drink or hold something for you?”
    • “Most two year olds can’t sit still for long periods of time. Would it help if I found something for him/her to play with?”
  • Move the anger away from the child. Start a conversation with the adult. Ask a question to provide distraction.
  • Compliment or praise the parent. Say something positive such as “It’s tough to shop with a toddler, I admire your effort.”‘
  • If the child is in imminent danger of injury, call 911.

Not all children are abused in public places. It’s important to know the warning signs that may be an indicator of abuse.

Signs of Physical Abuse

  • Unexplained burns, cuts, bruises, or welts in the shape of an object
  • Bite marks
  • Anti-social behavior
  • Problems in school
  • Fear of adults

Signs of Sexual Abuse

  • Inappropriate interest or knowledge of sexual acts
  • Nightmares and bed wetting
  • Drastic changes in appetite
  • Overcompliance or excessive aggression
  • Fear of a particular person or family member

Signs of Emotional Abuse

  • Apathy’
  • Depression
  • Hostility or stress
  • Lack of concentration
  • Eating disorder

“Nobody wants to hurt a child,” said Simms. “It’s an act of desperation. The cure for abuse is prevention.”

Prevention comes in many forms. Some of Simms’ top prevention tips include:

  • Know where your child is at and who they are with.
  • If your child goes to a daycare facility, make sure it is staffed by licensed providers.
  • Set a good example for other parents by being a good parent.
  • Have an open relationship with your child so that if they are being abused, they feel comfortable coming to you and telling you.

Misconceptions and not knowing who or where to call are two reasons why abuse is unreported. Myths about child abuse include:

MYTH:’ By law, abused children must be removed from their homes immediately.
FACT: ‘This is the least likely outcome.

MYTH:’ Child abuse cannot be reported anonymously.
FACT:’ In most states, you don’t need to provide your name.

MYTH:’ The person reported for abuse is entitled to know who made the report.
FACT:’ The person reported for abuse does not know who made the report.

If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, and your intervention doesn’t help, call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD.

The Child Protection Team at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital is a multidisciplinary hospital-based program providing services for physically and sexually abused, and neglected children on both an inpatient and outpatient basis. The team provides comprehensive medical evaluations facilitating prevention, identification, diagnosis and treatment of child abuse or neglect in West Michigan through education, clinical practice and research.

Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, a member of Spectrum Health, is West Michigan’s largest children’s hospital, serving children and families throughout a 37-county region. The hospital team includes more than 100 specialists uniquely skilled in providing medical care to children, in over 40 outpatient clinical settings. Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital is committed to caring for children and families with compassion, excellence and innovation.