How to Respond to Suspected Child Abuse

Here’s what you need to know about recognizing maltreatment and reporting it.

When they are abused, children often cannot be their own voice. In fact, research tells us 73% of child sexual abuse victims do not tell anyone about their abuse for at least one year, and 45% of victims do not tell anyone for at least five years (National Survey of Adolescents, 2007). Unfortunately, some children never disclose that they have been abused physically, emotionally or sexually, or that they have been neglected.

As professionals committed to campus safety, learning how to recognize and report child abuse is the first step in protecting the children in your organization, as well as the organization itself. What do you need to know about child abuse to meet your obligations? This article will explore the signs and symptoms of child abuse, how to talk to children when abuse is suspected, and how to overcome common barriers to reporting you might encounter.

RELATED: How to Make a Report of Suspected Child Abuse

All states, the District of Colombia, and U.S. territories specify by statute the professions mandated by law to report child maltreatment. This typically includes those who have frequent contact with children, such as teachers, nurses, counselors and others. If your profession is identified as a mandated reporter and you observe signs of abuse or neglect, you are legally required to take action and report your suspicions to the proper authorities. The law does not require you to be certain that abuse or neglect has occurred, only that you have a reasonable suspicion that it did.

The responsible authorities, the police or Child Protective Services (CPS), have the legal mandate to investigate child abuse. They will assess the child’s safety and family’s needs and determine whether or not an investigation is warranted. By reporting suspicions of child abuse and neglect, you help protect children and families from future harm.

To make a report, you may call the Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD or call your state’s hotline. If you feel the child is in immediate danger, contact your local law enforcement agency.

State Child Abuse Hotlines
State: Reporting Number

  • Alabama: Number is specific to county
  • Alaska : 800-478-4444
  • Arizona: 800-SOS-CHILD
  • Arkansas: 800-482-5964
  • California: Number is specific to county
  • Colorado: Number is specific to county
  • Connecticut: 800-842-2288
  • Delaware: 800-292-9582
  • District of Columbia: (202)671-SAFE
  • Florida: 800-96-ABUSE
  • Georgia: 855-GACHILD
  • Hawaii: 808-832-5300, 800-494-3991
  • Idaho: 211
  • Illinois: 800-25-ABUSE
  • Indiana: 800-800-5556
  • Iowa: 800-362-2178
  • Kansas: 800-922-5330
  • Kentucky: 877-KYSAFE1
  • Louisiana: 855-4LA-KIDS
  • Maine: 800-452-1999
  • Maryland: 800-332-6347
  • Massachusetts: 800-792-5200
  • Michigan: 877-277-2585
  • Minnesota: Number is specific to county
  • Mississippi: 800-222-8000
  • Missouri: 800-392-3738
  • Montana: 866-820-5437
  • Nebraska: 800-652-1999
  • Nevada: 800-992-5757
  • New Hampshire: 800-894-5533
  • New Jersey: 877-NJ-ABUSE
  • New Mexico : 855-333-SAFE
  • New York: 800-342-3720
  • North Carolina: Number is specific to county
  • North Dakota: Number is specific to county
  • Ohio: 855-O-H-CHILD
  • Oklahoma: 800-522-3511
  • Oregon: 855-503-SAFE
  • Pennsylvania: 800-932-0313
  • Rhode Island: 800-RI-CHILD
  • South Carolina: Number is specific to county
  • South Dakota: 800-422-4453
  • Tennessee: 877-54-ABUSE
  • Texas: 800-252-5400
  • Utah: 855-323-3237
  • Vermont: 800-649-5285
  • Virginia: 800-552-7096
  • Washington: 866-END-HARM
  • West Virginia: 800-352-6513
  • Wisconsin: 800-442-4453
  • Wyoming: Number is specific to county

What Is Child Abuse?

In 2013, state and local agencies received more than 3 million referrals of child maltreatment (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2013). While each state has its own definitions based on federal law, most states recognize four major types of child maltreatment: neglect, sexual abuse, physical abuse and emotional abuse.

Although the following signs and symptoms are commonly associated with abuse, they are not absolutes. The list of possible signs is a guide to help identify if abuse is present.

Definition: Failure to provide needed food, clothing, shelter, medical care or supervision such that the child’s health, safety and wellbeing are threatened.
Possible Signs:

  • Consistent hunger, stealing or begging for food
  • Lack of personal cleanliness, torn/dirty clothes
  • Unattended medical/dental attention
  • Reports a lack of supervision for long periods of time or reports substance abuse in the home
  • Extreme loneliness and need for affection

Sexual Abuse
Definition: Sexual misconduct harmful to a child’s mental, emotional or physical welfare, including conduct that constitutes the offense of indecency with a child, sexual assault or aggravated sexual assault; failure to make a reasonable effort to prevent sexual conduct harmful to a child; compelling or encouraging a child to engage in sexual conduct; and causing, permitting, encouraging, engaging in or allowing the photographing, filming or depicting of the child if the person knew, or should have known, that the resulting product is obscene or pornographic.
Possible Signs:

  • Excessive seductiveness, inappropriate sex play or premature understanding of sex; sexual victimization of other children
  • Pain, swelling or itching in genital area, difficulty walking or sitting
  • Sexually transmitted disease or pregnancy
  • Suicide attempts (especially adolescents)
  • Major change in normal mood or behavior

Physical Abuse
Definition: Physical injury that results in substantial harm to the child or genuine threat of substantial harm from physical injury to the child, including an injury that is at variance with the history or explanation given and excluding an accident or reasonable discipline by a parent/guardian that does not expose the child to a substantial risk of harm. Physical abuse includes failure to make a reasonable effort to prevent an action by another person that results in substantial harm to the child.
Possible Signs:

  • Frequent injuries that are unexplained and/or when the causes of the injury cannot be adequately explained (ex: bruises, cuts, black eyes, burns, fractures)
  • Injuries that appear after the child has not been seen for several days
  • Injuries involving the face, backs of hands, buttocks, genital area, abdomen, back or sides of body
  • Aggressive, disruptive, destructive, self-destructive or emotionless behavior
  • Fear of going home or seeing parents/caregivers

Emotional Child Abuse

Definition: Inflicting mental or emotional injury to a child, and/or causing or permitting the child to be in a situation in which the child sustains a mental or emotional injury that re
sults in an observable and material impairment in the child’s growth, development or psychological functioning.
Possible Signs:

  • Speech disorders and delayed physical development
  • Habit disorders (ex: sucking, rocking, biting)
  • Antisocial, destructive behavior
  • Delinquent behavior (especially adolescents)
  • Substance abuse

How to Talk to Children About Suspected Abuse

If you suspect a child is being abused, do not be surprised if they do not disclose immediately. Children who are abuse victims have often been sworn to secrecy and are afraid or ashamed to talk to anyone about it.

It is important that you do not interrogate children when abuse is suspected. It is best to ask children simple, open-ended questions that are non-specific and avoid one-word answers. Here are some examples that may help you when talking to a child:

  • Tell me about your family. What do you like or not like?
  • Has anyone done something that makes you feel uncomfortable?
  • When you get in trouble at home or school, what happens?

Do not take these questions too far or actually begin interviewing the child. If at this point you suspect that abuse has occurred, the best thing you can do is make a report to the national or statewide hotline, the local child protection agency or local police department.

How to Handle Disclosures by Children

If a child has made an outcry of abuse, your next steps are critical to the child’s safety and to the proper disposition of any investigation.

  • Always believe the child. Children rarely lie about such an intense and painful experience.
  • Remain calm and do not overreact. Children will interpret that your anger or disgust is directed at them. If children feel they are in trouble, they will often stop talking.
  • Let the child use his/her own words to tell you what happened. Please be sure not to interview the child or ask for detailed information about the abuse.
  • Reassure the child he/she has done the right thing by telling you and that what happened is not his/her fault.
  • Don’t criticize the child or the abuser.
  • Don’t make promises you cannot keep. It is important to let a child know you cannot keep this a secret and that it is your job to keep them safe.
  • Make a report to the national or statewide hotline, local child protection agency or law enforcement agency. Child protection agencies ask that you NOT tell the child’s parents when making a report to authorities.

Hesitation Could Lead to More Harm

Many professionals have genuine concerns about reporting abuse. Here are some of the most common:

  • What if I’m wrong?
  • My organization’s policy requires me to report to another member of my staff, not the local child protection or law enforcement agencies.
  • What if the parents learn that I made the report?

All of these concerns are legitimate and understandable. While easy answers are difficult to come by, remember that reporting is the first step in the healing process for a child abuse victim. When you hesitate to make a report or avoid the responsibility altogether, you could be causing additional harm to the child.

Oftentimes, a report of suspected child maltreatment results in interventions to support the whole family and promote a safe, nurturing environment for the children. These interventions may include safety planning, substance abuse treatment, batterers intervention programs, parenting classes, counseling, and job support. Always err on the side of protecting children and strengthening families by making a report. Reporting suspected abuse is not only the morally right thing to do – it is the legally required thing to do. Failure to report suspected abuse has legal implications with both criminal and civil liability for both the professional and the organization.

Victims of child abuse are in our neighborhoods, schools, and even in our own homes. Learning how to recognize and report child abuse is the first step in being a voice for the many child victims who suffer in silence.  If we don’t protect them, who will?

Dianna Smoot is the Director of Community Education at the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center. She can be contacted at or you can visit for more information.

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