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Child Abuse and Neglect

This guide discusses the various types of child abuse and how abuse affects children and families. It was designed to assist those doing research on this topic.



Physical abuse may involve hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning, suffocating or otherwise causing physical harm to a child.

It may also be caused when a parent or caregiver fabricates symptoms of, or induces illness in a child.

Physical abuse is the most visible form of child maltreatment.


Emotional abuse is the persistent emotional ill treatment of a child such as to cause severe and persistent effects on the child’s emotional development, and may involve:

  • Conveying to a child that s/he is worthless, unloved, inadequate, or valued only insofar as s/he meets the needs of another person

  • Imposing developmentally inappropriate expectations e.g. interactions beyond the child’s developmental capability, overprotection, limitation of exploration and learning, preventing the child from participation in normal social interaction

  • Causing a child to feel frightened or in danger e.g. witnessing domestic violence, seeing or hearing the ill treatment of another

  • Exploitation or corruption of a child

    Some level of emotional abuse is involved in most types of ill treatment of children, though emotional abuse may occur alone.  


  • Sexual abuse involves forcing or enticing a child to take part in sexual activities, including prostitution, whether or not she/he is aware of what is happening.

  • Activities may involve physical contact, including penetrative and non-penetrative acts. ‘Penetrative acts’ include ‘rape’  and ‘assault by penetration.'

  • Sexual activities may also include non-contact activities, e.g. involving a child in looking at / production of abusive images, watching sexual activities or encouraging her/him to behave in sexually inappropriate ways.  It may include use of photos, pictures, cartoons, literature or sound recordings via internet, books, magazines, audio cassettes, tapes or CDs.

  • Children under sixteen years of age cannot lawfully consent to sexual intercourse, although in practice may be involved in sexual contact to which, as individuals, they have agreed. A child of under thirteen is considered in law incapable of providing consent.


Neglect involves the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health and development.

Neglect may occur during pregnancy as a result of maternal substance misuse.  Once the child is born, neglect may involve failure to:

  • Provide adequate food, clothing or shelter (including exclusion from home or abandonment)

  • Protect from physical and emotional harm or danger

  • Meet or respond to basic emotional needs

  • Ensure adequate supervision including the use of adequate care-takers

  • Ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment

  • Ensure that her/his educational needs are met

  • Ensure her/his opportunities for intellectual stimulation are met


Blue child abuse awareness ribbon.

Image Credit: Created by the Trauma and Dissociation Project on flickr.

 The Child:

  • shows sudden changes in behavior or school performance
  • has not received help for physical or medical problems brought to the parents' attention
  • has learning problems (or difficulty concentrating) that cannot be attributed to specific physical or psychological causes
  • is always watchful, as though preparing for something bad to happen
  • lacks adult supervision
  • is overly compliant, passive, or withdrawn
  • comes to school late or other activities early, stays late, and does not want to go home
  • is relunctant to be around a particular person
  • discloses maltreatment

Signs of Neglect:

Consider the possibility of neglect when the child:

  • is frequently absent from school
  • begs or steals food or money

Child Welfare Information Gateway

Signs of Physical Abuse

While injuries can occur accidentally when a child is at play, physical abuse should be suspected if the explanations do not fit the injury or if a pattern of frequency is apparent. The presence of many injuries in various stages of healing makes it obvious that the injuries did not all occur as a result of one accident.

Physical indicators of abuse include bruises; lacerations; swollen areas; and marks on the child’s face, head, back, chest, genital area, buttocks or thighs. Wounds like human bite marks, cigarette burns, broken bones, puncture marks or missing hair may indicate abuse.

A child’s behavior might also signal that something is wrong. Victims of physical abuse may display withdrawn or aggressive behavioral extremes, complain of soreness or uncomfortable movement, wear clothing that is inappropriate for the weather, express discomfort with physical contact or become chronic runaways.

BHSCP - Signs of Physical Abuse


A combination of individual, relational, community, and societal factors contribute to the risk of child maltreatment. Although children are not responsible for the harm inflicted upon them, certain characteristics have been found to increase their risk of being maltreated. Risk factors are those characteristics associated with child maltreatment—they may or may not be direct causes.

Risk Factors for Victimization

Individual Risk Factors

  • Children younger than 4 years of age
  • Special needs that may increase caregiver burden (e.g., disabilities, mental retardation, mental health issues, and chronic physical illnesses)

Risk Factors for Perpetration

Individual Risk Factors

  • Parents' lack of understanding of children's needs, child development and parenting skills
  • Parents' history of child maltreatment in family of origin
  • Substance abuse and/or mental health issues including depression in the family
  • Parental characteristics such as young age, low education, single parenthood, large number of dependent children, and low income
  • Nonbiological, transient caregivers in the home (e.g., mother’s male partner)
  • Parental thoughts and emotions that tend to support or justify maltreatment behaviors
  • Social isolation
  • Family disorganization, dissolution, and violence, including intimate partner violence
  • Parenting stress, poor parent-child relationships, and negative interactions

Community Risk Factors

  • Community violence
  • Concentrated neighborhood disadvantage (e.g., high poverty and residential instability, high unemployment rates, and high density of alcohol outlets), and poor social connections.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

National Child Abuse Statistics

Children are suffering from a hidden epidemic of child abuse and neglect. Every year more than 3 million reports of child abuse are made in the United States involving more than 6 million children (a report can include multiple children). The United States has one of the worst records among industrialized nations – losing on average between four and seven children every day to child abuse and neglect.

  • A report of child abuse is made every ten seconds
  • More than four children die every day as a result of child abuse.
  • It is estimated that between 50-60% of child fatalities due to maltreatment are not recorded as such on death certificates.
  • Approximately 70% of children that die from abuse are under the age of 4.
  • More than 90% of juvenile sexual abuse victims know their perpetrator in some way.
  • Child abuse occurs at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and at all levels of education.
  • About 30% of abused and neglected children will later abuse their own children, continuing the horrible cycle of abuse.
  • In at least one study, about 80% of 21 year olds that were abused as children met criteria for at least one psychological disorder.
  • The estimated annual cost of child abuse and neglect in the United States for 2008 is $124 billion.
  • Abused children are 25 % more likely to experience teen pregnancy.
  • Abused teens are more likely to engage in sexual risk taking, putting them at greater risk for STDs.


State law requires any person who suspects that a child has been physically or sexually abused or neglected to report it promptly to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

The Nebraska Family Helpline at (888) 866-8660 makes it easier for families to obtain assistance by providing a single contact point 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Trained Helpline operators screen calls to assess immediate safety needs, identify the potential level of a behavioral health crisis, make recommendations or referrals to appropriate resources, and help callers connect to emergency resources or providers. The Helpline is supervised by licensed behavioral health professionals.

The Nebraska Family Helpline is a free, confidential resource for parents who have questions regarding their child's behavior. From bullying, drugs and thoughts of suicide to sharing and obedience issues, trained counselors are standing by to help. Any problem. Any time.

Nebraska Family Helpline

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eBooks + Books

Discover eBook collections or find print books/materials through the catalog for each campus:


Suggested Websites

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-Child Maltreatment

CDC's research and programs work to understand the problem of child maltreatment and prevent it before it begins.


A non-profit charity aiding victims of child abuse.

Child Welfare Information Gateway

Child Welfare Information Gateway promotes the safety, permanency, and well-being of children, youth, and families by connecting child welfare, adoption, and related professionals as well as the general public to information, resources, and tools covering topics on child welfare, child abuse and neglect, out-of-home care, adoption, and more.

Nebraska Department of Health & Human Services

The Division of Children and Family Services is responsible for the state’s child welfare, juvenile services, and economic assistance programs through
offices located across the state.

Prevent Child Abuse America

Works to ensure the healthy development of children nationwide.


The CDC is working to promote a consistent definition of CAN and encourage the use of evidence-based CAN prevention strategies. These efforts help guarantee a uniform understanding of and approach to the issue which contributes to accurate reporting and surveillance, adherence to proven interventions, and opportunities to enhance existing prevention strategies and develop new.