“As an undergraduate student in psychology, I was taught that multiple personalities were a very rare and bizarre disorder. That is all that I was taught on ... It soon became apparent that what I had been taught was simply not true. Not only was I meeting people with multiplicity; these individuals entering my life were normal human beings with much to offer. They were simply people who had endured more than their share of pain in this life and were struggling to make sense of it.”
― Deborah Bray Haddock, The Dissociative Identity Disorder Sourcebook
Whether or not one is a mandatory reporter, anyone who witnesses or comes to suspect child abuse should report it to the proper authorities. You do not have to be sure that there is abuse in order to file a report. It cannot be assumed that every instance of child abuse will be obvious or that every child will eventually tell an adult who is willing to act on their behalf about the abuse. Abusive families might seem normal or even happy from the outside, and children might be good at hiding the abuse, feel that no one would believe them if they told, or have already told someone in the past who reacted poorly or failed to help them. Keep in mind that some children are abused by non-family members, and in some cases, children are abused by other children. If you have reason to suspect that a child is being abused or that an adult or minor is at risk of abusing a child, report the abuse yourself.
Allowing abuse to continue can be very damaging for child victims. Child protective services will act based on the individual circumstances in order to best protect the child, and this often entails providing resources, counseling, or classes to parents instead of removing the child from their family. An abuser is more likely to be removed from the family unit than the child is. If a child is removed from their family's care, this is because the child would be in danger if they were to remain with their family. Do not hesitate to act for fear of breaking up a family. More information about what happens after a report is made can be found here.
You may have additional concerns if you and your children are both being abused and you fear backlash if the investigation goes through, if you would not be supported by your community if you separate from your partner, or if you fear losing custody of your children. Professional support and legal advice can help if this is the case. Domestic violence organizations may be able to provide support or to put you into contact with those who can. Try to remain calm and to not take out your stress or fear on those investigating your case. If there is an emergency and someone's safety is threatened, don't hesitate to call emergency services. More information about custody cases involving child sexual abuse can be found here.
If you are directly aware of abuse, documenting incidences of abuse can help to prove your claims, as can having professionals document their own suspicions of abuse. Having your child evaluated by a child assessment center can help to strengthen your case.
In some cases, law enforcement may be better suited for investigating child abuse cases than child protective services. This is especially true when the perpetrator is not a caregiver for the child. Sometimes, it may be best to report abuse to both organizations, and they may share information between them when this occurs or sometimes without prompting. Law enforcement is often better prepared to investigate crimes, including crimes against children, and protecting victims while doing so. Child protective services are often over burdened and may in some cases act to preserve family units at the expense of the child. This may vary based on location, funding, and current burden. Law enforcement or specific agencies should be contacted in cases of child trafficking or when it becomes known that an adult is consuming child pornography.
Note that in some cases, failing to report suspected abuse is a crime. This is especially likely to be true for mandated reporters such as health care and mental health workers, school personnel, social workers, day care providers, law enforcement, and clergy. In some states, all adults are mandated reporters. If you live in the US, you can learn more about your state's laws here.
On the other hand, reports made in good faith cannot be prosecuted. You will not be at legal risk for reporting suspected abuse. In many states, you can make an anonymous report if you fear for your own safety, though the report may be taken more seriously if you provide identifying information. If there are safety concerns for you or for the child, make this clear to law enforcement while making the report.
Try to remain calm and reassuring. Try to avoid showing shock, disgust, or panic because this may upset the child and make them afraid to say more or to disclose in the future. Avoid showing any disbelief or denial of their disclosure. Reassure the child that they did nothing wrong, that the abuse was not their fault, and that you appreciate them telling you what happened. Focus on helping the child to feel safe.
Prioritize the child making the disclosure; even if they report someone that you're close to and would never suspect of abuse, including potentially another child, do not allow this to stop you from making a report. It is not your job to judge what did or did not happen. Your responsibility is to ensure that a child is not hurt because of your inaction and to support the child through the process. Be aware that you may lose relationships with those who side with the abuser, but many of these relationships may heal over time. Even if they do not, the child's safety is more important.
Allow the child to explain to you what they need to share. Make sure that if you need additional information, you don't interrogate the child, which might frighten them, or ask leading questions, which could confuse their testimony to investigators. Make sure to use age appropriate vocabulary, but keep your questions slightly vague so that the child doesn't feel pressured to give a certain answer or details aren't missed due to the question being slightly off. Be aware that the child may be reluctant or unable to share everything that happened.
Don't try to play detective yourself or do anything that might put the child or others in danger. Report the abuse and trust child protective services and/or law enforcement to do what is necessary.
Warn the child that you are going to report the abuse. Tell them that you're going to talk to someone who can help them. Be firm, but make clear that you're doing this because you care about them and want them to be safe, not because they did anything wrong. If you are not the child's caregiver and you have no reason to suspect that their caregivers are involved, you can consult with them prior to making a report. Do not allow caregivers to talk you out of making a report.
If you are the child's caregiver, you may want to seek counseling and other forms of support for your child. You may want to seek counseling and support for yourself as well, especially if you're learning that another family member or close friend hurt your child. This can be a very difficult thing to learn.
Be specific about why you're concerned about the abuse. If you witnessed abuse, share this. If you noticed specific signs of abuse, describe them. If you have concerns because of the child's behavior or statements, make this clear. If you notice more warning signs in the future, report these as well. You may also wish to encourage others to make their own reports about red flags that they've noticed. The more information that child protective services and/or law enforcement have, the better.
Information often asked for includes: name, age and/or birthdate, gender, and race for all adults and children involved; addresses of those involved; the relationship of the alleged perpetrator(s) to the victim(s); details of what you observed or know about the potential abuse; if other children are under the care of the potential abuser and might be at risk of harm. If there any safety concerns, such as the abuser harming the child if they realize that a report has been made, communicate these as well. Do not report any information that you are not sure of or did not witness unless you are communicating that a child has disclosed the information.
Understand that unless you are a mandated reporter, you may not be told anything about any investigations or their outcomes. Confidentiality laws may differ by country.
Online Sexual Abuse and Child Sexual Abuse Material (Child Pornography)
Other Ways to Report Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation
If the child protection system is failing a child or if a court or agency seems like it will return a child to an abusive situation, Justice for Children (1-800-733-0059) can help to advocate for the child. Your state chapter of the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse (1-800-244-5373; 1-800-CHILDREN) or Children's Advocacy Center may also be able to provide advice and refer you to local advocacy groups. If you feel that CPS has mishandled a report, you can request the caseworker to reopen the report, speak to their supervisor at the county level, and contact the state liaison if you still feel that appropriate action is not being taken. An attorney may also be able to provide assistance. Even if a case is closed, new observations or concerns can be reported to reopen the case, and disclosures and subsequent reports from other individuals can also reopen the case.
Types of child abuse include neglect (including physical, emotional, and medical), emotional and verbal abuse (including exposing a child to domestic violence or the abuse of others), physical abuse, sexual abuse (including overt, covert, and non-contact), religious and spiritual abuse, and child sexual exploitation and domestic minor sex trafficking. More information about types of abuse can be found here.
Any child from any religious, cultural, ethnic, or racial background, any socioeconomic status, and any area can be at risk of any type of abuse. Not all abusers are deliberately or even knowingly harming the child, but that does not make their abuse any less damaging for the child.
Warning signs for abuse often overlap between types of abuse.
General signs of child abuse include distress, anxiety or depression, eating disorders, aggressive or antisocial behavior, extreme compliance or defiance, emotional detachment or dissociation, clinginess, difficulties with academic achievement and school attendance, extreme fear regarding making mistakes or doing something wrong, acting out and constantly doing things wrong or getting into trouble, expressed fear or unwillingness to return home, running away from home, difficulties making and keeping friends, expressed feelings of worthlessness or being bad or damaged, risky behaviors or drug or alcohol use, and self harm or suicidal threats or gestures.
Additional signs of physical abuse can include frequent or unexplained injuries (including bruises, burns or scalds, bite marks, fractures or broken bones, scarring, signs of poisoning, signs of having been drowned or suffocated, or signs of an infant having been shaken), wearing inappropriate clothing meant to cover up injuries, fear of being touched or shying away or flinching in response to touch or sudden movements, mysterious pains, and abnormal physical development and coordination.
Additional signs of neglect can include ill-fitting, filthy, or inappropriate clothing, consistently poor hygiene, untreated illnesses or injuries, recurring illnesses or infection, a frequent lack of adult supervision that may lead to accidents or injury, not meeting developmental milestones, being short and underweight (failure to thrive), and malnourishment or being underfed.
Additional signs of sexual abuse can include difficulties walking or sitting, age inappropriate sexual knowledge or behaviors, strong efforts to avoid a particular person for no known reason, intense anxiety regarding changing clothing in front of others, an STD or pregnancy, incontinence or bed wetting, and nightmares.
Additional signs of human trafficking can include a child having no free time or freedom of movement, not knowing what city or even country they are in, not being able to give personal details or tell where they are living, not being registered with a school or any doctors, having no documents or falsified documents, being seen in a brothel or factory, injuries from workplace accidents, or being frequently seen with an unknown or non-familial adult who may try to speak for them.
It should be noted that not all abuse occurs within the home environment. Other signs of abuse may include a child displaying extreme fear of school, church, a daycare center, an extended family member or family friend's house, or another such environment; fearing or avoiding particular individuals associated with or working at such environments; or trying to avoid such environments through claiming to be ill or even trying to cause illness or injuries to themselves to avoid having to go. Note that young children who are frightened of going to see an abuser or going to an abusive environment may genuinely mistake the physical signs of fear or anxiety for proof that they're ill and that prolonged stress can weaken the immune system and make illness more likely.
Even if your abuse happened only once and ended years ago, you have the right to report your abuse in order to get closure or to make sure that your abuser can't hurt other children. Reporting your abuse is not mandatory; it can be a very difficult and even re-traumatizing process, and it's a very personal decision to make. If you do choose to report, make sure that you have sufficient support to help you through the process.
You can report your abuse directly to your local police, or you can work through a third party such as some of the hotlines listed above. If you have a therapist, they may be able to help you as well. Be prepared to provide whatever details you can, including who abused you, when you were abused, where the abuse took place, how you were abused, and any supporting evidence that you have.
Be aware that your case may be taken to court. The process may take a while to resolve. There may not be enough evidence for your abuser to be convicted, and you may feel like your testimony was not believed. Again, be sure that you have a strong support system during this time.
Know that even if your abuser is not jailed or even if the statute of limitations has passed, your report may help to strengthen the case of any other victims who come forward. You may also find that the report gives you peace of mind and some closure. Finally, knowing that you can report abuse may help you to feel empowered to prevent or stop future abuse.
You can find out what the reporting process may entail here, particularly if you live in the UK.
All content on this website is provided for the purpose of general information only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment. Please consult a licensed professional before making any healthcare decisions or for guidance about potential mental health conditions.
This website was last updated 11/29/2022.
This page was last updated 3/31/2022.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License by Katherine Reuben.