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Child Abuse & How to Prevent It

What is Child Abuse or Neglect?
Under the law, an abused or neglected child is any child under 18 whose parent, or any other person responsible for the care of the child:

  • causes, or threatens to cause, a physical or mental injury except for an accident.
  • fails to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or caring support.
  • abandons the child.
  • fails to provide the kind of supervision necessary for a child’s age or level of development.
  • commits, or allows to be committed, any illegal sexual act involving the child — including incest, rape, fondling, indecent exposure, prostitution — or allows the child to be used in any sexually explicit visual material.

Child abuse is not usually just one physical attack or just one instance of failure to meet a child’s most basic needs. Usually child abuse is a pattern of behavior that takes place over a period of time. The longer child abuse continues, the more serious it becomes, the more serious is the injury to the child and the more difficult it is to stop.

Who Are the Abusers?
There are no monsters. Abusive parents can be your friends, your neighbors or your relatives. They are ordinary people, caught in life situations beyond their control. It is a myth that child abuse occurs only among poor families. Child maltreatment affects all economic, racial, social, ethnic and religious groups.

Why Does Child Abuse Happen?
There is no easy answer to this question, because many factors are involved. However, child abuse is most likely to occur when parents are struggling with:

  • Stress…Pressures from money problems, everyday frustrations, illness or heavy responsibilities.
  • A painful childhood…Adults who were mistreated as children may, without meaning to, continue the pattern of abuse with their own children.
  • Alcohol or other drugs…can blind a parent to a child’s needs or may reduce inhibitions and tolerance levels so that parents may be more likely to lash out.
  • Isolation…Without friends or relatives nearby, parents can feel overwhelmed by the demands of raising a child.
  • Inexperience with children or unrealistic expectations…If parents don’t know what to expect from children, they may expect too much. Besides lacking the parenting skills necessary to raise a child, the parents may have no models of successful family relationships from which to learn.
  • Immaturity…Very young, insecure parents often can’t understand their child’s behavior and needs.
  • Unmet emotional needs…Parents may expect children to take care of them and to satisfy their need for love, protection and self-esteem.

How Do I Report Abuse or Neglect?
Witnesses to abuse or neglect may experience anger, dread or anxiety, and they will certainly experience a lot of confusion. Although deciding to report suspected child abuse can be a difficult process, it is an important first step toward protecting a child who might be in danger.

To report abuse, call the social services agency where the child lives or where the abuse occurred. Ask for Child Protective Services and give them the name, age and address of the child and a description of what is happening. You are not required to give your name, but it helps.

Virginia also maintains a 24 hour hotline for reporting child abuse and neglect. The number for the Virginia Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline is 1-800-552-7096 (voice/TTY).

Can Child Abuse Be Prevented?

  • Helping parents learn to raise and nurture their children without physical or emotional violence. This can be done through support groups and parenting programs and through public awareness campaigns.
  • Organizing and supporting early intervention programs like Healthy Families Virginia, that provide continuous support to families from the birth of a child through age five.
  • Training teachers, day care workers, doctors and other professionals about how to prevent abuse and how to recognize and treat abuse when it does occur.
  • Supporting laws and programs that protect children from the pain of abuse.

For more information, visit Prevent Child Abuse Virginia.

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