April 1 marks the start of Child Abuse Prevention Month, and non-profit TexProtects has kicked off a campaign to raise awareness for the signs of child abuse and how to prevent it, especially in our now-normal virtual environments.
Knowing the signs of child abuse, especially since many children are seen through virtual formats due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is essential as many parents are under more stress than normal.
“We know that when parents are under stress, there is an increased likelihood, oftentimes, that abuse and neglect could occur,” Sophie Phillips, TexProtects CEO, said.
Some signs to look out for if you see a child over a video call are unexplained bruises or marks or seeing a child dressed in a way that isn’t consistent with the weather to hide bruises or marks, Phillips said. Another sign is a parent or caregiver using harsh discipline on the child or another in the background. You may also notice dangerous objects in the background, such as knives or unsecured guns.
But Phillips said the most valuable thing to do is listen closely and pay attention. Often, children are afraid to speak up because they think the abuse they’re facing is their fault. If a child says they are afraid of an adult or caregiver in their home or that they feel abused or neglected, it’s crucial to take what they say seriously.
“If a child does speak up, whether that be in person, via Zoom or in writing, it’s important to validate those feelings and emotions and know that they are likely telling the truth,” Phillips said.
According to TexProtects, child abuse is the mistreatment of a child that causes harm or injury. In Texas alone, more than four children die from abuse or neglect on average every week, 184 children are confirmed victims of abuse daily and over seven children are maltreated every hour.
There are four different types of child abuse — neglect, physical abuse, emotional abuse and sexual abuse. Children who are abused usually experience more than one type.
Neglect, which is defined as the failure to provide for a child’s basic physical, medical or emotional needs, accounts for over 80% of child abuse cases in Texas and nationwide. Physical abuse is any bodily injury that causes harm to the child, such as bruises, fractures or even death. Physical abuse also includes genuine threats of harm even if there isn’t a visible injury on the child.
Emotional abuse is anything that causes a substantial impact on a child’s growth, development or psychological functioning, such as extreme forms of punishment by locking a child in a dark closet. Sexual abuse harms a child’s mental, emotional or physical well-being and includes “fondling a child’s genitals, penetration, indecent exposure, and exploitation through prostitution or producing pornography.”
However, looking for signs of child abuse in a virtual environment can be tricky, Phillips said. Many parents are experiencing extra stress because of the pandemic or other life situations, but that does not always mean their child is being abused.
“What is not abuse would be, for instance, a child who is frequently absent from school or they’re oftentimes late because parents are juggling work and taking care of their kids,” Phillips said. “They may not have access to technology or internet. They may seem more disruptive or withdrawn because one of their family members could be under stress or could be ill.”
But it’s also vital to note that child abuse is only one type of trauma — children could be experiencing other types of trauma depending on their situations at home. The organization Help Me Grow, which Phillips said was created during the pandemic to support families with young children, offers counseling, childcare and health care services.
All Texas adults over the age of 18 are mandatory reporters of child abuse, Phillips said. If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, it is required by law that you report it to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Phillips said people are often deterred from reporting abuse because of fears that the report will cause the child to be taken from their parents. However, this is a misconception.
“It’s important that we as professionals and community members and parents are just helping one another,” Phillips said.
If you believe a child is experiencing abuse, call the Texas abuse/neglect hotline at 1-800-252-5400 or make a report online by clicking here. To learn more about services offered by Help Me Grow, click here.