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April is Child Abuse Prevention Month


Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect

When children are nurtured, they can grow up to be happy and healthy adults. But when they lack an attachment to a caring adult, receive inconsistent nurturing, or experience harsh discipline, the consequences can affect their lifelong health, well-being, and relationships with others.


What Is Child Abuse and Neglect?

Child abuse or neglect often takes place in the home at the hands of a person the child knows well—a parent, relative, babysitter, or friend of the family. There are four major types of child maltreatment. Although any of the forms may be found separately, they often occur together.


Neglect is failure to provide for a child’s basic needs.


Physical abuse is physical injury as a result of hitting, kicking, shaking, burning, or otherwise harming a child.


Sexual abuse is any situation where a child is used for sexual gratification. This may include indecent exposure, fondling, rape, or commercial exploitation through prostitution or the production of pornographic materials.


Emotional abuse is any pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth, including constant criticism, threats, and rejection.



Why Does Child Abuse Occur?

Child abuse and neglect affect children of every age, race, and income level. However, research has identified many factors relating to the child, family, community, and society that are associated with an increased risk of child abuse and neglect. Studies also have shown that when multiple risk factors are present, the risk is greater. Some of the most common risk factors include the following:


Immaturity. Young parents may lack experience with children or be unprepared for the responsibility of raising a child.


Unrealistic expectations. A lack of knowledge about normal child development or behavior may result in frustration and, ultimately, abusive discipline.


Stress. Families struggling with poverty, unstable housing, divorce, or unemployment may be at greater risk.


Substance abuse. The effects of substance use, as well as time, energy, and money spent obtaining drugs or alcohol; significantly impair parents’ abilities to care for their children.


Intergenerational patterns of abuse. Parents’ own experiences of childhood trauma impact their relationships with their children.


Isolation. Effective parenting is more difficult when parents lack a supportive partner, family, or community


These circumstances, combined with the inherent challenges of raising children, can result in otherwise well-intentioned parents causing their children harm or neglecting their needs. On the other hand, evidence shows that the great majority of families who experience these circumstances will not abuse or neglect their children. There are protective factors that act as buffers to help many families who are under stress parent effectively.


How Many Children Are Abused and Neglected in the United States?

In Federal fiscal year (FFY) 2013, the most recent year for which national child maltreatment statistics are available, about 3.5 million reports were made to child protective services concerning the safety and well-being of approximately 6.4 million children. As a result of these reports, a nationally estimated 679,000 (unique count) children were found to be victims of child abuse or neglect. Of these children, more than 75 percent (79.5 percent) were neglected, more than 15 percent (18.0 percent) were physically abused and less than 10 percent (9.0) percent were sexually abused. Child deaths are most tragic results of maltreatment. In FFY 2013 an estimated 1,520 children died due to abuse or neglect. Of the children who died 71.4 percent suffered neglect and 46.8 percent suffered physical abused either exclusively or in combination with another maltreatment type.


What Are the Consequences?

Child maltreatment is a traumatic experience, and the impact on survivors can be profound. Traumatic events, whether isolated (e.g., a single incident of sexual abuse) or ongoing (e.g., chronic emotional abuse or neglect), overwhelm children’s ability to cope and elicit powerful physical and emotional responses. These responses continue even when the danger has passed, often until treatment is received.


Traumatic events may impair a child’s ability to trust others, sense of personal safety, and effectiveness in navigating life changes. Research shows that child maltreatment, like other trauma, is associated with adverse health and mental health outcomes in children and families, and those negative effects can last a lifetime.


The trauma of child abuse or neglect has been associated with increased risk of:

  • Depression and suicide attempts

  • Substance abuse

  • Developmental disabilities and learning problems

  • Social problems with other children and with adults

  • Teen pregnancy

  • Lack of success in school

  • Domestic violence

  • Chronic illnesses, including heart disease, cancer, and lung disease, among others

​In addition to the impact on the child and family, child abuse and neglect affects the community as a whole— including medical and mental health, law enforcement, judicial, public social services, and nonprofit agencies— as they respond to incidents and support victims. One analysis of the immediate and long-term economic impact of child abuse and neglect suggests that child maltreatment costs the nation approximately $220 million every day, or $80 billion per year.2


What Are the Warning Signs?

The first step in helping or getting help for an abused or neglected child is to identify the symptoms of abuse. The table on this page lists some symptoms of the four major types of child maltreatment. The presence of a single sign does not prove that child abuse is occurring in a family; however, when these signs appear repeatedly or in combination, you should consider the possibility of maltreatment.



Maltreatment Type


Physical abuse

Sexual abuse

Emotional abuse


  • Signs of malnutrition

  • Poor hygiene

  • Unattended physical or medical problems

  • Unexplained bruises, burns, or welts

  • Child appears frightened of a parent or caregiver

  • Pain, bleeding, redness, or swelling in anal or genital area

  • Age-inappropriate sexual play with toys, self, or others

  • Age-inappropriate knowledge of sex

  • Extremes in behavior, ranging from overly aggressive to overly passive

  • Delayed physical, emotional, or intellectual development

What Can I Do if I Suspect Child Abuse or Neglect?

Anyone can and should report suspected child abuse or neglect. If you think a child is being mistreated, take immediate action. Child Abuse can be reported directly to the County Social Service Department in the county which the child lives or to the Law Enforcement Department where the incident occurred. When you call to make a report, you will be asked for specific information, such as: 

  • The child’s name and location

  • The name and relationship (if known) of the person you believe is abusing the child

To locate treatment services for an abused child or to schedule a speaking engagement on prevention, intervention or the consequences of child abuse and neglect, phone

Family Service of Waukesha at (262) 547-5567.

* Statistics are taken from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2013). Child Maltreatment 2012. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from http://www.


Information in this article was provided by The Children’s Bureau with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for National Child Abuse Prevention Month Initiative and the Child Welfare Information Gateway website,

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