Spotting the signs of Abuse & Neglect

Just what are the signs of abuse and neglect?

The signs of abuse and neglect aren’t always obvious, and a child might not feel able to tell anyone what’s happening to them. Sometimes, children don’t even realise that what’s happening to them is abuse.

There are 4 legal categories of abuse and the signs that a child is being abused may depend on the type. For example, the signs that a child is being neglected may be different from the signs that a child is being abused sexually.

Also, something might look like abuse, but it actually may have a reasonable explanation or other factors might explain the issue. Please see our downloadable document at the bottom of the page which also lists explanations of other causes that may look like abuse.

Physical harm

  • hitting with hands or objects
  • slapping and punching
  • kicking
  • shaking
  • throwing
  • poisoning
  • burning and scalding
  • biting and scratching
  • breaking bones
  • drowning.

It’s important to remember that physical abuse is any way of intentionally causing physical harm to a child or young person. It also includes making up the symptoms of an illness or causing a child to become unwell. This is called Fabricated or Induced Illness or FII

Emotional harm

  • humiliating or constantly criticising a child
  • threatening, shouting at a child or calling them names
  • making the child the subject of jokes, or using sarcasm to hurt a child
  • blaming and scapegoating
  • making a child perform degrading acts
  • not recognising a child’s own individuality or trying to control their lives
  • pushing a child too hard or not recognising their limitations
  • exposing a child to upsetting events or situations, like domestic abuse or drug taking
  • failing to promote a child’s social development
  • not allowing them to have friends
  • persistently ignoring them
  • being absent
  • manipulating a child
  • never saying anything kind, expressing positive feelings or congratulating a child on successes
  • never showing any emotions in interactions with a child, also known as emotional neglect.

Neglect and the Neglect Toolkit

Neglect is the ongoing failure to meet a child’s basic needs and the most common form of child abuse. A child might be left hungry or dirty, or without proper clothing, shelter, supervision or health care. This can put children and young people in danger. And it can also have long term effects on their physical and mental wellbeing.

Neglect is one of the categories of abuse, however there six forms of neglect 

Physical Neglect 

A parent or carer has a duty to take care of a child’s basic needs, which includes providing food, shelter and clothes, and keeping the child clean and hygienic. A failure to meet these basic needs is physical neglect.

The inability to provide a child with food may manifest in the child seeming thin and hungry attending school/Sunday school having had no breakfast, or when at school with no packed lunch or money to buy food. The consequences can be very harmful; malnourishment in babies and young children can cause lasting damage to brain development, resulting in lower brain functioning.

The physical neglect of a child may lead to inadequate levels of hygiene, or they could turn up to school on a cold day with no warm layers of clothing. Their clothes may be unwashed, poorly fitting or may have holes. Their home environment may be dirty and unhygienic, or cold and damp.

Failing to keep a child safe from danger also counts as physical neglect. For example, if a parent were to let a very young child walk around town on their own, or if they were to leave them home on their own **unsupervised, this is classed as physical child neglect.

Medical Neglect

When medical neglect occurs, children are denied the medical care they need to treat a condition or prevent an illness from worsening. A child may be repeatedly refused medical care for an ongoing condition or may only be denied for a one-time instance of required medical care. Failing to secure medical attention for an injured child or withholding care with the intent to cause death are both examples of medical neglect. It is an offence to deny a sick child medical attention 

It’s the responsibility of a parent or carer to ensure that a child receives adequate health and dental care; failure to do so is a form of neglect.

For example, a child’s injuries, health issues or dental problems may go untreated, or the child may suffer from repeated illnesses and conditions such as skin sores, ringworm or rashes. They may be anaemic or always tired, and they may not receive the medication they need for a particular condition. They may be small for their age and could lag behind their peers with literacy and social skills.

Medical neglect also includes ignoring the advice of a doctor or dentist, refusing to allow a child to be treated and not taking children to routine appointments such as vaccinations.

Supervisory Neglect

Supervisory neglect occurs when the adult responsible for a child either fails to supervise and keep the child from being harmed or fails to have someone else supervise the child and keep him or her from harm. This type of neglect can occur continually or only happen one time. Two examples of supervisory neglect include failing to supervise a child around weapons and other dangerous circumstances and leaving a child with an impaired caregiver.

Environmental Neglect

This form of neglect is related to both physical neglect and supervisory neglect, but it occurs when children’s home environments are filthy. Rotting food may be left out, there may be infestations of rats or cockroaches, and children may regularly come to school in dirty clothing. Some professionals group environmental neglect with physical neglect.

Educational Neglect

Educational neglect is when children are not given access to education. Examples of educational neglect include parents failing to register children for school or parents making children stay home from school to ensure that they don’t report the abuse they experience at home

Depriving your child of an education is against the law, so if a parent fails to send their child to school, or fails to take action to prevent truancy, they could be guilty of educational neglect.

However, it’s not illegal to take a child out of school if the parents or carers are providing them with an alternative education; that is, teaching them at home and having told the child’s school of their intentions (and the council, if the child is in a special educational needs school).

Local councils may make regular informal checks on parents who are homeschooling their child to ensure that parents and carers are meeting the child’s educational needs; if the council finds evidence of educational neglect, they can issue parents with a school attendance order.

Emotional Neglect

Emotional neglect occurs when children are deprived of their emotional needs (forming secure, positive attachments with adults). Some researchers group emotional neglect with other types of neglect. Parents may struggle to meet children’s emotional needs due to a variety of reasons, such as depression or drug and alcohol abuse. A few examples of emotional neglect include humiliating a child, rejecting a child, or giving bizarre forms of punishment.

As well as physical and educational, and if parents and guardians don’t meet these requirements, it’s known as emotional neglect. Emotional neglect could mean that a child isn’t getting the amount of attention, stimulation or affection that they need from a parent or carer, but it can also be more calculated than that.

For instance, a parent or carer may routinely scare the child, or humiliate them, or lock them away without human interaction. Emotional neglect can result in long-lasting mental health problems and can lead to issues maintaining healthy relationships with partners, friends or even their children when they reach adulthood. Unfortunately, emotional neglect is tough to prove, because it’s often one person’s word against another.

** There’s no legal age a child can be left home alone. Every child matures differently, so it would be almost impossible to have a “one size fits all” law.

However, parents and carers are responsible for keeping their children safe. If leaving your child home alone puts them at risk of harm – because they’re too young to care for themselves for example – the law might consider this neglect.

A child who isn’t old enough or who doesn’t feel comfortable should never be left home alone. If this is the case, it’s best to look into childcare options that might work for your family.

Neglect of unborn babies.

  • Where concerns exist regarding the mother’s ability to protect.
  • Where alcohol or substance abuse is thought to be affecting the health of the unborn baby
  • Where expectant parents are themselves deemed as children/ young people (under age 18yrs) and there are a number of concerns/complicating factors evident that would need to be considered to ensure the safety of parent/s and unborn.
  • Where expectant parents are under the age of thirteen a referral regarding expectant parent/s and unborn baby must be submitted.
  • Where a previous child in the family has been removed because they have suffered harm or been at risk of significant harm.
  • Where the expectant parents are currently active to Social Care and/or they have children who are currently active to Social Care.
  • Where a previous child/children have experienced neglect, emotional, physical or sexual abuse and these concerns continue to be evident and would impact on the unborn baby in pregnancy and once born by virtue of the child being dependant on their caregiver.
  • Where a person who has been convicted of an offence against a child, or is believed by child protection professionals to have abused a child, has joined the family.
  • Where there are acute professional concerns regarding parenting capacity, particularly where the parents have either severe mental health problems or learning disabilities.
  • Where the child is believed to be at risk of significant harm due to domestic violence.

Sexual harm

Sexual abuse can happen in 2 forms – contact and non-contact abuse and it can happen in person or online. Contact abuse is where an abuser makes physical contact with a child. This includes:

  • sexual touching of any part of a child’s body, whether clothed or not
  • using a body part or object to rape or penetrate a child
  • forcing a child to take part in sexual activities
  • making a child undress or touch someone else.

Non-contact abuse is where a child is abused without being touched by the abuser. This can be in person or online and includes:

  • exposing 
  • showing pornography
  • exposing a child to sexual acts
  • forcing a child to make, view or share child abuse images or videos
  • making, viewing or distributing child abuse images or videos
  • forcing a child to take part in sexual activities or conversations online or through a smartphone.

Adult Safeguarding. 

People with care and support needs, such as older people or people with disabilities, are more likely to be abused or neglected. They may be seen as an easy target and may be less likely to identify abuse themselves or to report it. People with communication difficulties can be particularly at risk because they may not be able to alert others. Sometimes people may not even be aware that they are being abused, and this is especially likely if they have a cognitive impairment. Abusers may try to prevent access to the person they abuse. 

Signs of abuse can often be difficult to detect. This at a glance briefing aims to help people who come into contact with people with care and support needs to identify abuse and recognise possible indicators. Many forms of abuse are also criminal offences and should be treated as such.

  • Physical abuse
  • Domestic violence or abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Psychological or emotional abuse
  • Financial or material abuse
  • Modern slavery
  • Discriminatory abuse
  • Organisational or institutional abuse
  • Neglect or acts of omission
  • Self-neglect

For signs and indicators of abuse in Adults can be found here.

Posted in: Free Resources Training

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