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Defining, Reporting, and
Addressing Child Abuse and Neglect

Child Abuse

The National Foundation for Abused and Neglected Children (NFANC®), based in Chicago, Illinois, responds to over 30,000 reports of child abuse and neglect a year. NFANC® strives to help protect children under the age of 18 years whose lives or health are seriously jeopardized because of abusive acts or negligence. NFANC® also supports the preservation of families. Therefore, we do not intend to intervene in family situations that do not constitute abuse, neglect, or a threat of harm to children.

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Risk-Oriented Case Management

NFANC® practices risk-oriented case management. These risk-oriented case management issues include:

  • Referrals of Victims and Family Members of Victims of Child Abuse/Neglect 
  • Identifying the Risk Factors That Contributed to the Abuse or Neglect
  • Delivering Appropriate Services to Reduce Risks
  • Evaluating the Success of the Intervention
  • Continuing Services, If Necessary

What are child abuse and neglect?

Child abuse and neglect occur when a child is mistreated, resulting in injury or risk of harm. Abuse can be physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual. 

Physical abuse may be defined as any act, which, regardless of intent, results in a non-accidental physical injury. Inflicted physical injury most often represents unreasonably severe corporal punishment. This usually happens when the parent is frustrated or angry and strikes, shakes, or throws the child.

Physical neglect is defined as the failure to provide for a child's physical survival needs to the extent that there is harm or risk of harm to the child's health or safety. This may include, but is not limited to: abandonment, lack of supervision, life-endangering physical hygiene, lack of adequate nutrition that places the child below the normal growth curve, lack of shelter, or lack of medical or dental care that results in health-threatening conditions.

Sexual abuse is defined as acts of sexual assault and sexual exploitation of minors. Sexual abuse encompasses a broad range of behaviors and may consist of many acts over a long period of time or a single incident. The nature of sexual abuse, the shame of the child victim, and the possible involvement of trusted parents, stepparents, or other persons in a caretaker role make it extremely difficult for children to come forward to report sexual abuse.

Emotional abuse includes verbal assaults, ignoring and indifference, or constant family conflict. If a child is degraded enough, the child will begin to live up to the image communicated by the abusing parent or caretaker. Child abuse can happen anywhere; in poor, middle class, or well-to-do homes in rural or urban areas.

Report Data from 1997

Child protective service agencies nationwide received almost 2 million reports of alleged child abuse and neglect. An estimated 3 million children were reported as alleged victims of maltreatment.

Data from 49 states indicate a national maltreatment rate of 15 victims per 1,000 children in the population younger than 18. Those 49 states reported that there were 523,049 victims of neglect; 244,903 victims of physical abuse; 126,095 victims of sexual abuse; and 44,648 victims of emotional maltreatment.

Twenty-six percent of victims of maltreatment were 3 years old or younger. More than half of all victims were younger than 8 years old. About 26% of the victims were between the ages of 8 and 12. Another 21% of the child victims of abuse and neglect were teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18.

Forty-seven percent of the victims of maltreatment were male, and about 52% were female. The sex for less than 1% of the victims was not reported. 

Forty-four states provided data on race and ethnicity. Fifty-five percent of all victims were white; 27% were black; 2% were Native American; 10% were Hispanic; and 1% were Asian/Pacific Islander. Three percent of all victims were of unknown racial or ethnic origin.

Forty-five states reported that 996 child fatalities resulted from child maltreatment. It is estimated that there were about 110 child fatalities per 100,000 child victims of maltreatment.

Based on the data from 44 states, 80% of perpetrators of child maltreatment were parents, 2% of perpetrators were caretakers, and 10% were other relatives of the victim. About 5% of all perpetrators were non-caretakers. 

Females were more often identified as the perpetrators than were males. The mean age of male perpetrators was 37 years of age, and the mean age of female perpetrators was 34 years of age. 

Who should report and what is there to look for?

Somewhere in your community, there is a family who has a serious problem. The children in that family are being abused and neglected by their parent(s). According to the laws in most states, all persons (including doctors, mental health professionals, child-care providers, dentists, family members, and friends) must report suspected cases of child abuse. Failure to report child abuse is a violation of the law. If you believe a child has been abused by a parent, relative, friend, or stranger, contact the state department of child services (DCS) office (directory of numbers), the juvenile court, or the chief law enforcement officer in your area.

Indicators of Abuse and Neglect

  • They Have Repeated Injuries That Are Not Properly Treated or Adequately Explained
  • They Begin Acting in Unusual Ways, Ranging from Disruptive and Aggressive to Passive and Withdrawn
  • They Act in the Role of the Parent Toward Their Brothers and Sisters or Even Toward Their Own Parents
  • Their Sleep Is Disturbed (Nightmares, Bed-Wetting, Fear of Sleeping Alone, Needing a Nightlight)
  • They Lose Their Appetite or Overeat
  • There Is a Sudden Drop in School Grades or Participating in Activities
  • They May Act in Stylized Ways, Such as Sexual Behavior That Is Not Normal for Their Age Group
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Perpetrator Characteristics

The following signs indicate that something is wrong, but do not necessarily point to abuse. However, if you notice these signs early, you may be able to prevent abuse or neglect. Parents who abuse or neglect their children may show some of the following characteristics:

  • They Seem to Be Isolated from the Community and Have No Close Friends
  • When Asked about a Child's Injury, They Offer Conflicting Reasons or No Explanation at All
  • They Seem Unwilling or Unable to Provide for a Child's Basic Needs
  • They Expect Too Much of Their Children
  • They Don't Supervise or Discipline Their Children in Ways That Teach Them to Correct Their Behavior

Parents are the Majority of Perpetrators

More than 85% of the perpetrators of child abuse and neglect in the United States were the parents or relatives of the victims. Staff of school, child-care settings, or institutions were reported to be the perpetrators in only 2% of the investigations. Adolescents as well as adults can be perpetrators of abuse.

Please be aware that parents who abuse their children need help. Few are able to admit the problem and seek assistance.


To report abuse, call:

  • Your Local DCS Office, (Directory of Numbers) 
  • Your Local Juvenile Court
  • Local Sheriff's Office or Police Department

How to Report Abuse or Neglect

When a person notifies the DCS regarding possible abuse or neglect of a child, DCS social counselors determine how to proceed with an investigation by assessing the referral information and focusing on the present and future risks to the child. Considering the condition of the child and the risk of future maltreatment helps a social counselor know how to quickly respond to a referral and what priority to assign that referral. This process involves accepting oral or written allegations of child abuse or neglect for further investigation, gathering the information to determine the urgency of the situation, and initiating the appropriate response and an investigative plan. DCS accepts reports of child maltreatment provided it meets the following three criteria:

  • The Report Pertains to a Child under the Age of 18 Years
  • The Report Alleges Harm or Imminent Risk of Harm to the Child
  • The Alleged Perpetrator Is a Parent or Caretaker; a Relative or Other Person Living in the Home; an Educator, Volunteer, or Employee or a Recreational/Organizational Setting Who Is Responsible for the Child; or Any Individual Providing Treatment, Care, or Supervision for the Child

More Information about the Referral Process

DCS accepts all referrals involving sexual abuse of children under the age of 13 years, regardless of the previous relationship between the alleged victim and the alleged perpetrator. DCS does not investigate sexual abuse allegations of a child 13 to 18 years old by an alleged perpetrator who does not have a relationship with the child, as defined above. DCS may assist law enforcement or the district attorney's office in such cases.

Information Needed When Reporting

The following are just several examples of the questions that may be asked when reporting abuse or neglect. The reporter's identity is confidential, but a name should be given so DCS can follow up with the reporter if necessary. The reporter is free from civil or criminal liability for reports of suspected child abuse/neglect made in good faith.

  • Nature of the Harm or Specific Incident(s) That Precipitated the Report
  • Specific Allegations(s), Date(s), and Description(s) of the Injuries or Dangers
  • Identities of Alleged Perpetrator(s) and Their Relationships to the Victim
  • Witnesses to the Incident(s) and How to Reach Those Witnesses
  • Details of Any Physical Evidence Available
  • Perpetrator's Current Access to the Child
  • Present Condition of the Child (Alone, in Need of Medical Attention, etc.)
  • The Location of the Child and Directions to Get There
  • Parent's or Perpetrator's Explanation of the Alleged Child Victim's Condition or the Incident
  • Parent's Current Emotional, Physical, or Mental State, Especially Feelings about the Child(ren) and Reactions to the Report
  • How the Reporter Came to Know the Information and the Reporter's Thoughts about the Likelihood of Further Harm to the Child(ren)