The two most generally recognized forms of child abuse are physical abuse (nonaccidental physical injury to a child) and sexual abuse (sexual interaction with or exploitation of a child by an adult, or by another child when there is a power or age differential).
Child neglect is generally recognized to include failure to provide for a child’s physical needs (such as food, clothing, and supervision), failure to meet medical or educational needs, and abandonment.
Some abuse or neglect occurs because a parent intentionally sets out to harm his or her child, or willfully ignores the child’s needs. There are other times, however, when the abuse or neglect results from parental ignorance or family stresses. For example, a parent may be immature, or may come from a family or cultural background in which certain harmful approaches to child rearing are not considered abusive. Or parents may be experiencing medical, financial, or emotional challenges that affect their ability to care for their children.
The following two resources explain the types of abuse and neglect and list warning signs in a child or parent that may indicate the child is being abused: “Child Abuse and Neglect: How to Spot the Signs and Make a Difference” and “What Is Child Abuse and Neglect? Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms.”
If you think that a child you know may be experiencing abuse or neglect, it is important to follow up on your concerns. We encourage you to consider the following questions.
What is the nature of the situation?As mentioned above, child abuse and neglect can occur within different sets of circumstances for which different responses may be appropriate. Sometimes what appears to be neglect, for example, does not result from intentional lack of care but rather because the family is struggling financially or with some other challenge. Situations such as these can sometimes be remedied by helping the family to access outside support, such as financial assistance, parenting workshops, or respite care.
Sometimes parents are not aware that their actions could be harmful to their children. In such cases, it may be effective to communicate your concerns directly to the parents.
What is the source of your concerns?If your suspicions of child abuse or neglect are based on hearsay, it is worth your time and effort to explore the situation further before taking action. Rumor is often far removed from facts. If your suspicions are based on direct observation of the family, we still urge caution. There may be a reasonable explanation for what you have observed.
We do not by any means suggest that you should ignore your genuine suspicions, but rather that you should proceed with care.
Is a private response appropriate?Whether you should speak directly with the parents may depend on your relationship with the family. If you have a caring, trust-based relationship with the parents, they may feel more open to hearing your concerns and more willing to accept help if it is needed. If you are not close to the family, you might speak with someone among the family’s relatives, church, homeschool group, or other community.
It is not always advisable to inform parents of your concerns. In some situations, parents may blame or punish their child for others’ suspicions, or abuse may continue in secret. Avoid speaking with the parents if you believe it will place you or the child at risk of harm.
Should you notify the authorities?All states have a child protective services (CPS) system whose role is to investigate child abuse and neglect accusations. Depending on the outcome of the investigation, CPS may refer the family for special services such as counseling or support groups, bring charges in juvenile court, refer the matter to the police for criminal investigation, or remove the children from the home. If you believe that abuse or criminal neglect is occurring, and if personal intervention with the family is not advisable, a report to the police or CPS is appropriate. If there is legitimate reason to believe that a child is being subjected to sexual abuse, call the police at once.
In an emergency situation—if you believe that a child is at risk of imminent serious harm—please call 911.
For those familiar with HSLDA’s long-term advocacy efforts for homeschooling and parental rights, you are probably aware that we have sincere concerns about the way child abuse investigations are sometimes carried out. Because the CPS system often takes a one-size-fits-all approach to investigating child abuse, tips are not appropriately prioritized and each family, no matter what the allegations, is subjected to the same interviews and searches. HSLDA believes that a more flexible approach to investigation, as well as a greater respect for parents’ Fourth Amendment rights, would more effectively protect children from abuse.
At the same time, we take child abuse seriously and we urge you to do the same. Please do not hesitate to contact the authorities if the situation demands it. Children cannot protect themselves from abuse and are dependent on adults to take appropriate action on their behalf.
What is mandatory reporting?
Every state has laws that require certain people (called “mandatory reporters”) to report all suspected child abuse and neglect to the proper authorities or be liable to prosecution. Mandatory reporters are usually people who might come to know of instances of child abuse in the course of exercising their profession—doctors and other medical personnel, teachers and other educators, counselors and therapists, and social workers. If you have questions about whether you are a mandatory reporter, please contact HSLDA.
If I think a family might be abusing or neglecting their children, can I call HSLDA for advice?
We are always happy to help our members. If you have suspicions of child abuse or neglect, we may be able to assist you as you consider how best to proceed, although the final decision will be left to you.
We may be unable to answer questions that are specific in nature, especially if they involve another member family. Because HSLDA is a law firm, when our attorneys speak with our members about legal issues it can create an attorney-client relationship. We are bound by legal ethics not to represent any interest contrary to that of our clients.
The information below and on our child abuse resource page can also help you think about what action to take if you are concerned about possible abuse in a family.
Do you need help right away?
Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline
Call 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) to speak with a hotline counselor 24/7. All calls are anonymous. The hotline counselors do not report abuse, but can tell you how to get help in your local area. For more information about the hotline, visit Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline or Help for Kids.
Focus on the Family
Focus on the Family offers a wealth of resources ranging from education to help for families in crisis. Visit Focus on the Family or call 1-855-771-HELP (4357), Monday through Friday, 6:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m. Mountain Time to speak with Focus on the Family Help Center counselors.
If there is an emergency, please call 911.
Please note: Nothing on this webpage constitutes the giving of legal advice. By including links to other websites, HSLDA does not endorse all the information found on those sites.