What should a caring adult do if they are concerned that a child they know is being abused?

There is no one context in which suspicions about child abuse may develop. You may witness a concerning incident, or might observe a child behaving in ways that could indicate they are being abused or neglected. Sometimes, children disclose that they are being maltreated.

It can be difficult to decide what to do in such situations. However, it is always appropriate to pay attention to your concerns rather than brush them off! If you feel uncomfortable evaluating your suspicions and deciding how to respond, remember that children are dependent on the adults in their lives to keep them safe. By being aware of and sensitive to your concerns, you are helping build a community in which healthy families and children can thrive.

Is it abuse?

The two most generally recognized forms of child abuse are physical abuse (non-accidental 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 their child or willfully ignores the child’s needs. There are other times, however, when apparent abuse or neglect results from financial, medical, or emotional challenges that affect parents’ ability to care for their children.

The following 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:

The role of child protective services (CPS)

All states have a child protective services system whose role is to investigate and remediate child maltreatment. Any member of the public may report suspicions of child abuse and neglect to CPS, which then determines whether to pursue an investigation. During an investigation, CPS will usually attempt to interview the child and view the inside of the family’s home. As the investigation proceeds, CPS may refer the family for special services (such as financial assistance and family counseling), bring charges against the parents in juvenile court, refer the matter to the police for criminal investigation, and/or remove the child temporarily or permanently from the home.

If you are 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 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. Such investigations can be extremely traumatizing to both the children and their parents, especially if no abuse or neglect has actually been occurring. Meanwhile, investigators can fail to identify or respond to severe abuse because of excessive caseloads and lack of effective protocols. HSLDA believes that a more flexible and efficient approach to investigation, as well as a greater respect for families’ Fourth Amendment rights, would better protect children from abuse and trauma.

As part of HSLDA’s services for our member families, we provide them with legal representation in the initial stages of child abuse investigations. This is because homeschooling families are sometimes reported to CPS simply because they home educate, not because they are actually abusing or neglecting their children. We seek to hold CPS and other government authorities accountable when they misuse their authority.

At the same time, parents who abuse their power over their children must also be held accountable. If you believe that abuse or criminal neglect is occurring, 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.

If you need help deciding what to do

Here are some options for evaluating your concerns about possible abuse and deciding how you will respond.

Call a hotline.

Calls to child abuse hotlines are confidential; hotline personnel will not report what you tell them to any authorities. Their goal is to talk about the situation with you, answer your questions, and explain your options for responding. They can also tell you how to report abuse in your state.

Contact Focus on the Family.

Focus on the Family offers help to 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.

Talk with HSLDA.

If you are an HSLDA member, we may be able to assist you as you consider how best to proceed. As with the other options listed above, the final decision will be left to you. Contact us by clicking here or calling 540-338-5600.

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.

If the situation is an emergency, please call 911.

Sometimes families need a helping hand

As mentioned above, some situations that appear neglectful or harmful do not result from intentional lack of care but rather because a family is struggling financially or with some other challenge. Situations such as these can sometimes be remedied by helping families to access outside support, such as financial assistance, parenting workshops, or respite care. Caring friends, churches, homeschool groups, and community organizations can all make a difference for struggling families!

We encourage homeschooling parents who are dealing with low income or job loss, raising children without a spouse or partner, or recovering from disasters such as fires and hurricanes to apply for an HSLDA Compassion Grant. These grants make it possible for families to afford curriculum, co-op fees, specialized therapies for children with special needs, and even HSLDA membership. Learn more here.