An Abused or Neglected Child/Teen

Child abuse includes physical, sexual, verbal or emotional abuse and neglect. Protecting children from abuse and neglect is a community responsibility. Most adults want to help but are unsure of how to get involved. Figuring out what to do can be a difficult and confusing process. If you think a child is being abused or neglected, you should report it as soon as you become aware of it. Do not wait, as time can make a difference! If an incident has happened within the last 96 hours, an immediate medical assessment may be necessary.


It is important to know that these specific indicators may or may not be present in children who have been abused or neglected. Every child is different, and children display their feelings in many ways. Children who are experiencing emotional issues, unrelated to abuse or neglect, may display some of these same behaviors. If you have questions about your child's behavior or development, you should contact their primary care provider or pediatrician. Physicians are trained in child development, and they should be able to assist you in recognizing areas of concern.

Physical abuse is the non-accidental injury to a child. Possible signs of physical abuse are:

Physical Signs

  • Unexplained or repeated bruising
  • Unexplained burns
  • Other unexplained or repeated injuries

Behavioral Signs

  • Behavioral extremes (withdrawn, quiet, angry, and/or immature behavior)
  • Excessive fear of parent(s), caregiver(s) or going home
  • Unusual shyness or wariness of physical contact
  • Frequent attempts to hide injuries
  • Depression and/or excessive crying
  • Behavioral problems, truancy and/or running away
  • Substance abuse

Sexual abuse is any act of a sexual nature upon or with a child. Possible signs of sexual abuse are:

Physical Signs

  • Unexplained or frequent pain, including stomach or genital pain
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Pregnancy
  • Bruises or bleeding from external genitals, vagina or anal region
  • Genital discharge
  • Torn, stained, or bloody underclothes
  • Frequent, unexplained sore throats, yeast or urinary infections

Behavioral Signs

  • Poor peer relationships or inability to relate to children of the same age
  • Behaviors not common in older children, such as thumb sucking, bedwetting, or fear of the dark
  • Sudden changes in behavior
  • Promiscuous or seductive behavior
  • Aggression or behavior problems
  • Prostitution
  • Substance abuse
  • Avoidance of recreational activity
  • Sleep problems or nightmares
  • Sudden decline in school performance
  • In young children, an above normal focus on theirs or others' sexual organs

Neglect is the failure to act on behalf of a child. Possible signs of neglect are:

Physical Signs

  • Uncleanliness, or poor hygiene, including lice, scabies, or severe or untreated diaper rash
  • Untreated illness or injury
  • Unsuitable clothing or missing key articles of clothing, such as socks, shoes or a coat
  • Height and weight significantly below age level

Behavioral Signs

  • Constant hunger, tiredness or lack of energy
  • Begging or collecting leftovers
  • Unusual school attendance (frequent absence, lateness, coming to school early or leaving late)
  • Assuming adult responsibilities
  • Vandalism or behavior problems

Environmental Signs

  • Lack of food, heat or utilities in the house
  • Lack of adult supervision
  • Parent or caregiver does not appear to have the knowledge or skills about how to care for a child or has their own health concerns that interfere with parenting

Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior directed toward a child that damages their emotional well-being and self-esteem. Possible signs of emotional abuse are:

Physical Signs

  • Bedwetting
  • Frequent illness
  • Unexplained health problems, such as headaches, nausea or stomach pains

Behavioral Signs

  • Behaviors inappropriate for their age
  • Fear of failure, overly high standards
  • Mental or emotional developmental delays
  • Avoidance of recreational activity
  • Changes in mood or mood swings
  • Poor peer relationships or inability to relate to children of the same age
  • Attention-seeking behaviors

Respond and Refer

How to Report if You Suspect Abuse

In case of an emergency, or if a child indicates that they are afraid to return home, you should call local law enforcement immediately. In other cases, contact the appropriate child protective services agency, which is determined by the county in which the custodial parent(s) or guardian resides. For a directory of child protective services agencies, click here.

You should try to include the following information, although it is not required:

  • The name and address of the child you suspect is being abused or neglected
  • The age of the child
  • The name and address of the parent(s) or guardian
  • The name of the person you suspect is abusing or neglecting the child and the address, if available
  • The reason you suspect the child is being abused or neglected
  • Any other information which may be helpful to the investigation

As a follow-up to reporting, if you are a mandated reporter, you may choose to refer the child victim to a local multidisciplinary team for a child assessment. In central Ohio, contact the Child Assessment Center at The Center for Family Safety and Healing. For referrals outside of central Ohio, click here.

What happens during a child abuse and neglect investigation?

Typically, when abuse or neglect is reported, two investigations take place at the same time. The child protective services agency in the county where the parent(s) or guardian resides is responsible for making sure the child is safe. The law enforcement agency in the jurisdiction where the incident took place is responsible for determining if criminal charges will be filed. Most investigations are handled by a detective and a child protective services investigator that work together. They may also encourage that the child victim be assessed at the Child Assessment Center at The Center for Family Safety and Healing, or another child advocacy center in your area.

The child protective services investigator will talk to all family members and other individuals that the caseworker believes are important to the investigation. The investigator will likely have to visit the child's home to ensure safety. An investigation by a child protective services agency will typically take 30-45 days to complete. The caseworker, with involvement from the family, will then decide whether there is a need for continued involvement to assist the family.

Law enforcement will also interview individuals they believe may have information related to allegations. They will attempt to gather evidence that might be related to the concern. The law enforcement investigation may take longer than the child protective services investigation. The detective needs to have all of the information before making a decision about recommending charges to a prosecutor. If charges are filed, the case is transferred for further disposition to the Franklin County Prosecutor Office or Prosecutor's Office for the appropriate county.

My child has behaviors that I think are concerning for sexual abuse. How do I know if the behaviors are normal?

We encourage you to talk to your primary care provider/pediatrician. Physicians are trained in child development and should be able to assist you in recognizing areas of concern. If you have specific concerns that your child may have been abused, you may call the Child Assessment Center at The Center for Family Safety and Healing at (614) 722-3278 for further discussion. If your child is working with any behavioral health professional, please talk with them regarding your concerns.

My child's genitals look abnormal to me and I am worried there might be abuse happening. How do I know what abuse looks like? What are the physical signs of sexual abuse?

Caregivers occasionally have concerns regarding the appearance of their child's genitalia. If this is your primary concern, we encourage you to talk to your child's primary care provider/pediatrician. Rarely does an abnormal appearance indicate that a child has been sexually abused. If you have specific concerns that your child may have been abused, you can call the Child Assessment Center at The Center for Family Safety and Healing at (614) 722-3278 for further discussion.

The Center for Family Safety and Healing
655 East Livingston Avenue, Columbus, OH 43205
(614) 722-8200