- Define child abuse and neglect.
- Explain why young children are especially vulnerable to abuse and neglect.
- Describe your legal and ethical obligation to report suspicions of child abuse and neglect wherever it may occur. This includes suspicions of familial and institutional abuse and neglect.
- Identify protective factors that prevent child abuse and neglect.
For most of us, it's hard to imagine anyone harming a child. As disturbing as it can be, child abuse and neglect is very real. More than 600,000 children per year are victims of abuse or neglect in the United States (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2012). Most of us will never understand why an individual commits abuse or neglect. The purpose of this lesson is to help you understand what child abuse and neglect is. It is also to help you understand your obligations in reporting and preventing abuse and neglect. You are a mandated reporter. This means you are legally required to report suspicions of abuse or neglect to appropriate authorities (e.g., Child Protective Services). If you are unsure whether something is abuse or neglect, you may want to discuss it with your family child care coordinator or director, or your local resource and referral coach or agent. However, you never have to seek permission to report, nor can anyone tell you not to report. If you think a case of abuse or neglect has occurred, you are required to report it properly.
What is Child Abuse and Neglect?
Take a minute to reflect on that definition. What are your impressions of the federal definition? What does it mean? Let's explore each part in more detail:
- Any recent act or failure to act: This reminds us that abuse and neglect are two distinct concepts. A child can be harmed by blatant actions like hitting or kicking, but a child can also be harmed when an adult fails to provide for the child's well-being. For example, an adult may fail to supervise a child, fail to provide necessary medical treatment, or fail to feed or bathe a child.
- on the part of a parent or caretaker: Remember abuse and neglect can happen anywhere and by anyone. Abuse does not just happen at the hands of a parent or family member. Abuse and neglect can be committed by anyone who is responsible for the care of a child. This might be a teacher, coach, faith leader, or any other individual in a caregiving or supervisory role, including other adults that reside in or frequently visit family child care homes.
- which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm: We don't have to wait for tragedies to strike. If a child is in serious risk of harm, it can be considered abuse or neglect.
This definition is the minimum federal standard. States and government departments can develop their own more specific definitions of child abuse and neglect.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, child abuse and neglect generally falls into one of these four categories:
Where Does Child Abuse and Neglect Occur?
Child abuse and neglect can happen anywhere. You should be familiar with two distinct types of abuse and neglect:
- Familial abuse or neglect occurs in a child's home. The act of abuse or neglect is committed by a parent, guardian, or family member.
- Institutional abuse or neglect occurs outside the home in community or private settings. This type of abuse or neglect is also known as "out-of-home" or "extrafamilial" abuse or neglect. This type of abuse often involves a child and an adult in a supervisory role, like a teacher, caregiver, group leader, or volunteer.
You will learn more about institutional abuse in the last lesson of this course and in the Child Abuse: Prevention course. However, there are a few things you should know as you begin this course. There are certain types of guidance and discipline that have the potential to inflict harm and model aggression. When we use aggressive techniques with children, they and their families learn that aggressive responses to behavior are OK. That is not the message we want to send children and families. The following practices have no place in family child care homes and may be considered child abuse or neglect:
If a family child care provider or a member of his or her household is accused of child abuse or neglect, they can expect that all children in their care will be removed while an investigation is underway. For more specific information, talk to your family child care director or coordinator.
Who is At Risk?
Child abuse and neglect can happen to anyone. There is no typical abuser or victim. There are some situations that are associated with higher levels of risk for abuse or neglect, though. Understanding who is more at risk for abuse and neglect can help us provide extra support to children and families who are experiencing stress. We can think of risk occurring at several levels: individual, family, and community.
There are three categories of children who are more at risk for experiencing child abuse and neglect: young children, children with disabilities, and children with challenging behavior. This means children who have a difficult time communicating, controlling their emotions, following directions, or getting along with others might be at risk. The adults around them might get frustrated easily or not know how to help the child. We must be careful to remember this does not mean that the child causes the abuse and neglect. The child is never to blame. It also does not mean that only children in these categories are abused or neglected. Rather, we must remember to provide extra support to families whose children meet these characteristics.
Watch this video to learn why young children are vulnerable to abuse and neglect and about the long-term effects of abuse and neglect. It addresses vulnerabilities and effects for infants, toddlers, preschoolers and school-age children.
As you saw in the video, infants and toddlers are more at risk for child abuse than children and youth in older age groups. The reality of caring for an infant or toddler might not match the expectations a parent had before the child was born. This can be stressful for families and can make them vulnerable to abuse or neglect.
There are also some characteristics of families who are more at risk for committing abuse or neglect. Adults with little knowledge of child development or a history of maltreatment as a child are at increased risk for committing child abuse or neglect. It is important to remember, though, that not all adults who were abused as children go on to abuse their own children. Adults with substance abuse, mental health issues, or a harsh approach to discipline may also be at risk.
Abuse is more likely to occur in families that are socially isolated. A family might be socially isolated for many reasons: a recent move or deployment might separate them from extended family and friends, long or unpredictable work schedules might prevent them from having social opportunities, or they might not know how to reach out to others. Child abuse and neglect is also more likely to occur in families that have experienced other forms of domestic violence, like violence against a spouse or partner. Families experiencing stress (like unemployment, birth of a new child, marital conflict, or deployment), poor parent-child relationships, and negative interactions also are more at risk.
Community risk factors include community violence, high levels of poverty, high levels of mobility and housing instability, high unemployment rates, and poor social connections. Community risk factors can add increased stress on families. Abuse and neglect is more likely to occur when stress is high or access to necessary resources is low.
What are Protective Factors?
Take a moment to reflect on the risk factors you just read about. If you could think of ways to counteract or cancel out those risk factors, what would they be? What types of characteristics minimize the risk for child abuse and neglect? Researchers and policymakers have spent a lot of time thinking about these questions. As a result, the Center for the Study of Social Policy has developed the Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework to prevent child abuse and neglect. It is important to understand this framework because it can help you see that the high-quality, family-centered work that you do every day in your program makes a difference in the lives of children and families. Our job is not only to care for each child, but also to provide care and support for the whole family. The Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework gives us tools and ideas to support families.
There is a resource in the Apply section for you to read and review to learn more about the Protective Factors Framework. Here is a brief overview of the five protective factors that help prevent child abuse and neglect in families. When these five factors are strong, families are better equipped with the skills and supports they need to protect their child from abuse and neglect.
Strengthening Families Protective Factors (Figure 1)
Families are able to manage stress and bounce back from challenges.
Knowledge of Child Development and Parenting
Adults know what to expect as children grow and are able to meet their child's needs at each stage of development.
Families know there are people who care about them and who they can call on for help.
Concrete Supports in Times of Need
Families can get the help they need when crises strike: food and shelter, medical and mental health services, social, legal, and educational resources.
Social and Emotional Competence of Children
Social and emotional development promotes healthy relationships with others. Children with strong relationships, who can regulate their own behavior, express their emotions, and relate to others are at lower risk of maltreatment.
Watch this video to learn more about the Protective Factors Framework.
What is My Role in Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect?
As a family child care provider, you have a legal and ethical professional responsibility to protect children from harm. That is your most important responsibility and one that is highlighted in the National Association for the Education of Young Children code of professional ethics. Given this important ethical responsibility, it is also necessary to recognize that you have a legal obligation to act when you suspect a child is in harm's way. As a family child care provider, you are a mandated reporter for suspicions of child abuse and neglect. This means you are legally required to report suspicions of child abuse and neglect. You will learn about reporting procedures in subsequent lessons. For now, it is important to recognize that you have an obligation to report your suspicions.
What is My Role in Strengthening Families?
Your main role is to learn all you can about families and to build strong relationships with them. You might be the first person a family member talks to about a problem or concern they are having. You may provide resources to families (e.g., tips about dealing with biting or community information). Thinking about the Protective Factors Framework can help you understand simple ways you can support the families you see every day.
You will learn much more about this topic in the Child Abuse: Prevention course and in the Family Engagement course. For now, take time to learn about the Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework and reflect on how it can guide your work. Make a commitment to build positive relationships with all of the families you work with. You can also continue to:
- Help build awareness about child abuse and neglect in your community.
- Participate in required trainings like this one.
- Learn about resources in your community that you can share with families.
Visit the Center for Study of Social Policy's Strengthening Families website (https://cssp.org/our-work/projects/protective-factors-framework/) to learn more about the Protective Factors Framework approach.
Completing this Course
For more information on what to expect in this course, the Child Abuse: Identification & Reporting Competency Reflection, and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Family Child Care Child Abuse: Identification & Reporting Course Guide.
Please note the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines reference sources and resources to find additional information on the topics covered. As you complete lessons, you are not expected to review all the online references available. However, you are welcome to explore the resources further if you have interest, or at the request of your trainer, coach, or administrator.
Throughout the next five lessons, you will learn about “Kate’s Story.” This is a fictionalized account of events that occurred on a U.S. military installation. The names, dates, locations, service-specific terminology, and child care setting have been changed or neutralized. To create the activities in this and subsequent lessons, we started with the facts of a real criminal investigation and lawsuit. What you will read here goes beyond the facts recorded in the criminal case by imagining details of individual’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. Although much of what you will read here is fiction, the sequence of events and the tragic consequences are very real.
Review the Case Study Reflection activity. Read “Kate’s Story.” Then answer the reflection questions. When you are finished, share your answers with your trainer or coach. We also encourage you to read the suggested responses from experts. These will provide additional information and extend your learning.
Before identifying and reporting child abuse and neglect, you must fully understand what it is. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has created a fact sheet with a definition and types of child abuse and neglect. Review the fact sheet as a resource for your professional library.
You can also read and review a two-page description of the Protective Factors Framework approach to learn more about that important model for your work.
|Child abuse||Any recent act or failure to act that results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm|
|Imminent risk||Substantial evidence that a child is in immediate danger|
|Neglect||Failure by a caregiver to provide needed age-appropriate care despite being financially able to do so or offered financial or other means to do so (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2007)|
|Physical abuse||Nonaccidental trauma or injury|
|Sexual abuse||The involvement of a child in any sexual touching, depiction, or activity|
|Emotional abuse||A pattern of behavior by adults that seriously interferes with a child’s cognitive, emotional, psychological, or social development|
|Familial abuse||Abuse or neglect that is perpetrated by a child’s parent, guardian, or family member|
|Institutional abuse||Abuse or neglect that occurs by someone outside the home who is responsible for the care or supervision of the child (a teacher, caregiver, coach, priest, etc.)|
|Protective factors||Conditions or attributes of individuals, families, communities, or society that mitigate or eliminate risk and increase the health and well-being of children and families|
|Risk factors||Conditions or attributes of individuals, families, communities, or society that are associated with increased risk of abuse or neglect|
|Family Advocacy Program||Abbreviated FAP, this program works to prevent domestic abuse and child abuse and neglect by providing education and awareness programs for all members of the military community; FAP staff members are also trained to respond to incidents of abuse and neglect, support victims, and offer prevention and treatment|
Center for the Study of Social Policy (n.d.). Strengthening Families: A Protective Factors Framework. Retrieved from https://www.cssp.org/young-children-their-families/strengtheningfamilies/about/protective-factors-framework
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Violence Prevention. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/
Child Welfare Information Gateway https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/define.pdf
Military Family Advocacy Programs. Retrieved from
Seibel, N. L., Britt, D., Gillespie, L. G., & Parlakian, R. (2006). Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect. Washington, DC: Zero to Three: Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2012). Child Maltreatment 2011.
Zero to Three: Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families. (n.d.). The Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect. Retrieved from: https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/91-the-prevalence-of-child-abuse-and-neglect