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Keeping Children Safe: An Introduction to Child Abuse and Neglect for Support Staff

Child abuse and neglect is a difficult subject to think about, but it is one that all staff members, regardless of their roles, must be prepared to address. This lesson will introduce you to the concepts of child abuse and neglect. You will learn about your legal and ethical obligations to report suspicions of abuse and neglect. You will also learn about ways to prevent child abuse and neglect by identifying protective factors that strengthen families.

  • Define child abuse and neglect.
  • Identify factors that may leave a child or youth 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.



We have all seen news reports of child abuse and neglect happening in homes or child care settings. We may know people who have had to report abuse or neglect in the past, or even have personal experience with the reporting process. For most of us, it’s hard to imagine anyone harming a child, especially in an environment that is supposed to be safe. As disturbing as it can be, child abuse and neglect is very real. In the United States, more than 600,000 are victims of child maltreatment, which includes child abuse and neglect each year (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2023). Most of us will never understand why an individual abuses or neglects a child. The purpose of this lesson is to:

  • Help you understand what child abuse and neglect is.
  • 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 (CPS)).
  • If you are unsure whether something is abuse or neglect, rather than an infraction of a policy, you may want to discuss it with your supervisor. 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.

As a support staff member, you serve as a gatekeeper to protecting the children and youth in your workplace. Your role at your job includes helping to identify children and youth who may be experiencing abuse or neglect. Signs of abuse or neglect may be observed anywhere in the program by any program staff. Here are some examples of situations where you might see signs of abuse or neglect.

  • Front desk and administrative staff frequently witness the interactions of families with their children.
  • Kitchen staff might observe changes in a child or youth’s diet, or the amount of food children and youth have access to.
  • Kitchen staff and custodians observe and monitor children and youths’ reactions to spills and accidents.
  • Bus drivers witness the interactions between children and caregivers during pick up and drop off times.
  • Program nurses and front desk staff observe and monitor the frequency of a child’s visit to the nurse.
  • Custodial, maintenance, and kitchen staff observe the interactions between children and direct care staff in the classrooms, hallways, lunchrooms, and playgrounds.

Although you may not engage in direct child care, by working in a child development program, you are an important team member and have the responsibility to identify child abuse and report it. Research shows that it only takes one supportive adult in a child’s life to make a positive impact (Brown, 2014). As a support staff member, you may have an opportunity to be that one supportive adult that impacts a child’s health, safety and well-being.

What is Child Abuse and Neglect?

The U.S. Federal government defines child abuse and neglect as:

Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker 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.

Source: Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) Reauthorization Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-320), § 3.

Take a minute to reflect on that definition. What are your impressions? 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 separate things. A child can be harmed by abusive actions like hitting, kicking, and verbal abuse, but a child can also be harmed when an adult fails to provide for the child’s well-being. Examples of neglect include not supervising a toddler and not feeding or bathing 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 performed 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.

which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation: These words can be difficult to read, especially when they involve children. While your status as a mandatory reporter may seem intimidating, quick action can minimize an adult’s ability to take advantage of and harm children.

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:


Neglect includes the failure to provide for a child's basic needs despite being financially able to do so. Neglect may be:

  • Physical, when an adult fails to provide necessary food, shelter, or appropriate supervision
  • Medical, when an adult fails to provide necessary medical or mental-health treatment
  • Educational, when an adult fails to educate a child or attend to special education needs
  • Emotional, when an adult fails to provide attention to a child's emotional needs, fails to provide psychological care, or permits the child to use alcohol or drugs

Physical Abuse

Physical Abuse is defined as the non-accidental use of physical force by a parent, caregiver, or other person responsible for a child. Physical abuse includes, but is not limited to :

  • Punching
  • Beating
  • Kicking
  • Biting
  • Shaking
  • Throwing
  • Stabbing
  • Choking
  • Hitting with an open hand or slapping
  • Scalding or burning
  • Poisoning
  • Dropping
  • Pushing or shoving
  • Pinching
  • Scratching
  • Grabbing or yanking limbs or body
  • Restraining or squeezing
  • Applying force to throat
  • Holding underwater
  • Any other action that intentionally causes physical harm

Physical abuse can include hitting with an object such as sticks, straps, belts, hangers, or electrical cords. Physical abuse can cause injuries that range from minor bruises to severe fractures or even death.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse includes a pattern of behaviors that have a negative effect on the child's psychological well-being, including constant criticism, threats, and rejection as well as withholding love, support, or guidance. Emotional abuse may occur when a child is:

  • Ignored: An adult may not look at or respond to a child.
  • Rejected: An adult actively refuses a child by denying their needs or ridiculing them.
  • Isolated: A child is prevented from having interactions with peers, family members, or other adults.
  • Exploited or corrupted: A child is taught or encouraged to engage in illegal or inappropriate behaviors like stealing.
  • Verbally assaulted: An adult constantly belittles, shames, ridicules, or threatens a child.
  • Terrorized: An adult threatens or bullies the child and creates a climate of fear; the child or a loved one may be placed in a dangerous situation or threatened with harm.
  • Harmed or indicating that the caregiver will harm a person or that the child cares about
  • A witness or victim of domestic violence. Witnessing domestic violence can be auditory, visual, or inferred. Children who witness this can suffer severe emotional and developmental difficulties.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse includes sexual activity toward or involving a child, and may include:

  • Fondling or groping a child's genitals
  • Making a child touch an adult's sexual organs
  • Penetration of any kind that does not have a valid medical purpose
  • Incest, rape, and sodomy
  • Exposing one's self to a child
  • Exposing children to pornographic material
  • Deliberately exposing a child to the act of sexual intercourse
  • Masturbating in front of a child
  • Having the child masturbate
  • Involving a child in prostitution
  • Involving a child in the production of any sexually explicit images
  • Coercion of a child to engage in, or assist any other person to engage in, sexual conduct


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 and institutional.

Familial abuse or neglect occurs when a child is in the care of a parent or family member. This could be in the child’s home, while in the car with family, at the store, in the parking lot before school starts, or other places in the community. The act of abuse or neglect is performed by a parent, guardian, or other person designated to provide care for the child, including siblings and babysitters.

Institutional abuse or neglect occurs outside the home in community or private settings, such as schools, religious organizations, community groups, or during extracurricular activities, while the child is in the care of a non-family member. This type of abuse or neglect is also known as “out-of-home” or “extra-familial” abuse or neglect. This type of abuse typically involves a child and an adult in a supervisory role, like a teacher, caregiver, or volunteer.  

You will learn more about institutional abuse in the last lesson of this course and in the Child Abuse Prevention Course for Support Staff. 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 caregivers use aggressive techniques with children, children and their families learn that aggressive responses to behavior are OK. That is not the message we want to send children and families. First-time or young parents may still be learning proper and effective discipline techniques and look to people who work with children for examples. The following practices have no place in child development and youth programs and may be considered child abuse or neglect:

  • Corporal punishment: You may not, under any circumstances, strike, hit, whip, spank, pinch, yank, push, drop, or use any other form of physical punishment on a child of any age.
  • Withholding physical needs: You may not, under any circumstances, withhold food, sleep, physical activity or other needs like toileting from a child as punishment.
  • Yelling, shaming, belittling, or threatening a child: You may not, under any circumstances, intentionally make a child fear for his or her physical or psychological safety. You may not call children hurtful names, threaten children, or make children feel shame.
  • Isolating a child: You may not punish a child by leaving him or her alone (i.e., leaving a child on the playground alone because he did not line up with the group) or by putting the child in “time out” in an enclosed space like a closet, restroom, or cardboard box.
  • Binding or restricting a child’s movements: You may not punish a child by preventing him or her from being able to move or speak (i.e., covering a child’s mouth or hands with tape).

A staff member accused of child abuse or neglect can expect to be removed from direct contact with children while an investigation is taking place. For more specific information, talk to your program manager.

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 three levels: individual, family, and community.


Children who are more at risk of experiencing child abuse and neglect: young children, children with disabilities, and children with challenging behavior. This includes children who have a difficult time communicating, controlling their emotions, following directions, or getting along with others might be at-risk for abuse or neglect. 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.


Some families 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 abusing or neglecting a child. 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 pose a 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 such as unemployment, birth of a new child, marital conflict, or financial issues are also more at risk for abuse or neglect.


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 are more likely to occur when stress is high or access to necessary resources is low.

Watch this video to learn more about the vulnerabilities and long-term effects of abuse and neglect.

Child Abuse and Neglect: Vulnerabilities and Long-Term Effects

Learn about the long-term effects of child abuse and neglect on children and youth.

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 individual, family, or community 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. This framework is important to understand because it can help you see the high-quality, family-centered work that happens every day in your program. No matter what your role is, there are things you can do to support children, families, and coworkers that promote protective factors. The Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework gives us tools and ideas to support families.

The Protective Factors Framework is available in the Apply section for you to download and read. The document identifies 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. The five protective factors are as follows:

Strengthening Families Protective Factors

  1. Parental Resilience

    Families are able to manage stress and bounce back from challenges.

  2. 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.

  3. Social Connections

    Families know there are people who care about them and who they can call on for help.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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 sees when they enter the program or the person they talk to about a problem or concern. They may come to you seeking advice. After all, you may see their child five days a week. You might also work with your Program Manager or T&CS to provide resources to families (e.g., tips about dealing with challenging behavior, community resource 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 for Support Staff 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 the families you work with. You can also continue to:

Completing this Course

To view a list of accompanying Learn, Explore, and Apply activities, review the Child Abuse Identification and Reporting for Support Staff Course Guide. Please note that the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines resources for 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.


In the first two lessons, you will learn about “Kate’s story.” This is a fictionalized account of actual events that occurred on a U.S. military installation. The names, exact dates, locations, and service-specific terminology 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 an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. Although much of what you will read here is fiction, the sequence of events is very real. While the content in this case study is important to bring awareness to the topic of child abuse and neglect, we recognize that it may be difficult to read. After you complete this lesson, we encourage you to take some time to reflect on your own well-being and engage in self-care strategies as needed.

Read Kate’s story in the activity, Preschool Case Study: Part 1. Answer the reflection questions. When you are finished, share your answers with your trainer, coach, or administrator. We also encourage you to read the suggested responses from experts. This will provide additional information and extend your learning.


Before identifying and reporting child abuse and neglect, you must have a basic understanding of the terms. The Child Welfare Information Gateway has created a fact sheet with a definition and types of child abuse and neglect. Print the Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect handout 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, or sexual abuse or exploitation or an act or failure to act that presents an imminent risk of serious harm
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 performed by the child’s parent, guardian, or a family member
Family Advocacy Program:
Abbreviated FAP; FAP 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
Imminent Risk:
There is substantial evidence that a child is in immediate danger
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.)
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
Physical Abuse:
Nonaccidental trauma or injury
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
Sexual Abuse:
The involvement of a child in any sexual touching, depiction, or activity


Which of the following is an example of child abuse or neglect? Choose the best answer.
Which of the following is not an example of child sexual abuse?
True or false? All parents who experienced abuse as children will abuse their own children.
Which of the following is an example of institutional abuse? Choose the best answer.
Which of the following is an example of child neglect?
References & Resources

Center for the Study of Social Policy (n.d.). Strengthening families: A protective factors framework.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Violence prevention.

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2016). Child witnesses to domestic violence. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. 

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2022). Definitions of child abuse and neglect. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau.

Military One Source. (n.d.). Military family advocacy program

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 (2023). Child maltreatment.