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Keeping Children Safe: Introduction to Child Abuse and Neglect for Preschool Caregiving Staff

Child abuse and neglect is a difficult subject to think about, but it is one that all child development professionals 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 obligation 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.  
  • Explain why young preschool 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 abuses or neglects a child. The purpose of this lesson is to help you understand what child abuse and neglect are. It is also to help you understand your obligations in reporting and preventing abuse and neglect. You are all mandated reporters. This means you are legally required to report suspicions of abuse or neglect to the appropriate authorities (e.g., Child Protective Services)(e.g., Child Protective Services, Military Family Advocacy Programs, and law enforcement)(e.g., Child Protective Services, Military Family Advocacy Programs, law enforcement, and your Reporting Point of Contact). If you are unsure whether something is abuse or neglect, rather than an infraction of policy, you may want to discuss the situation with your supervisor. You never have to seek permission to report. If you suspect a case of abuse or neglect has occurred, you are required to report it properly. It is important to remember that child abuse and neglect should be reported even if it is only a suspicion. It is not your duty to investigate or determine if what a child is experiencing is abuse or neglect.

What is Child Abuse and Neglect?

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


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. 

This definition of child abuse and neglect refers specifically to parents and other caregivers. A "child" under this definition generally means a person who is younger than age 18 or who is not an emancipated minor.

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 first 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 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 performed by anyone responsible for caring for 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 or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm: We don’t have to wait for a tragedy to strike. If a child is at serious risk of harm, the situation can be considered abusive or neglectful.

This definition is the minimum federal standard. States and government departments can develop their own more specific definitions of child abuse and neglect. In your workplace, you will observe and follow the Department of Defense definitions of child abuse and neglect.

The Department of Defense (DoDI 6400.01, 2019) defines child abuse and neglect as follows: 

The physical or sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or neglect of a child by a parent, guardian, foster parent, or by a caregiver, whether the caregiver is intrafamilial or extrafamilial, under circumstances indicating the child’s welfare is harmed or threatened. Such acts by a sibling, other family member, or other person shall be deemed child abuse only when the individual is providing care under express or implied agreement with the parent, guardian, or foster parent. A child is an unmarried person under 18 years of age for whom a parent, guardian, foster parent, caregiver, employee of a residential facility or any staff person providing out-of-home care is legally responsible. The term child means a biological child, adopted child, stepchild, foster child, ward, a sponsor’s family member (except the sponsor’s spouse) of any age who is incapable of self-support because of mental or physical incapacity, and for whom treatment in a DoD medical treatment program is authorized.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the military Family Advocacy Program, child abuse and neglect generally fall into one of these categories:


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

  • Physical: An adult fails to provide necessary food, shelter, or appropriate supervision.
  • Medical: An adult fails to provide necessary medical or mental health treatment.
  • Educational: An adult fails to educate a child or attend to special education needs.
  • Emotional: 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.
  • Abandonment: A parent’s or caregiver’s whereabouts cannot be determined or they have failed to provide reasonable support for a specific period of time.
  • Situations where a family has access to resources and information but fails to utilize them, and the child suffers or is put at risk.

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:

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

Physical abuse can include hitting the child with an object (e.g., sticks, straps, belts, hangers, electrical cords). Physical abuse can cause injuries that range from minor bruises to severe fractures or even death.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse includes sexual activity toward or involving a child. It may include:

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

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.
  • Isolated: A child is prevented from having interactions with peers, family members, or other adults.
  • Rejected: An adult actively refuses a child by denying their needs or ridiculing them.
  • 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.
  • Threatened: Including but not limited to indicating or implying future physical abuse, abandonment, or sexual abuse.
  • Verbally assaulted: An adult constantly belittles, shames, ridicules, or threatens a child.
  • Harmed or indicating that the caregiver will harm a person or thing 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.

Parental Substance Abuse

According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, parental substance abuse can also be considered abuse or neglect in some states. Circumstances include, but are not limited to:

  • Exposing a child to prenatal harm due to the mother’s use of legal or illegal drugs or other substance.
  • Manufacturing methamphetamine in the presence of a child.
  • Selling, distributing, or giving illegal drugs or alcohol to a child.
  • Using substances that impair the caregiver’s judgement and ability to care for child.

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 other 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 “extrafamilial” abuse or neglect. This type of abuse typically involves a child and an adult in a supervisory role, like a teacher, caregiver, or volunteer. Throughout the rest of this course, institutional abuse will refer to abuse or neglect which may occur in Department of Defense-sponsored facilities, programs, or activities. This course will focus on abuse or neglect which may occur in child development centers, family child care homes, sponsored field trips, and school-age care programs. Remember, though, that institutional abuse can also occur in installation homework or computer centers, mentoring or tutoring programs, sports programs, chapel programs, scouts, Morale Welfare and Recreation programs, teen centers, and youth programs.

You will learn more about institutional abuse in the last lesson of this course and in the Child Abuse and Neglect 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 okay. That is not the message we want to send children and families. The following practices have no place in child development programs and may be considered child abuse or neglect:

  • Binding or restricting a child’s movements. You may not punish a child by preventing them from being able to move or speak (e.g., by covering a child’s mouth or hands with tape).
  • 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.
  • Isolating a child. You may not punish a child by leaving them alone (e.g., leaving a child on the playground alone because they 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.
  • 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 their physical or psychological safety. You may not call children hurtful names, threaten children, or make children feel shame.

If a staff member is accused of child abuse or neglect, they can expect to be removed from direct contact with children while an investigation is underway. For more specific information, talk to your administrator or T&CS.

Who is at Risk?

Child abuse and neglect can happen to anyone. There is no “typical” abuser or victim. However, there are some situations that are associated with higher levels of risk for abuse or neglect. 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 as occurring at several levels: individual, family, and community.

There are three categories of children 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 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 preschool children are vulnerable to child abuse and neglect. You will also learn about the long-term effects of abuse and neglect.

Child Abuse and Neglect: Preschool Children

Learn the long-term effects of abuse and neglect on preschool children.

There are also some characteristics of families who are more at risk for abuse or neglect. Adults with little knowledge of child development or a history of maltreatment as children 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 use issues, mental health concerns, 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 (such as unemployment, the 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 increase stress on families. Abuse and neglect are 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 Protective Factors Framework to prevent child abuse and neglect. It is important to understand this framework because it can help you see how the high-quality, family-centered work 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 Protective Factors Framework gives us tools and ideas to support families.

There is a resource in the Apply section for you to download and read 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.

The Protective Factors Framework

  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, and 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 lower risk of maltreatment.

A family may have these protective factors in place; however, it is not guaranteed that abuse or neglect will be prevented. Do not let these factors influence reporting—let them serve as a guide to better support families.


Watch this video to learn more about the Protective Factors Framework.

Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect: Protective Factors

Learn about the Protective Factors Framework.


What is My Role in Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect?

As a child development program staff member, you have a legal and ethical professional responsibility to protect children from harm. That is your most important responsibility, as highlighted in the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) code of professional ethics. In addition to this important ethical responsibility, you also have a legal obligation to act when you suspect a child is in harm’s way. As a child development staff member, you are a mandated reporter. This means you are legally required to report suspicions of child abuse and neglect to the appropriate authorities, including Child Protective Services (CPS), Military Family Advocacy Programs (FAP), and law enforcement. You will learn about reporting procedures in later lessons. For now, it is important to recognize that you have an obligation to report your suspicions of child abuse and neglect.

On military installations, leaders have worked hard to create a climate that promotes reporting. You are a mandated reporter, and so are all installation law enforcement, school, Family Advocacy Program and Children, Youth and School personnel, as well as physicians, nurses, social workers, psychologists, and other medical personnel. In some services and on some installations, all service members are also mandated reporters.

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 might also work with your manager or T&CS to provide resources to families (e.g., tips about dealing with tantrums, available community resources). 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 and Family Engagement courses. For now, take time to learn about the 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 program and community.
  • Participate in required trainings, such as this one and others offered by your Family Advocacy Program (FAP). You will learn more about Family Advocacy Programs in the next lessons. The Family Advocacy Program works to prevent child abuse and neglect by offering programs to build and support families in building the protective factors all families need. If abuse does occur, FAP has trained staff to assess reported incidents and respond accordingly to keep victims safe and to work with families to create safe, stable, and nurturing relationships for children.
  • Learn about resources in your community or on your installation that you can share with families.
  • Visit 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 Preschool 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 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 individuals’ 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. While the content in this case study (and those that follow in later lessons) 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. Then 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, as they will provide additional information and extend your learning.


Before identifying and reporting child abuse and neglect, you must fully understand what it is. The Child Welfare Information Gateway has created a fact sheet that defines 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 download and print 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
domestic violence:
Violent or abusive behavior directed by one family or household member against another
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 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 (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2007)
Physical Abuse:
Non-accidental 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 or neglect? Choose the best answer. 
Which of the following is an example of child neglect? 
References & Resources

Center for the Study of Social Policy (2018). Protective Factors Framework.

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

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2021). Child Witnesses to Domestic Violence. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2020). Definitions of Human Trafficking. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2019). What is child abuse and neglect? Recognizing the signs and symptoms. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

Military Family Advocacy Programs. (2020).

Seibel, N. L., Britt, D., Gillespie, L. G., & Parlakian, R. (2006). Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect.  Zero to Three: Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2012). Child Maltreatment 2011.