Expert Editions vol 16: How to spot the signs of child abuse and act on them

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As a mother, I seem to live in perpetual fear of child abuse. What I find utterly frightening amongst other things is that nobody knows quite how many children are the victims of abuse or neglect is unknown because it is usually hidden from view and goes unreported.

New research from the Department for Education, shows a third of people who suspect child abuse, do not report it, with 42% of the public put off reporting suspected abuse because they think they might be wrong.

To change this, the ‘Together, we can tackle child abuse’ campaign aims to encourage the public to report their concerns in order to get help to children more quickly and create a social norm around reporting to break down the barriers that stop people taking action.

But how do we do this? Today on this instalment of Expert Editions I speak to Rebecca Harvey, Principal Social Worker at Hammersmith and Fulham Council on the subject to get some straight-talking answers.

  1. Child abuse is something I as a parent worry greatly about – how big is the danger and what are the chances of it happening to a child?

There are over 11 million children in England currently.  Last year 390,000 children received help from children’s services, with 49,000 of those having been identified as children needing protection from abuse.  That means roughly 0.4% of children in England are considered at risk of abuse at any one time.

The only likely form which a stranger could likely perpetrate would be sexual abuse.  The national offender management statistics state that only 10% of child sexual abuse is from a stranger.  As such the majority of abuse occurs from people the children already know.  While I cannot give any advice for how to completely eliminate this risk, I would suggest that trying to have an environment of honesty in your home and with your children is one way to ensure that your children would speak to you if they were worried about the way someone was behaving towards them. The NSPCC has lots of great resources (see here) particularly their PANTS campaign which can help you have this conversation about consent with your children in a safe way.

However, in the majority of situations where children are suffering harm there is no intent to harm from the adults involved.  99% of the cases I come across are families where external circumstances are impacting the adult’s ability to provide safe, secure and stable care to their children.   One of the reasons I love my job is that I can help families manage the external situations, leaving them able to provide the excellent parenting that they are capable of.

  1. Is neglect a form of abuse? 

Yes, child abuse includes: sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse and neglect. In 2014-15, over three quarters of the children on child protection plans were as a result of neglect or emotional abuse, 10% is for physical abuse, and 5% for sexual abuse.

Neglect includes physical neglect, which is failure to meet a child’s basic needs for food, shelter or clothing, or to supervise a child adequately. It also includes education neglect, which is failure to ensure a child receives an education, and medical neglect, failure to ensure a child has appropriate medical attention when needed.  Finally it includes emotional neglect, which is a failure to meet a child’s need for stimulation and care, possibly including ignoring, scaring, or alienating a child.

Neglect is a serious issue, and causes long term physical and emotional impacts for those who experience it.

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  1. As a vigilant parent, what are some of the signs of child abuse we should be looking out for in our own children and others?

One key thing to look for is significant changes in behaviour in a child – for example, if they suddenly become withdrawn or aggressive. Any significant changes in behaviour can be a red flag that something is going on and that the child is talking about it in a non-verbal way. It can be a sign they need help to talk to other people about it or need help to stop it happening.

Another key sign can be strange or unexplained injuries. For example, children under two don’t tend to fall on their front– so injuries on their chest could be a red flag.  Any child who is regularly seen with injuries, injuries which seem to have a pattern to them, or injuries which don’t seem to be looked into may be in need of support.

A child appearing regularly unkempt can also be an indicator – not having access to clean clothes or washing regularly. Some people may feel this is a sign of poverty and not a child protection issue. However it if that family is struggling so much that they, for example, cannot afford new clothes, or to fix the plumbing, or their water has been cut off, then a social worker could help support the family to apply for grants. It could also be a sign of something deeper – if a child is unkempt it may also be in some cases because they are not receiving enough adult attention and are, for example, having to put themselves to bed.

  1. If we suspect that another child is being abused or neglected, what should we do?

If it is a child you know, and who knows you, I would encourage you to ask them if they are ok.  Asking them won’t harm them, and it may open up an avenue for them where they feel they are noticed and listened to and can talk.  If they tell you that they are being harmed by somebody you must let professionals know, as our role is to assist children and families together to prevent harm, and to assist in managing the impact of any harm which has already taken place.

If you want to you could keep a diary of the things which are worrying you about a child’s behaviour. This can help you or others spot patterns in the behaviour.  You can speak to your child’s teacher or health visitor for advice, or if they know the child you are concerned about they may be able to spot the concerns as well.

If you are not able to ask the child directly for any reason, but you are worried about them, then I would encourage you to speak to either your local children’s services about your concerns.

It might be very difficult for you to consider that someone might be abusing a child and your initial reaction might be to try to disprove it, however it is very important to recognise that children valued being believed, and if a child chooses to tell you something which has happened to them you must act on what you’ve been told.

  1. And if we think our own child is potentially being abused, how do we go about addressing it with them, and what should be our next steps?

I would encourage you to ask your child if you are worried about them or anything which may have happened to them.  You can encourage open and honest conversations in your family home in your day to day family life, and this may make it easier for your child to come forward and speak to you. You should be mindful that talking about abuse is always very difficult for children, and if your child has been abused and doesn’t speak to you about it this is not your fault.  You can also be mindful of any significant behaviour changes such as becoming very aggressive or introverted, self-harming or bed wetting at an older age.  This is not an exhaustive list of behaviours, and these behaviours do not indicate that abuse has definitely taken place, but the more alert you are to changes the more likely you are to spot indications.

You can also seek professional support if you are worried about your child.  You can speak to your child’s school or children’s centre, to a local child and adolescent mental health service, to the NSPCC or to your local Children’s Services. These services can help you consider how you can address concerns with your child, and can also assist you and your child moving forward if abuse has taken place.

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  1. What are some common myths surrounding child abuse and neglect and what can we do to clear them up?

Myth: People will know it is me that reported and my call will not remain anonymous.

Reality: you will be asked about your own details but as a member of the public but you can choose to remain anonymous.

Myth: You should be absolutely certain and have firm evidence before reporting child abuse or neglect.

Reality: If you have a feeling that something’s not right, you don’t have to wait, talk to your local children’s social care team who can look into it. A third of people who suspect child abuse, do nothing. A number of people do not act on their suspicions because they’re worried about being wrong.

Myth: Reporting a child/family to the ‘social services’ means the child will be removed from their family immediately by social workers.

Reality: the priority for social workers is keeping children with their families, wherever possible. Social workers protect vulnerable children and provide support to families in need of assistance. Sharing your concerns with a local authority will not mean a child is taken into care, but could mean the authorities spot a problem sooner and can take action to help the child and the family concerned.

Myth: It is only abuse if it is violent.

Reality: Child abuse does not necessarily involve violence or anger. As covered above abuse can also include neglect or emotional abuse, which are not always as easy to spot.

Myth: Child abuse only happens in some parts of society.

Reality: Child abuse happens across all sectors of society including different socio-economic and ethnic groups, and in cities and in the countryside.

Myth: Children usually tell someone that they are being abused.

Reality: Most children do not tell. Abusers can be very effective in making children too fearful to talk about what is going on. Often children do not have the words to use to let someone know what is happening to them or do not know that what they are experiencing is not normal or acceptable.

Myth: Abused children hate their parents and want to get away from them.

Reality: Most children who have been abused by their parents still love their parents and want to remain living with them. What they really want is for the abuse to stop.

Myth: Children who disclose abuse and later retract their stories were lying about the abuse.

Reality: It is extremely common for children who have truthfully disclosed abuse to retract (take back what they have told) due to negative adult reactions to the disclosure of the abuse.

  1. I think a lot of people are worried about what actually happens once an abuse/neglect report is made – so what actually happens?

Each local authority has a dedicated children’s social care team, and you should call them if you think a child or young person is at risk or is being abused or neglected. While it is understood that you might not have all the answers, the following is an example of the types of questions you might be asked:

  • details about the child, such as name and date of birth
  • address and contact details for parent or carer
  • reason for your call

When you call your local children’s social care team, your concern will be listened to and assessed. Information is usually gathered from many sources, and your report would form one part of a bigger picture. If significant concerns are raised about a child, a social worker will make an assessment and decide what support to provide. It may be that the concerns are unfounded and that no further action is necessary, although all concerns are taken seriously.

If you’re worried about a child’s immediate safety, contact the police by dialling 999.

  1. Why is it so important that we talk more openly about child abuse and neglect?

My job is 9-5pm and I see children once every couple of weeks up to once every four weeks. Whilst it’s my job I’m not best placed to see what is going on all the time. If you’re a neighbour or a parent who knows a child’s friend for example, then you will know that child better than I do, you will have an insight into their lives that I might not.

If you see something that is unsafe or is not right – we are the people who can help with that – but if we don’t know then we can’t help. If you talk to us then we can help a child, and their family, that you might be concerned about.

  1. Do you have any other insights/advice/comment to add about child abuse and neglect?

If you are worried about your own child or another child then seek advice.  You can do this through professionals you already know such as health visitors or school teachers, or you can speak to your local children’s services or the NSPCC.  It can be very hard for children to speak about their experiences so it is our responsibility as adults to look out for children and try to keep them safe.

You don’t have to be absolutely certain about your suspicions; if you have a feeling that something’s not right, talk to your local children’s social care team who can look into it. If you’re worried about a child, visit to get the number for your local authority.

If you’re worried about a child, visit to get the number for your local authority.

Rebecca’s initial interest in social work developed as a teenager when she was both engaging in voluntary work through school with children from difficult backgrounds, and had a best friend who was a looked after child. After initially completing an unrelated degree at university Rebecca found herself pulled to the career in social work. 

Before joining the Step Up to Social Work course Rebecca worked briefly as a support worker for adults with learning difficulties.

Having trained within Hammersmith and Fulham Rebecca has stayed on the team ever since, initially on the contact and assessment team and more recently on the Family Support and Child Protection team, and is now a Principle Social Worker.


  1. A really important post – thank you for sharing. It is quite shocking the levels of abuse that go on. I work in Emergency Medicine and unfortunately it is more common to see cases of suspected abuse than most people realise. Very sad indeed.

  2. Such a great post! I’ve studied to become a qualified nursery teacher and in my training we were taught about all this, we went through some heart breaking case studies and lots of people don’t realise that abuse covers and umbrella of different kinds.

    Jordanne ||
    Jordanne recently posted…Terrible twos; A never ending battleMy Profile

  3. I think its every parents worst nightmare thinking about or finding out their childs been abused. Important to raise awareness not only for children but adults too so they know the signs. Its deffinetly not something that should be ignored

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