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Section 1: What is child abuse?

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The Basics

What is Child Abuse?

Abuse and neglect are forms of maltreatment of a child.  Somebody may abuse or neglect a child by inflicting harm, or by failing to act to prevent harm.  Children may be abused in a family or in an institutional or community setting, by those known to them or, more rarely,by a stranger for example, via the internet.  They may be abused by an adult or adults, or another child or children. 

An abused child is a girl or boy under the age of 18, who has suffered physical injury, neglect, emotional or sexual abuse.

Each week between one and two children die at the hands of his or her parents/carers. Between April 2009 and March 2010 the names of 540 children and young people were made subject to Child Protection Plans (Child subject to a Child Protection Plan) in North Yorkshire and 73 in City of York. This means that a multi-agency group of professionals believed that these children had been abused or were at risk of abuse and needed a plan of action (Child Protection Plan) to ensure their safety and well being.  In the vast majority of cases, the children remained with their families.

Each of these cases had been reported by people who were worried about a child’s welfare – this may have been a nurse, teacher, police officer, neighbour, family member or friend.

Sadly there are many more children where people have had concerns about their well-being but haven’t reported their concerns, so these children have continued to suffer abuse.

As someone who works with or comes into contact with children or with adults who may be parents or carers, you are responsible for ensuring the safety and well being of children.

Who would abuse a child?

Child Abuse is a term used to describe the way that people (usually adults but sometimes other children or young people) harm children. Usually the adult is someone the child knows well such as a member of the family, neighbour or family “friend”.

There are many forms of child abuse, which can be categorised as neglect, physical abuse/injury, sexual abuse and emotional harm. Importantly, abuse can result in the child suffering significant harm and at worst, can lead to death. In many cases, an abused child will suffer more than one type of harm, for example physical injury and emotional abuse.

Child abuse can take place anywhere where children spend time, such as at home, in nursery, at school or local youth club.  Children may also be abused via the internet or other technology.

Abusers may be anyone:

  • Any age
  • Male or female (including sexual abuse)
  • From any social class, culture or faith
  • ‘Nice’ people 
  • Professionals such as teachers, religious leaders or social workers
  • Related to the child
  • Other children

Sources of Stress for Children and Families

Most families under great stress succeed in bringing up their children in a warm, loving and supportive environment in which each child’s needs are met. However from the available research we know that all of the below are risk factors which may increase the likelihood of abuse in children’s lives.

  • Domestic abuse/violence
  • Parents'/carers' problematic drug/alcohol abuse
  • Child has previously suffered abuse
  • Parents/carers highly critical of child
  • Parents/carers who don’t show warmth to the child
  • Parents/carers with problematic mental health problems
  • Parents/carers who perceive the child to be “difficult” 
  • Parents/carers who have unrealistic expectations of their child
  • Baby ill within first 6 months of life
  • A child with disabilities
  • Parents with learning difficulties
  • Family breakdown
  • Isolated families
  • Poverty or deprivation 

 What are the Types of Abuse?

These categories are used for children who are subject to a Child Protection Plan and for statistical recording:

  • Physical Abuse
  • Emotional Abuse
  • Sexual Abuse
  • Neglect

Physical abuse may involve hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning, suffocating, or otherwise causing physical harm to a child.   Physical harm may also be caused when a parent or carer fabricates the symptoms of, or deliberately induces illness in a child.

Emotional abuse is the persistent emotional maltreatment of a child such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child’s emotional development. It may involve conveying to children that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate, or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person.  It may include not giving the child opportunities to express their views, deliberately silencing them or 'making fun' of what they say or how they communicate.  It may feature age developmentally inappropriate expectations being imposed on children.  These may include interactions that are beyond the child's developmental capability, as well as overprotection and limitation of exploration and learning, or preventing the child participating in normal social interaction.  It may involve seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another.  It may involve serious bullying (including cyberbullying), causing children frequently to feel frightened or in danger, or the exploitation or corruption of children.  Some level of emotional abuse is involved in all types of maltreatment of a child, though it may occur alone.

Sexual abuse involved forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, not necessarily involving a high level of violence, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening.  The activities may involve physical contact, including assault by penetration (for example, rape or oral sex) or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside of clothing.  They may also include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, sexual images, watching sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or grooming a child in preparation for abuse (including via the internet).  Sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males.  Women can also commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children.

Neglect is the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health or development.  Neglect may occur during pregnancy as a result of maternal substance abuse.  Once a child is born, neglect may involve a parent or carer failing to:

  • provide adequate food and clothing, shelter including exclusion from home or abandonment:
  • to protect a child from physical and emotional harm or danger:
  • ensure adequate supervision (including the use of inadequate care-givers: or 
  • ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment

It may also include neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child’s basic emotional needs.

Which Children may be Abused?

Abused children may be:

  • From any background
  • From a "respectable" home, affluent or poor
  • Male or female
  • Any age – including babies
  • In Care (looked after by the local authority) or privately fostered
  • "Invisible" families (not known to services)
  • Physically disabled
  • Any academic ability
  • Disabled in any way
  • Challenging in their behaviour
  • Missing from home or school

Why children don't tell

Children often don’t tell others about the abuse because they are frightened about what may happen to them or they feel they may not be believed.  Although they want the abuse to stop they may love the abuser and don’t want him or her punished for the abuse.

Myths about Child Abuse

MYTH: Children are usually abused by strangers
FACT:  Most children are abused by someone they know and trust

MYTH: Women do not sexually abuse children
FACT: Although the majority of sexual abusers are male, in approximately 5 – 10% of cases, the sexual abuser is female

MYTH: It doesn’t happen here – this is usually relating to a neighbourhood, class, ethnic group or community.
FACT: Abuse happens anywhere, in all classes, ethnic groups, cultures, etc.

MYTH: Some practices are more acceptable in some cultures.
FACT: Child abuse is unacceptable in any culture.

MYTH: Children are prone to lie, and they will often lie about the abuse.
FACT: Children very rarely lie about abuse and often their greatest fear is that they won’t be believed. (Abusers often tell children that no one will believe them if they disclose abuse).

MYTH: When Children’s Social Care get a referral about an abused child, he or she is usually taken into care.
FACT: Most children remain at home with their parents, with support from professionals. In most cases the best place for a child to grow up is with his or her parents

MYTH: People who harm children come from deprived backgrounds, are of below average intelligence or are “recognisable as dangerous” in some way
FACT: People who harm children come from all walks of life, social class and intellectual backgrounds, and may be liked and respected members of the community.

MYTH: Disabled children are less likely to be abused.
FACT: Research shows that disabled children are more likely to be abused.

What are the effects of Child Abuse

 The effects of abuse are wide ranging and usually long lasting, and can include:

  • Low self esteem 
  • Problematic behaviours 
  • Educational problems, e.g. slow to develop speech 
  • Relationship difficulties 
  • Mental health problems 
  • Substance (drug and alcohol) abuse 
  • Self harm including actual or attempted suicide 
  • Difficulty in parenting their own children 
  • Permanent disability 
  • Death as a result of the abuse (particularly if physical abuse or neglect)
  • Failure to thrive and achieve the best of their ability


Fortunately children who are abused can be helped by professionals and families working together and helping them to recover from the effects of abuse. For that to happen, people working with or in contact with children or adults who are parents or carers have to be aware of the signs of possible abuse and refer the child to Children's Social Care and / or the Police.


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