Knowledge about child abuse and neglect, its prevention, the promotion of healthy families, positive parenting, and safety for children is important for preventing child maltreatment and supporting abused children.

Information About Child Abuse

Definitions, Recognizing, Reporting, and Prevention in Your Community

Each and every one of us has a role to play in protecting children from abuse and neglect. To help keep children safe, you should: (1) understand the definitions of child abuse and neglect, (2) recognize the warning signs of child maltreatment, (3) report suspected child abuse and neglect, and (4) reach out to children and parents in your community.

Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect

  • Child abuse is any act that endangers a child’s physical or emotional health and development.
  • Child abuse and neglect often take place in the home. The child often knows the abuser well – a parent, relative, babysitter, or friend of the family.
  • Child abuse and neglect cross all ethnic, racial, social, and economic lines.
  • There are four types of child maltreatment:
    • Neglect is failure to provide for a child’s basic needs, including physical, educational, and emotional needs.
    • Physical abuse is physical injury as a result of hitting, kicking, shaking, burning, or otherwise harming a child.
    • Sexual abuse may include indecent exposure, fondling, rape, or commercial exploitation through prostitution or the production of pornographic materials.
    • Emotional abuse is any pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth, including constant criticism, threats, and rejection.
  • Many children experience more than one type of maltreatment. For instance, a physically abused child is often emotionally abused as well.

Recognizing Signs of Child Abuse and Neglect

  • Although children react differently to abuse and neglect, there are common signs of child maltreatment. One sign alone might not indicate child abuse or neglect, but when the signs appear repeatedly or in combination, there should be greater scrutiny of the situation.
  • The following may signal the presence of child abuse or neglect1:
    • Indicators in the child:
      • Shows sudden changes in behavior or school performance
      • Is fearful, especially of parents
      • Has not received help for physical or medical problems brought to the parents’ attention
      • Is always watchful, as though preparing for something to happen
      • Lacks adult supervision
      • Is overly compliant, passive, or withdrawn
      • Comes to school or other activities early, stays late, and does not want to go home
      • Is wary of adult contact or typical family affection
      • Considers relationship with parent(s) entirely negative
    • Indicators in the parent:
      • Shows little concern for the child
      • Mentions homicidal thoughts/feelings toward the child
      • Talks about extensive disciplining of the child and asks others to use harsh discipline if the child misbehaves
      •  Has unrealistic expectations of the child
      • Berates or humiliates the child constantly
      • Sees the child as bad, worthless, or out of control
      • Is unable/unwilling to meet the child’s basic needs and provide a safe environment
      • Considers relationship with the child entirely negative
  • For more detailed information on indicators of child maltreatment see Indicators of Specific Types of Child Maltreatment; and Chart on Behavioral Indicators of Child Abuse Across Life Stages.
  • Usually, children will not talk directly about abuse or neglect. Children may (i) be afraid they or someone they love will suffer harm if the maltreatment is disclosed, (ii) have promised not to tell, (iii) be embarrassed or ashamed, or (iv) not have the necessary vocabulary to explain the events. Instead of talking specifically about abuse or neglect, children may disclose maltreatment through indirect hints or by mentioning someone they know who has been hurt or has caused harm.

If a child discloses abuse or neglect, it is important to:

  • LISTEN to the child without giving your opinion or asking leading questions;
  • Tell the child that you believe him/her and are happy that he/she told you;
  • Reassure the child that he/she did not do anything wrong;
  • Tell the child that you will do your best to keep him/her safe;
  • Give yourself time to think, and seek help from professionals; and
  • Take any disclosure of abuse seriously, and report it. In San Francisco, call 415.558.2650 or 800.856.5553.

Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect

Reporting suspected abuse and neglect is critical to protecting children and getting their families help. Although it may feel difficult, frightening, or uncomfortable to make a report, doing so could save a child’s life, stop physical injury, prevent further abuse or neglect, or allow families to receive resources or services they need.

  • You do not need evidence or actual knowledge of child maltreatment to make a report, but instead, need to have a reasonable suspicion of abuse or neglect. Once there is a report, child welfare professionals commence an investigation and support the child and family.
  • If you suspect that a child is being abused or neglected, contact your local child welfare agency. In San Francisco, make a confidential report anytime by calling the hotline at:
    • 415.558.2650 or
    • 800.856.5553

You can find the contact number for other local child welfare agencies here.

  • For crisis intervention services, call the TALK Line (24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year) at 415.441.KIDS (5437).
  • If there is an emergency or you believe a child or someone in his/her household is in imminent danger, call 911.
  • When you call to report suspected child abuse or neglect, you should be prepared to provide the following information if you know it: (i) the child’s name and approximate age, (ii) the location of the child,(iii) the name of the offender, (iv) the names of the parents or caretakers, and (v) the situation.
  • You will also be asked to provide your name, although you may remain anonymous unless you are a “mandated reporter” (a person that is legally required to report child abuse and neglect because of his/her contact with children in a professional capacity).
  • Although you do not need proof of abuse or neglect when making a report, it is important to try to be as specific as possible. You might discuss first-hand observations or beliefs, statements of the child or his/her parent(s)/caretaker(s), or concerns based on past experiences. If, after making a report, you suspect further instances of abuse or neglect, continue to report these concerns. Each report provides information about what is going on with the family and increases the likelihood that the child will get the help he/she needs.
  • You should be aware that you might never learn the outcome of a report of child abuse or neglect because of confidentiality protections.
  • See Human Services Agency of San Francisco for more information about reporting suspected child abuse and neglect.

What You Can Do to Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect in Your Community

Being a parent can be rewarding, inspiring, and full of joy. It can also be overwhelming, stressful, and exhausting. Parents and caregivers, who have support from their family, friends, neighbors, and communities, are more likely to provide safe and healthy homes for their children. Help prevent child abuse and neglect by doing simple things to support children and their parents or caretakers:

  • Get to know your neighbors. People feel less stressed when they know there is support nearby.
  • Offer to baby sit for a family member, friend, or neighbor. All parents need help sometimes, even if it is just for a few hours.
  • Be a friend to a parent you know, especially those that seem to be under a lot of pressure. Show you understand and are willing to listen.
  • Reach out to children in your community. Show you care by remembering their names, smiling at them, and asking about their interests.
  • Get involved in your neighborhood. Arrange a potluck or another event or help keep your neighborhood safe through a Neighborhood Watch plan or other activity.
  • Be an active community member. Volunteer your time with or provide resources to local community organizations that work with children and families.

For more information about child abuse and its prevention, see San Francisco Child Abuse Prevention Center and Child Welfare Information Gateway.

1 Thanks to Child Welfare Information Gateway.