Child abuse is one of the most horrific crimes imaginable. Most people can't even fathom hurting a defenseless child, and yet it's something that goes on all the time behind closed doors. In the U.S., state child protective services (CPS) agencies investigate more than 3 million reports of child abuse per year. Even more horrifying, it's estimated that somewhere between 4 and 7 children die every single day from abuse and neglect.
Most people find it stunning when they hear that someone they know is being investigated for child abuse. But if you're paying attention, you might realize that there are usually tons of warning signs that something isn't right. Child abuse doesn't always mean physical or sexual violence. It can also mean a parent is neglecting to take care of their child by not feeding or bathing them, or putting them in harm's way by doing drugs or drinking around them. By picking up the phone and calling CPS when you see a warning sign, you could very well be saving a child's life.
If you know a child who is exhibiting some of the 15 behaviors, you may want to think about placing a call to CPS.
15 Hearing Screaming Or Crying
We all know that kids of all ages are going to scream and cry from time to time, and that some do it more than others. It can take very little to set off a cranky or overtired little one and send them into a fit loud enough for the neighbors to hear. It's perfectly normal, and totally common. But if your intuition is telling you that the screams and cries you're hearing from your neighbors home are due to something much more sinister, like abuse of some sort, it doesn't hurt to trust your gut and get someone to check it out. It could just be the kind of red flag that means a child is in serious dangerous, and the sooner someone can put a stop to it the better.
14 They're Doing Drugs In The Home
In some places, it's legal to smoke marijuana whether it's for medicinal purposes or just for pleasure. But nowhere is it legal to do harder drugs like heroine, cocaine, or methamphetamine. A parent under the influence of a dangerous drug is not going to be fit to take care of their children, and they certainly won't be able to react with a clear head in the event of an emergency where their child's life is in danger. And that's not the only way having drugs in the home puts kids at risk— children may ingest them and wind up overdosing themselves because they have no idea what they're getting into. If you suspect illegal drugs are being done in a home with kids, it's definitely worth getting the authorities involved.
13 Their Home Is Dangerously Dirty
Houses with children living in them tend to be extremely messy. Most kids are pretty sloppy when it comes to picking up after themselves and putting their things away, so it's no surprise that a home full of kids isn't going to be in tip-top shape all the time (mine certainly isn't). But it's one thing to be cluttered and disorganized and quite another thing to be unsanitary and dangerous. According to New York City's Child Welfare Court, a home can be considered unsafe for children if there's an issue with spoiled or rotting food, exposed feces (think neglected pets or even stacks of dirty diapers and soiled clothing), bug infestations, or broken water pipes that make it impossible to properly clean. Children have been taken from their homes for all those reasons and more.
12 Their Kid Has Bruises
If someone called CPS every time my energetic yet accident prone toddler popped up with a bruise, she'd have been taken away long ago. Little kids have a tendency to be a bit clumsy, so black and blues aren't exactly an unusual sight. If, however, you're noticing frequent, unexplained bruising, it could definitely be a major warning sign of potential abuse— especially if the child or their parents clams up when asked about it or comes up with a lame excuse that just doesn't ring true to you. Some parents might use light spanking as a form of discipline (which is not abuse from a legal standpoint), but most people would agree that it crosses over into abuse territory if it's so hard or so frequent that it's leaving behind tons of bruises.
11 Their Kid Is Being Left Home Alone
Different places have different laws about when a child can legally be left home alone, and for how long. Often, it's left to the parents' judgment to figure out what's appropriate. It may be perfectly fine for an older child or pre-teen to spend a few hours alone a day (so called latch-key kids), but if a younger child who isn't capable of fending for themselves is often home by themselves or a child of any age is left alone for long stretches and entire days and nights at a time, that's a serious red flag and cause for a call to CPS. It's also cause for concern if an older child is being left to care for younger siblings, especially if he or she seems too young to handle the responsibility.
10 Their Kid Seems Withdrawn
All children go through different mood swings and phases, just like adults do. It's not unusual for a child to be chipper one day and surly the next. But if you're noticing a dramatic shift in a child's overall mood and demeanor, it could be cause for alarm. Children who are suffering from abuse or neglect can become withdrawn and want to isolate themselves from other kids and grownups for fear of their secret getting out. They may also think it's best to detach themselves from people they used to be close to because it reduces their chances of being hurt by someone else. If you're noticing a child pull back from his or her relationships with no apparent explanation, it's worth investigating further to see what's causing the change.
9 The Parents Are Driving Drunk
No one should ever be in a car with a drunk driver at the wheel, and that goes double for children. Unfortunately, they're not given much of a choice if a parent is making them come along for the ride. Their smaller bodies are more likely to be seriously injured if there's a crash, especially if they're not properly restrained. Drunk driving is illegal everywhere, and some states have mandated even tougher penalties for people caught driving drunk with kids in the car (like Leandra's Law in New York state, for example). If an adult you know is driving drunk with a child, whether it's a one-time thing or something that happens on the regular, they should be reportedly immediately. It's extremely unsafe for everyone involved, from the kids to the driver to everyone else on the road.
8 Their Kid Is Extremely Timid
Not all kids are going to have outgoing personalities (I certainly didn't and I still don't), and that's fine. Being shy or reserved isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it's also not necessarily something that a child has the power to change. But if you notice that a formerly outgoing, bold kid has now suddenly turned timid and fearful, there could be something going on at home. The child may be experiencing abuse and is now treading extra carefully around any other kid or adult who they fear could also hurt them. If the child seems terrified that a simple mistake or a momentary lapse in their behavior is going to bring disastrous consequences down upon them, someone needs to step in and figure out what exactly prompted the change.
7 Their Kid Is Doing Poorly In School
Some kids breeze through school and make good grades with little effort, while others struggle to stay on track with their peers. Getting poor grades might be disappointing but there are so many different factors that can contribute to it, so it's not necessarily a reason to panic. But it can be cause for alarm, however, if a child was once doing fairly well is suddenly failing majorly behind. If they're no longer submitting work, studying for tests, or turning in projects, it could be an indication that something concerning is going on at home. Parental oversight can be a big factor in a student's success, so a child who isn't being properly cared for is at a big disadvantage in school and it will show in their report card.
6 Their Kid Is Frequently Absent From School
Bad grades can certainly be a consequence of a child missing tons of school. Absences happen from time to time and they're usually legit (though I certainly conned my mom into letting me stay home plenty of times because I was simply too tired to get out of bed). A day off school a few times a year is obviously to be expected, but if a child is regularly missing days and they don't appear to be particularly sick, it's definitely worrisome. Their parents might not be supervising them properly and making sure they get to school, or even worse, if the child is being abused or neglected they may not be healthy enough to get to class on a regular basis. Once those absences start to pile up, it should be investigated.
5 Their Kid Isn't Getting Enough To Eat
Just like adults, kids come in all shapes and sizes. When it comes to their weight and how much they eat, there's a wide range of what constitutes healthy. A child who's thinner than most isn't that unusual, but if a child is extremely underweight or losing weight rapidly, it can be a major warning sign of trouble at home. A parent who's neglecting or abusing their child might also be failing to provide proper meals, and that can lead a child to become malnourished. In some of the most horrific cases of child abuse that have made headlines over the years, children have been found to weigh a fraction of what they should— like a 12 year old who's weight is more like that of a 6 year old.
4 Their Kid Is Wolfing Down Food
It's no surprise that a growing child might be capable of putting away a huge adult sized meal in record time— anyone who has kids knows that their grocery bills continue to go up all the time. Some kids are extremely active and burn tons of calories, and they need more food to keep up their energy levels. But sometimes there's a more alarming reason for a child to scarf down massive amounts of food in one sitting— they don't know when they're going to eat again. A child who isn't sure where their next meal is coming from because of an abusive or absent parent is going to try and fill up whenever they can. If you notice that a child seems to be squirreling away or stuffing themselves to bursting, it's definitely worth investigating to see what's going on.
3 Their Kid's Clothes Are Dirty
Children are pretty tough on their clothes— from messy mealtimes to roughhousing to tumbling through grass or mud, it's not unusual for a little one's clothing to end up smelly, stained, and ripped. What is unusual, however, is for a child to keep on wearing those same clothes without them being washed or repaired, or wearing them long after they've stopped fitting properly. While any parent knows that kids clothing doesn't come cheap and can't always quickly be replaced when kids ruin it or grow out of it, the vast majority of parents work to keep what clothes their children do have clean and well-cared for. A child who's going around in filthy clothing or outfits that don't fit may not be getting that same kind of care at home.
2 Their Kid Has Poor Personal Hygiene
Getting kids to bathe and brush their teeth can be a fight. It's kind of gross to think about, but many kids just don't like doing those things and sometimes they don't really care about their hygiene until they're a little older. Luckily, the vast majority of them will have parents who lay down the law and force them to take good care of their teeth and their bodies and by regularly bathing and brushing. If a child isn't being bathed and isn't taking care of their teeth, it may mean that their parents aren't making sure that they do so. If their hair is constantly greasy and dirty, their breath is foul, and they have body odor, it could very well mean that the child is being neglected at home.
1 Their Kid Is Always In Long Sleeves And Pants
Kids can sometimes make some pretty odd fashions choices if they're given the ability to pick out their own clothes. Most people won't bat an eyelash at a child whose outfit seems laughably odd, totally inappropriate for the weather, or wrong for the occasion, but there are circumstances when their choice of clothing tells a much deeper and more disturbing story. If you notice that a kid always insists on wearing long sleeved shirts and full-length pants, no matter what the temperature is or what situation they're in, they could be trying to hide something. They may be using their clothes as a way to cover up signs of physical abuse that can include things like scratches, cuts, bruises, burns, or even a dangerously skinny frame caused by malnourishment.
Sources: ABC News, Helpguide.org, All4Kids.org, DoRightByKids.org, ChildHelp.org