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How to Recognize and Report Child Abuse

Nothing is more important than children’s safety and well-being. Protecting children is everyone’s business.

Always be aware of potential threats to children’s safety. Quick action can stop or prevent harmful situations such as child abuse.

About 4 million cases of child maltreatment are reported each year in the United States. About five children die each day from abuse, and almost half of those deaths are children under 1 year old. Experts believe that child abuse cases are greatly underreported.

What is child abuse?

According to Tennessee law, “abuse” exists when a person under the age of 18 is suffering from, has sustained, or may be in immediate danger of suffering from or sustaining a wound, injury, disability or physical or mental condition. This is caused by brutality, neglect or other actions or inactions of a parent, relative, guardian or caretaker. Abuse can be physical, verbal, emotional or sexual. Learn more about the different types of abuse.

Who should report abuse?

According to Tennessee law, anyone who suspects child abuse or neglect (including doctors, mental health professionals, childcare providers, dentists, family members and friends) must report suspected cases. Failure to report child abuse or neglect is a violation of the law. If you believe a child has been abused or neglected, call 877-237-0004 or visit the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) website.

En español: En español: Cómo Reportar el Abuso Infantil: Lo Que Tiene Que Saber Para Reportar el Abuso o Maltrato de Niños.

Possible Signs of Abuse or Neglect in Children

Here are some signs that a child may have been abused or neglected:

  • Repeated injuries that are not properly treated or adequately explained.
  • Begins acting in unusual ways. May be disruptive and aggressive, or passive and withdrawn.
  • Forced to assume the role of a parent toward their brothers and sisters, or even toward their own parents.
  • May have disturbed sleep (nightmares, bed wetting, fear of sleeping alone, needing nightlight).
  • Loses appetite, overeats or may report being hungry.
  • A sudden drop in school grades or participation in activities.
  • May display behavior that is not normal for their age group, such as acting in an unusual adult or sexual manner.
  • May talk about abusive or neglectful acts.

Learn more warning signs of child abuse (English).

Learn more warning signs of child abuse (Spanish).

Signs to Look for in Parents/Caretakers

Parents/caretakers who abuse or neglect children may show some common characteristics:

  • Possible drug/alcohol history
  • Disorganized home life
  • May seem to be isolated from the community and have no close friends
  • May offer conflicting reasons or no explanation when asked about a child's injury
  • May seem unwilling or unable to provide for a child's basic needs
  • May not have age-appropriate expectations for their children
  • May use harsh discipline that is not appropriate for a child's age or behavior
  • May have been abused or neglected as a child

If you notice these signs early, you may be able to prevent abuse or neglect.

Parents who abuse their children need help, but few are able to admit the problem and seek assistance.

Don’t take a chance with a child’s life. Call 877-237-0004 if you suspect a child has been abused or neglected.

Foster Parenting

One way Tennessee helps to keep children safe is by consistently recruiting foster parents. The state especially needs foster parents who are able to care for sibling groups—it’s a high priority for the state’s foster program to keep siblings together if possible.

To learn more about becoming a foster parent for Tennessee children, visit the DCS’ TNFosters website. Or call toll free at 877-DCS-KIDS (877-327-5437). Click here for the DCS’ Spanish foster parenting page.

Watch this video to learn about the foster to adoption experience.

Additional Resources

Get more information on how to recognize and report child abuse.

Learn more about how to protect children and identify and address child sexual abuse.

Learn more about signs and symptoms of child abuse from the Mayo Clinic.