Ask the GAL: Recognizing a child who is being abused

September 19, 2012 

Q: What signs might a child exhibit if they are being abused?

A: Every 10 seconds someone in the United States makes a child abuse report. The majority, 81 percent, of the abusers are parents (birth, adoptive, or step-parents.) September is one of the months when the Guardian ad Litem Program typically sees a spike in the number of children who come into care. Children have spent the summer, out of sight of the community. Now that school is back in session, more people have eyes on the children. Teachers and other school personnel are mandated reporters of abuse, and they are in a position to see if children exhibit traits that might indicate they are being harmed. The types of abuse teachers might see are physical, emotional, or sexual. It could be the neglect of a medical condition or failure to attend to special education needs. It could also be the abandonment of a child who is left alone or unsupervised when the child is too young to care of themselves.

Some of the signs exhibited by an abused child might be:

n A sudden change in behavior or school performance

n A loss of concentration that can't be attributed to a physical or psychological cause

n Always watchful, fearful or anxious as though preparing for something bad to happen

n A lack of adult supervision

n Overly compliant, passive, or withdrawn

n Overly demanding or aggressive

n Poor hygiene

n Frequently late or missing from school or seems afraid to go home

n Pattern injuries, unexplained injuries

n Shying away from touch, flinching at sudden movements

n Wearing inappropriate clothing to hide bruises, burns or wounds

Q: What are some of the myths about child abuse?

Myth: Child abuse doesn't happen in "good" families.

Fact: Child abuse crosses all racial, economic, and cultural lines. Sometimes families that seem to have it all from the outside are hiding a different story behind closed doors.

Myth: Most child abusers are strangers and wear long, dark raincoats and are creepy looking.

Fact: Most abusers are family members or people the children know well such as coaches or family friends.

Myth: Only bad people abuse their children.

Fact: Not all abusers intentionally harm their children. Some were abused themselves and don't know any other way to parent. Some suffer from mental illness or substance abuse. When we ask parents of children in dependency if they love their children, they all say they do. Unfortunately, they give more priority to the dangerous lifestyle they live, or the drugs they are addicted to, than they give to their children.

Myth: Abused children always grow up to be abusers.

Fact: Abused children are more likely to repeat the abuse cycle as adults, but many, who get good guidance and mentoring from guardians ad Litem or case managers, are able to survive and become protectors of their children.

As the saying goes, it takes a community to raise a child and our children need the community to watch out for them. If, at any time, you suspect abuse of a child, please call 1-800-96-ABUSE. The hotline operator will take your call and you can remain anonymous. It is always better to err on the side of caution and call if you have a suspicion. Let the professionals determine if what you see is abuse.

Pam Hindman, director of the Guardian ad Litem program for the 12th Judicial Circuit, writes this weekly column for the Herald. Email Pam at, or write to her at Guardian ad Litem Program, 1051 Manatee Ave. W., Hensley Wing, Suite 330, Bradenton, FL 34205.

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