Warning Signs of Child Abuse — and How Babysitters Can Safely Reach Out for Help
Jun 12, 2020
As a babysitter, you’d do anything to protect the kids in your care — and not just because you’re paid to. There’s a special bond between caregivers and the children they watch that extends far beyond the hours kids spend in their custody. For this reason, it’s incredibly upsetting for babysitters who suspect the children they love dearly are being abused in some way — and even more disturbing if their fears are confirmed.
The horrible truth is that hundreds of thousands of American children suffer some form of abuse each year. Childcare providers, including babysitters, can play a key role in intervening when a child is living in a dangerous home, so it’s important they know which signs of abuse to look out for and how to safely reach out for help.
Note: For ease of readability, we’ve referred to adult abusers as “parents” throughout this guide. However, our advice applies to all primary adult caregivers of children, including step-parents, foster parents, grandparents, adult siblings, and all others.
What Is Child Abuse?
Child abuse is a broad term that unfortunately describes a number of heartbreaking scenarios. The term child abuse may include:
Withholding life necessities, including food, shelter, clothing, and access to an education
It’s also important to note that children often suffer from multiple types of abuse. For example, a child who suffers neglect may also be physically abused when they ask for food, water, or another item they need for comfort or survival.
What Are the Signs of Child Abuse?
Both parents and children can give off clues that a child is being abused. While you likely won’t spend a lot of time with the parents of the kids you babysit, do your best to look for these warning signs from both children and adults, because they may indicate that some form of child abuse is occurring. Note that with children, you may witness these red flags first hand or have them brought to your attention through comments made by the child or their siblings.
Children who display one or more of the following signs may be suffering from one or multiple forms of abuse:
Has injuries they can’t explain or are unwilling to explain, including scratches, bruises, burns, sprains, head bumps, and broken bones
Constantly seems on edge or frightened, even when doing an activity they enjoy
Has a sudden change in long-term behavior, such as responding more aggressively than usual when asked to obey a rule
Suddenly has difficulty or disinterest in schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and/or hobbies
Has obvious unmet health and hygiene conditions, such as untreated illnesses or injuries, or consistently poor hygiene
Is severely underweight with no medical or behavioral explanation, especially if they seem to be constantly hungry
Suddenly loses weight
Wears worn-out clothing or articles that are inappropriate for the season, such as T-shirts in freezing temperatures
Frequently misses school, extracurricular activities, and/or other appointments
Doesn’t receive consistent parental or other adult supervision
Doesn’t want to spend time at home
Uses tobacco products, drugs, or alcohol
Suffers from severe mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts*
*Mental health disorders are a struggle for many children, and may be caused by a variety of factors, including genetics, changes in where they live and go to school, and more. A mental health condition alone does not necessarily indicate a child is being abused.
Parents who display one or more of the following signs may be abusing their child in one or multiple ways:
Is unwilling or unable to explain a child’s injury, especially if they seem defensive or dismissive about it
Requests corporal or emotionally-traumatizing punishment from babysitters, nannies, educators, and other adults who look after their children
Consistently seems disinterested in, irritated by, or angry at their child and their academic and personal pursuits
Sets unreasonable academic and personal expectations for the child
Relies on the child to care for them emotionally in an unreasonable way
Inappropriately touches or talks about the child
Is apprehensive about allowing their child to interact with others
Is controlling over the child, including with their schedule, social acquaintances, and interests
Abuses drugs or alcohol**
**Addiction is a mental health disorder that affects people of all ages and backgrounds, and may be caused by a variety of factors, including genetics, co-occuring mental health issues, and more. Substance abuse alone does not necessarily indicate a parent is abusing their child.
Child and Parent
Children and parents who display one or more of the following signs when interacting or speaking about each another may be indicating child abuse is taking place in their home:
Avoid eye contact with each other
Avoid physical contact with each other
Only speak disparagingly about one another
Speak about each other sexually or otherwise inappropriately
Touch each other sexually or otherwise inappropriately
What Can Babysitters Do if They Suspect Child Abuse?
If the child is old enough and if you feel comfortable doing so, the first thing you can do is ask them a few questions to further gauge the situation. If the child’s explanation of how they got an injury puts your mind at ease, for example, you’ll know you don’t need to seek intervention. This can help you learn more about whether or not a child is enduring any form of abuse, but it needs to be done delicately. Consider these guidelines:
Be gentle. You don’t want to alarm the child by making them feel like they’re being interrogated. Use age-appropriate language, and keep the tone conversational.
Ask open-ended questions rather than leading questions. Young kids, especially, may feel the need to agree with anything their beloved babysitter says, even if it’s not true. Opt for phrases like, “How did you get that big bump on your head?” rather than accusatory language, such as, “Did your mom hit your face and cause that big bump on your head?”
Pay attention to body language. Asking a child how they got hurt and getting an “I don’t know” in response could be perfectly legitimate if they don’t seem scared or upset when answering. Likewise, hearing a logical story that seems memorized, insincere, or frightfully told could be a red flag.
Remain calm, and be reassuring and kind no matter what they share with you. If after your discussion you feel confident that all is well, you don’t want to make them feel as though they let you down because you didn’t get the answer you were looking for (this demonstrates the importance of using gentle language and tone, and not asking leading questions). Consider a response similar to this one, which conveys you were only trying to have a conversation and will reassure them that everything is fine: “Oh, boy, falling off your bike is scary, and it hurts! I asked because I thought maybe we could play outside today, but I understand if you don’t want to because the bruise on your leg makes it hurt to run.”
If they willingly reveal they’ve been suffering from abuse, it’s even more critical to assure them you believe them and that what’s happened isn’t their fault. Let them know you would like to keep the conversation between the two of you, and that everything will be alright. It may make sense not to tell them about the actions you plan to take to help them, because they may not react the way you’d expect them to. They may want the abuse to stop, but don’t want their offending parent to get in trouble. While you want to be honest with them as much as possible, know that it’s OK to be dishonest with them if they insist you don’t tell anyone about your conversation. The important thing is to get the child the help they need, even if they don’t understand your actions.
If after you’ve talked to the child you have confirmation or lingering suspicions of mistreatment (or if the child isn’t old enough to have a productive discussion with), you have a few options to seek help:
For emergency help, including if the child is severely injured and needs medical attention or you have reason to fear for their immediate health and safety, call 911. While it may be your instinct to take the child to the hospital or another safe haven, you should not remove the child from the home. Call 911 for help, and they’ll take action to protect the child without you risking legal consequences.
Call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 800-4-A-Child (800-422-4453). These advocates are available 24/7, and confidential help is available in 170 different languages. You’ll receive referrals to direct sources of help in your local area from emergency and social service providers.
Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) at 800-656-HOPE (800-656-4673). You can also use RAINN’s search tool to find confidential help locally.
It’s important to note that you can almost always anonymously report abuse. However, you should be ready to answer questions from any of these agencies about what you have witnessed and conversations you’ve had with the parent and child.
Lastly, do not confront a parent you know or suspect to be abusive. If they’re hurting their child, it’s very unlikely they’ll confess any wrongdoing or cooperate with you, and they may even threaten harm on you or their child. If they haven’t done anything wrong, you could create issues between them and other family members, which could potentially cause emotional harm within their familial unit.
What Happens when Babysitters Report Suspicions of Child Abuse?
Depending on where you live, the process of investigating allegations of child abuse may vary. You should check your local law enforcement and government-based child services’ websites for more information. In general, however, you can expect the following:
An investigation will be conducted by your local police department and/or child protective services (CPS) agency.
If there is no evidence of abuse, the family will not be subject to a full investigation, although there will be an official record of the initial allegations.
If they find evidence of abuse, the police department and/or CPS will launch an official investigation. During this time:
All children in the home will be removed. They’ll be placed in a nearby family member’s home or in the custody of a foster family.
The parents and children will be subject to in-depth interviews. Authorities may also reach out to the family’s nearby relatives, friends, teachers, and caregivers, including babysitters and nannies. This process can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
If the abuse allegations are subsequently dismissed, the children will be able to move back into their family home, but an official record of the initial allegations and the ensuing investigation will remain.
If the abuse allegations are confirmed, the abusive parent(s) will be charged with criminal offenses. They will not be able to live with their children until their trial and any sentencing is completed, and they will likely only be allowed supervised visitation, if any. The children will be placed in permanent housing with a relative, foster family, or the non-abusive parent, if applicable.
It’s important to know that if you report concerns over child abuse that are sincere and founded upon legitimate evidence, you are at no risk of legal ramifications. In other words, acting out of true care and concern for the well-being of a child you babysit won’t get you in trouble, even if the allegations are ultimately dismissed.
Note: Making a malicious and false report is a serious offense. It should go without saying that you should never purposefully wrongfully accuse an individual of child abuse. Not only could you upend the safety and security of the child you care for as well as their family, you could be held accountable in a civil lawsuit.
It’s unthinkable for babysitters that anyone would harm the children they love. Unfortunately, it does happen, and caregivers should be vigilant about staying aware of the warning signs of child abuse. If you suspect any of the children you care for are suffering in silence, you have a responsibility to be their voice. If you’re right, you could save an innocent life from living in unspeakable conditions. Even if you’re wrong, you won’t regret knowing you took action to make sure a child who means so much to you is safe and healthy.
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