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Possible Signs, Symptoms, Indicators and Behaviours Indicating Child Abuse

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There are four types of child abuse. They are defined in the UK Government guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children 2010 which are:

  1. Physical abuse
  2. Emotional abuse
  3. Sexual abuse
  4. Neglect

Bullying is not defined as a form of abuse in Working Together but there is clear evidence that it is abusive and will include at least one, if not two, three or all four, of the defined categories of abuse.

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Recognising child abuse is not easy. It is not our responsibility to decide whether or not child abuse has taken place or if a child is at significant risk of harm from someone. We do however, have both a responsibility and duty, as set out in your organisation’s child protection procedures, to act in order that the appropriate agencies can investigate and take any necessary action to protect a child.

Physical abuse is deliberately causing physical harm to a child. This might involve punching; kicking, biting, burning, scalding, shaking, throwing or beating with objects such as belts, whips, or sticks. It also includes poisoning, giving a child alcohol or illegal drugs, drowning or suffocation. Physical harm may also be caused when a parent or carer fabricates the symptoms of illness in a child.

There are certain signs that need to be acknowledged when suspicion arises that physical abuse is occurring:

  • Any injuries not consistent with the explanation given to staff.
  • Injuries which occur to any part of the body but usually in places which are not normally exposed to falls or rough games
  • Injuries which have not received medical attention
  • Reluctance to change in the heat, or to change/participate in activities such as, PE or swimming

Sexual abuse is the forcing of unwanted sexual activity by one person on another, as by the use of threats or coercion. Sexual activity that is deemed improper or harmful, as between an adult and a minor or with a person of diminished mental capacity. Sexual abuse is common with children. Most of the times they are unable to speak out.

  • Signs and Symptoms of Sexual Abuse:
  • Significant change in sexual behaviour or attitude
  • Pregnancy in a woman who is unable to consent to sexual intercourse
  • Wetting or soiling
  • Poor concentration
  • Withdrawn, depressed, stressed appearance
  • Unusual difficulty or sensitivity in walking or sitting
  • Stained or bloody underclothing
  • Bruises, bleeding, pain or itching in genital area
  • Sexually transmitted diseases, urinary tract or vaginal infection.

Emotional or psychological abuse is a form of abuse characterised by a person subjecting or exposing another to behaviours that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Signs and Symptoms of Psychological Abuse:

  • Change in appetite
  • Low self-esteem, deference, passivity, and resignation
  • Unexplained fear, defensiveness, ambivalence
  • Emotional withdrawal
  • Sleep disturbance.

Neglect is defined as ‘the repeated deprivation of assistance that the Adult at Risk needs for important activities of daily living, including a failure to intervene in behaviour which is dangerous to the Adult at Risk or to others, and poor manual handling techniques.’

Signs and Symptoms of Neglect:

  • Physical condition of the Adult at Risk is poor, e.g. pressure ulcers, unwashed and unkempt
  • Clothing in poor condition; e.g. unclean, wet, ragged
  • Inadequate physical environment
  • Inadequate diet
  • Untreated injuries or medical problems
  • Inconsistent or reluctant contact with health or social care agencies
  • Failure to engage in social interaction.

If you suspect abuse has taken place or abuse has been brought to your attention you are obliged to take action but you must also ensure at all times that the welfare of the child/young person/vulnerable adult is paramount and the interests of the person against whom the allegation has been made are protected.

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