It Shouldn't Hurt to be a Child: How to Prevent, Identify and Report Child Abuse

April 24, 2017 Patti Patterson, MD


The tiny baby suffered brutal injuries, including broken ribs and bleeding in the brain. It didn’t take long for caregivers at Covenant Children’s to determine the infant had been severely abused.

“I worked as a nurse in the ER and ICU 30 years. I had done a lot and seen a lot, but this almost killed me,” recalls Belinda Waters, RN, trauma program manager at Covenant Children’s, a St. Joseph Health hospital in Lubbock, Texas.

“How could anyone ever do this to such a small infant? It was overwhelming to see child abuse cases like this, and I knew we needed to do more.”

Child Protective Services (CPS) got involved, and the baby was brought back to the hospital for a visit a year later, and was thriving. But health care professionals like Waters know that’s not always the outcome.

Nearly 700,000 children are abused in this country each year, often at the hands of their parents. Every day, five children die from abuse or neglect, according to the most recent nationwide data available. Children are the most vulnerable to maltreatment in the first year of life.

“For the children who survive abuse and neglect, the long-term consequences are profound and often life-long,” says Patti Patterson, MD, a pediatrician at Covenant Children’s, who is a board-certified expert in child abuse. “Studies show that children who are abused or mistreated have higher risks of teen pregnancy, depression, suicide, alcoholism and substance abuse, as well as heart, lung and liver diseases, obesity and other diseases.”

In recognition of Child Abuse Awareness Month in April, Dr. Patterson shares her expertise on preventing, identifying and reporting neglect and physical abuse:

Some Signs of Child Abuse

  • Slower-than-normal development. The child doesn’t have the skills and abilities of children the same age, such as socializing with others or talking.
  • Failure to thrive. If children aren’t gaining weight or height as they should, it could be a sign they aren’t being fed properly.
  • Suspicious injuries or bruises. Children often get hurt playing and running around. But certain signs are suspicious, such as injuries to areas of the body that are usually protected (buttocks, back of legs, ears, etc.) or if the baby is too young to be mobile and has any bruising.
  • A child often appears dirty and unkempt.
  • Excessive punishment with marks left on the skin.
  • Seizures, which can be a sign of abusive head trauma; or babies who stop breathing.
  • A child is often left unsupervised and in dangerous situations.
  • Caregivers delay seeking medical care for injuries.
  • Read more about many other signs of abuse and neglect.

What to do if You Suspect Child Abuse

If the child is in immediate danger, call 9-1-1 right away. If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, call your state Child Protective Services (CPS) hotline. Providing your name and contact information may help authorities with their investigation but you can always report anonymously. Learn more about CPS.

How to Prevent Child Abuse

Know the signs as well as the risk factors. People are more likely to abuse or neglect children if they are living in poverty, if they have a history of violence, mental health problems or drug or alcohol abuse, or if they are under high stress and not able to manage it well or don’t have a good support system, says Dr. Patterson.

To prevent child abuse, parents and caregivers can:

  • Take parenting classes to learn how to appropriately respond when children don’t behave. “People who weren’t parented well don’t know how to parent, and there are excellent education programs, including parent/child interactive therapy,” says Dr. Patterson. “Ask your doctor or call your local hospital to see what educational resources they have to offer.”
  • Learn healthy ways to manage stress. Your doctor or local hospital can connect you to resources. Get treatment if you were a victim of abuse.
  • Ask for help from others. If you need a break from your children or feel overwhelmed, call a family member, friend or neighbor to see if they can step in for an hour or two.

“Everyone can help prevent child abuse and neglect by learning about the signs, paying attention to the children around you, offering support to struggling parents, and reporting any suspected abuse to stop it from happening again,” says Dr. Patterson. “Children are often our silent victims, and we need to speak up on their behalf.”

Covenant Children’s Commitment to Child Abuse

In response to a need in the community, Covenant Children’s took action to address and reduce child abuse. Texas has more reports of child abuse than any other state in the country and Lubbock County has the third-highest number of confirmed cases of child abuse per population in the state.

First, efforts started inside the hospital, where caregivers discovered they were treating children who may have been abused and who had been referred by the region’s smaller hospitals. Waters and her team began increasing education and awareness of child abuse – both within the children’s hospital as well as the adult emergency department and the region’s rural hospitals. They also further refined hospital procedures, which ensured CPS and child abuse physician experts were quickly notified of any potential child abuse.

Then, Covenant Children’s efforts turned outward to increase child abuse education in the community. Throughout Child Abuse Awareness month in April, the hospital partners with the South Plains Coalition for Child Abuse Prevention on various events. Those efforts include a conference attended by social services and health care professionals, an observance ceremony to remember child abuse victims and events meant to bring healing and awareness. They also encourage people in the community to wear blue to support the cause. Nearly 50,000 people from the community were involved in these awareness events last year. The goal is for 75,000 people to participate in child abuse awareness events this year.

Already, Covenant Children’s is seeing a positive change. “We’ve seen fewer cases of child abuse and we hope our efforts are making a difference,” says Waters. “We will continue to do as much as we can—being the children’s hospital for this region, it’s our responsibility to lead the effort to decrease the rate of child abuse.”

Learn more about identifying and reporting child abuse.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.



Previous Article
Simpler Solutions May Be the Key to Relief for Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Simpler Solutions May Be the Key to Relief for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

If you’re suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), help may be simpler than you thought.

Next Article
7 Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Pediatrician: Straight Talk from a Physician Mom
7 Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Pediatrician: Straight Talk from a Physician Mom

Tips to choose a pediatrician