Child Physical Abuse

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According to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), in 2005, an estimated 3.3 million reports of alleged abuse and/or neglect involving approximately 6 million children were made to local child protective services (CPS) agencies across the country. An estimated 899,000 of these children were determined to be victims of abuse and/or neglect (USDHHS, 2007). Of these, 16.6 percent were determined to be victims of physical abuse. Further, an estimated 1,460 children died in 2005 as a result of child abuse and neglect (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2007). NCANDS data collection saw a large increase in child maltreatment numbers during its data collection in 2005 largely due to the inclusion of Alaska and Puerto Rico.

What Is Child Physical Abuse?

Defined as non-accidental trauma or physical injury caused by punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning or otherwise harming a child, physical abuse is the most visible form of child maltreatment.

Many times, physical abuse results from inappropriate or excessive physical discipline. A parent or caretaker in anger may be unaware of the magnitude of force with which he or she strikes the child.

Other factors that can contribute to child abuse include parents’ immaturity, lack of parenting skills, poor childhood experiences and social isolation, as well as frequent crisis situations, drug or alcohol problems and domestic violence.

What Should You Look For?

While injuries can occur accidentally when a child is at play, physical abuse should be suspected if the explanations do not fit the injury or if a pattern of frequency is apparent. The presence of many injuries in various stages of healing makes it obvious that the injuries did not all occur as a result of one accident.

Physical indicators of abuse include bruises; lacerations; swollen areas; and marks on the child’s face, head, back, chest, genital area, buttocks or thighs. Wounds like human bite marks, cigarette burns, broken bones, puncture marks or missing hair may indicate abuse.

A child’s behavior might also signal that something is wrong. Victims of physical abuse may display withdrawn or aggressive behavioral extremes, complain of soreness or uncomfortable movement, wear clothing that is inappropriate for the weather, express discomfort with physical contact or become chronic runaways.

What Can You Do?

Discipline effectively. Remember that kids will be kids. Children can be loud, unruly and destructive. They will break things, interrupt telephone conversations, track mud through the house, not pick up their toys or clean their rooms, struggle over eating their vegetables or pester routinely. Children will inevitably do things that may make their parents feel irritated, frustrated, disappointed and angry. Changing a child’s behavior is not easy. However, children should not be disciplined through violence.

It is better to deny children privileges when they do something unacceptable, as well as reward them when they do something good. This teaches children that there are consequences for their actions.

Regain control. Child abuse is a symptom of having difficulty coping with stressful situations. If you feel you are losing control, ask someone to relieve you for a few minutes. Then try these tips:

  • Count to 10.
  • Take deep breaths.
  • Phone a friend.
  • Look through a magazine or newspaper.
  • Listen to music.
  • Exercise.
  • Take a walk (first make certain that children are not left without supervision).
  • Take a bath.
  • Write a letter.
  • Sit down and relax.
  • Lie down.

Get help. Support is available for families at risk of abuse through local child protection services agencies, community centers, churches, physicians, mental health facilities and schools.

Report, report, report. If you suspect child abuse is occurring, first report it to the local child protective services agency (often called “social services” or “human services”) in your county or state. Professionals who work with children are required by law to report reasonable suspicion of abuse or neglect. Furthermore, in 20 states, citizens who suspect abuse or neglect are required to report it. “Reasonable suspicion” based on objective evidence, which could be firsthand observation or statements made by a parent or child, is all that is needed to report.


NCANDS, the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, is the primary source of national information on abused and neglected children known to public child protective services agencies. American Humane has provided technical assistance to this project since its beginning in 1990. NCANDS reports that Child Maltreatment 2005 appears to have a large increase in overall data due to the fact that this edition is the first to include Alaska and Puerto Rico. For a copy of this report, contact the Child Welfare Information Gateway at (800) 394-3366 or The publication is also available at


U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth, and Families. (2007). Child maltreatment 2005. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.


Cohn, A. H., & Gordon, T. (1986). Tips on parenting. Chicago, IL: The National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse (NCPCA).

Dubowitz, H. (2000). What is physical abuse? In H. Dubowitz & D. DePanfilis (Eds.), Handbook for child protection practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Jaudes, P., & Mitchel, L. (1992). Physical child abuse. Chicago, IL: The National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse (NCPCA).

U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect. (1995). A nation’s shame: Fatal child abuse and neglect in the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect.

Winterfeld, A., & Hunt., D. E. (2003). The legal framework for child protective services. In C. Brittain & D. E. Hunt (Eds.), Helping in child protective services: A competency-based casework handbook. New York: Oxford University Press.

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