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Signs of Abuse for Mandated Reporters

Mandated reporters often interact with children at places like daycare, school, health care facilities, and activity centers, where their role is pivotal in protecting children from abuse. However, when mandated reporters are unable to distinguish which type of abuse is occurring – or whether the abuse is happening at all – taking the necessary and appropriate actions can be difficult. 

Physical Abuse

Bruises, burns, scratches, and broken bones can all be results of physical abuse. However, they may instead be mimics of abuse. It can be extraordinarily difficult to differentiate between abusive and accidental injuries, especially for those mandated reporters who may not have any medical experience. Because of this, it is important to not rely on physical evidence alone to determine whether or not an injury is abusive. 

Other clues can include inconsistent stories of how the injury occurred and a delay in seeking medical attention. Sometimes, mandated reporters may even receive a disclosure of abuse from a child. The location of a child’s injury may also indicate abuse depending on the injury type (eg, a burn in an area that typically would be protected by clothing).

Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse includes any type of sexual activity with a minor, including non-physical acts like sexting or exhibitionism. According to RAINN, “The majority of perpetrators are someone the child or family knows.”

The most common way to determine whether a child has been sexually abused is through the child’s disclosure to a mandated reporter who would then be responsible for reporting the situation as soon as possible. However, sexual abuse suspicions can also surface from nonspecific behavior associated with the abusive act. For example, mandated reporters or third parties may observe medical issues that are not typical for children, such as sexually transmitted infections or abnormal bleeding — especially in the genital area.

If a mandated reporter suspects abuse or receives a third party complaint of sexual abuse, they must decide whether the threshold to report has been reached. This can usually be achieved by having an experienced child interviewer talk to the child in question and observe their behavior.

Child Neglect

Child neglect occurs when a child’s basic needs are not met (eg, food, shelter, clothing, health care, education, emotional nurturance) regardless of the circumstances leading to the lapse in care. Failure to ensure the child’s wellbeing can be classified as any of the following:

Each state is responsible for defining maltreatment within civil and criminal contexts. Therefore, child neglect can range from classification as poor parenting to criminal negligence, with no clear boundary to simplify the mandated reporter’s task of identifying and reporting suspected cases.

There are several common factors between neglect cases, including poverty, single parenthood, and parental lack of basic problem-solving skills or social competence. Mental illness, alcoholism, or drug use may impair a guardian’s judgement, which could also play a part in their neglectful behaviors. In all cases, individual assessment is still important, as situations can be ambiguous and may not actually connote neglect. 

Psychological Abuse

Types of psychological abuse include ignoring the child, rejecting the child (eg, refusing a hug, belittling accomplishments), isolating the child, and terrorizing the child (eg, threatening with physical harm). The term can also encompass a child’s exposure to intimate partner violence or community violence, verbal assaults, and over-pressuring. Additionally, it may be used refer to the presence of hostile behavior or the absence of positive parenting techniques. 

Psychological abuse, also known as emotional abuse, can often be difficult to identify because it usually occurs in private. It also does not leave any physical indicators, making it harder for mandated reporters to provide actual evidence that a child is being maltreated. However, it can have physical consequences, such as eating disorders and failure to thrive for young children.

Children suffering from psychological abuse generally have reduced cognitive and emotional function, sometimes appearing numb to their environment. Symptoms of abuse can also appear as disassociation, irritability, and avoidance of eye contact. Psychologically abused children may also have a negative view of the world and themselves. 


This article only scratches the surface of indicators that a child may need someone to step in on their behalf. And, as we mentioned, it can be difficult to identify whether or not a situation is abusive. 

If you would like more information, please refer to our textbook, Recognition of Child Abuse for the Mandated Reporter. We also have a training guide available, Child Sexual Abuse: Entry-Level Training for the Mandated Reporter.

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