Identifying Child Abuse

Child abuse is a phenomenon that is a universal and societal taboo. As reflected in numerous legislative acts and philosophy central to all child protection is that the welfare of the child is paramount. Whilst having regard for the view that the best place for a child to thrive is with his/her family, any allegation of abuse must be responded to by referral to the appropriate authority.

Legal Definitions

The Children and Young Persons Act 1989 (Australia), Section 63 provides the legal definition of a child in need of protection. For the purpose of this Act a child is in need of protection if any of the following grounds exist:

The child has been abandoned by his or her parent and after reasonable inquiries:

  • the parents cannot be found; and
    no other suitable person can be found who is willing and able to care for the child
  • The child’s parents are dead or incapacitated and there is no other suitable person willing or able to care for the child;
  • The child has suffered, or is likely to suffer, significant harm as a result of physical injury and the child’s parent have not protected, or are unlikely to protect the child from harm of that type;
  • The child has suffered, or is likely to suffer significant harm as a result of sexual abuse and the child’s parents have not protected, or are unlikely to protect the child from harm of that type;
  • The child has suffered, or is likely to suffer emotional or psychological harm of such a kind that the child’s emotional and intellectual development is, or is likely to be, significantly damaged and the child’s parents have not protected, or are unlikely to protect the child from harm of that type;
  • The child’s physical development or health has been, or is likely to be, significantly harmed and the child’s parents have not provided, arranged or allowed the provision of or are unlikely to provide, arrange or allow the provision of, basic care or effective medical, surgical or other remedial care.

(South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault)

Identifying Child Abuse

There are two ways of identifying whether a child is at risk of or is being abused or neglected – disclosure and observation. Regardless of the identification method all indicators of child abuse should be taken seriously and acted upon with the child’s interest in mind.


Disclosure occurs when a child in anyway communicates that they are being hurt or frightened of a situation, location or person. Although this may not always be due to abuse or neglect, it is vital that counsellor listens carefully and always believes what they are told. In such a situation a counsellor may experience feelings of anger, sadness etc. This is a natural response.

However for the benefit of the child it is critical for the counsellor to remain calm and deal with their emotions at a later time. It is also important that in suspected cases of child abuse that the counsellor does not promise to the child that they will keep the information a secret, as in areas of child abuse client confidentiality should be overlooked for the welfare of the child.

At the initial stage of receiving disclosure about abuse, the counsellor has three main responsibilities:

Respond to the child in a reassuring manner. Ways of doing this include:

  1. Telling the child they have done the right thing by telling someone
  2. Telling the child that what has happened is not their fault
  3. Telling the child that you are here to help them

Collect information which can be passed on to appropriate government departments. This should be noted from what the child tells you willingly without pressing for information.

Assessing the current risk of abuse to the child. This will vary depending on the information disclosed and any known history of the child and his/her family.


More commonly than disclosure, are observable emotional, physical or behavioural signs that a child is abused or neglected. These signs will vary depending on factors such as the age of the child, the type of abuse, the relationship of the perpetrator etc.

Kidscape has compiled the following list of some of the signs of different types of abuse. Some signs of physical child abuse include:

  • Burns, bite marks, cuts, bruises or welts in the shape of an object
  • Resistance to going home
  • Fear of adults

Some signs of emotional child abuse include:

  • Apathy, depression
  • Hostility
  • Difficultly concentrating

Some signs of sexual child abuse include:

  • Inappropriate interest in or knowledge of sexual acts
  • Seductiveness
  • Avoidance of things related to sexuality, or rejection of own body
  • Either over compliance or excessive aggression
  • Fear of a particular person or family member

Some signs of child neglect include:

  • Clothing unsuited to the weather
  • Being dirty or unbathed
  • Extreme hunger
  • Apparent lack of supervision

It should also be noted that clusters of these signs also occur.