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What every parent should know about preventing child abuse

Child laying down with a scrape on their arm

Everyone deserves to be respected, nurtured and loved. But many children and teens face a different reality. Caring adults need to be aware of the signs of child abuse and how they can help prevent it. 

The Safety, Care & Nurturing (SCAN) program at Children’s Mercy Kansas City collaborates with social workers and governmental agencies to identify, prevent and treat all forms of child abuse. We assess 3,000 children each year and work every day to make that number smaller. Our specialists are trained to evaluate possible cases of abuse and neglect and provide trauma-focused mental health services for children and families.  

Research shows children and teens are at greater risk for child abuse when:  

  • They have barriers to communication, including children under 3 and children who are non-verbal, have developmental delays or behavioral disorders, or are chronically ill. 
  • They have multiple adult caregivers. 
  • There is domestic violence and/or substance abuse in the home. 
  • Their caregivers don’t have a support network. 
  • They are born into an uninterrupted generational pattern of abuse. 
  • Their family is going through a crisis, such as unemployment, long-term illness, parental absence or divorce.  

How can parents keep kids safe from child abuse? 

  • No secrets: Teach children that no adults should be asking you to keep secrets, except for fun things like birthday parties or presents.  
  • Hold boundaries: Empower kids to enforce their own personal boundaries, including having control over who touches them.  
  • Ask for help: Parenting is hard work. Every caregiver needs help at some point, whether that’s from a trusted friend, a Children’s Mercy resource or a mental health professional. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re feeling overwhelmed. 

Warning signs that child abuse may be occurring  

Often, children are unable to tell a safe adult about abuse because of their age or developmental abilities. Sometimes they are afraid they will get in trouble or be hurt further if they report the abuse. It is also common for children to protect an abuser if it is someone they care about. Parents and concerned adults should watch for signs that a child may be experiencing a form of abuse, including:   

  • Unexplained injuries 
  • Multiple or changing explanations for injuries 
  • Acting out sexually or behaviorally 
  • Mental health issues, including depression or anxiety 
  • Clothing that is inappropriate for the weather, such as wearing turtlenecks or long sleeves in the summertime to cover bruises or marks 
  • Clinging to a caregiver the child views as safe 
  • Difficulty controlling emotions 
  • A caregiver who delays getting a child necessary medical care 
  • Social isolating, or forced isolation by a caregiver 

What should you do if you suspect a child is being abused? 

If a child has a specific injury, it’s OK to ask: “How did that happen?” But it’s important to not ask a child leading questions or try to persuade them to disclose abuse to you. It’s easy to misinterpret what a child is trying to communicate and/or unintentionally influence their understanding of what happened. Trained professionals, like those at the SCAN Clinic, know how to interview a child for accurate and developmentally appropriate disclosure.    

If a child tells you they are being abused, tell them: “Thank you for telling me. You are not in trouble, and I’m going to do what I can to get you some help.” It’s tempting to over-promise (“I’m going to fix everything!”), but instead, try to be clear, factual and follow through with action:  

  • If the child is in immediate danger, call 911 or the police department.  
  • If you think your own child is being abused, you can call the SCAN Clinic to request an exam. Depending on the circumstances, the clinic may connect you to an emergency room or child advocacy center first.   
    • A Pediatric Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner in on-call 24 hours a day. Call (800) GO MERCY – (800) 466-3729 – and ask for the SANE Resource Nurse. 
    • To contact the SCAN program, call (816) 234-3424. 
  • If you suspect someone else’s child is being abused, you can file a report with Child Protective Services. You can do this anonymously. They will check on the child within 24 hours and determine next steps, including whether the child needs to be seen by a trained medical provider. 
    • In Missouri, call 1-(800) 392-3738 
    • In Kansas, call 1- (800) 922-5330 

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Safety, Care & Nurturing (SCAN) Clinic