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Recognizing Signs of Abuse

Here are some of the most common signs of abuse. The signs and indicators of abuse and neglect may include but are not limited to those that follow. It is important to realize that the presence of any one indicator is not conclusive proof that a child has been abused. In most instances, abused children will exhibit a number of behavioural and physical indicators. It's not your responsibility to determine whether a child is being abused. Call your local Children's Aid to report known or suspected signs and indicators of abuse (not in our area? Locate a Children's Aid Near You).


Most parents and caregivers don't intend to neglect their children. Instead, neglect is usually the result of ignorance about parenting and an inability to plan ahead. When a caregiver fails to provide a child's basic needs like food, sleep, safety, supervision, appropriate clothing or medical treatment on a consistent basis - that's neglect.

Children suffering from neglect are often pale, listless and unkempt. They frequently miss school and may show up dressed inappropriately or in dirty clothes. The signs and indicators of abuse and neglect may include but are not limited to:

Behavioural indicators

  • Pale, listless, unkempt
  • Frequent absences from school
  • Inappropriate clothing for the weather, dirty clothes
  • Engaged in delinquent acts, alcohol/drug abuse
  • Frequently forgets a lunch

Physical indicators

  • Poor hygiene
  • Unattended physical problems or medical needs, e.g. dental work, glasses
  • Consistent lack of supervision

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is when a child is injured or harmed by his or her caregiver, or when the caregiver fails to do something to protect the child. Injuries include bruises, cuts, burns, and fractures. Children who are physically abused often can't remember how injuries happened or they offer inconsistent stories when questioned. They might be wary of adults and extremely aggressive or extremely withdrawn. More signs and indicators of physical abuse:

Injuries may include:

bruises, welts, cuts, fractures, burns or internal injuries. Physical abuse can be one or two isolated incidents or can occur over a prolonged period of time. The signs and indicators of abuse and neglect may include but are not limited to those that follow.

Behavioural indicators

  • Cannot recall how injuries occurred or offers an inconsistent explanation
  • Wary of adults
  • May cringe or flinch if touched unexpectedly
  • Infants may display a vacant stare
  • Extremely aggressive or extremely withdrawn
  • Indiscriminately seeks affection
  • Extremely compliant and/or eager to please

Physical indicators

  • Injuries that are not consistent with explanation
  • Presence of several injuries that are in various stages of healing
  • Presence of various injuries over a period of time
  • Facial injuries in infants and preschool children
  • Injuries inconsistent with the child's age and developmental phase

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse happens when a caregiver treats a child in an extremely negative way that damages self esteem and the concept of "self." This type of behaviour might include constant yelling, demeaning remarks, rejection or isolation or exposing a child to domestic violence.

Emotional abuse can be difficult to identify, but some behavioural indicators include inhibition in play, severe depression and extreme withdrawal or aggressiveness. Children may complain of headaches, nausea or abdominal pain. The signs and indicators of abuse and neglect may include but are not limited to:

Behavioural indicators

  • Severe depression
  • Extreme withdrawal or aggressiveness
  • Overly compliant, too well mannered, too neat or clean
  • Extreme attention seeking
  • Displays extreme inhibition in play

Physical indicators

  • Bed wetting that is non-medical in origin
  • Frequent psychosomatic complaints, headaches, nausea, abdominal pains
  • Child fails to thrive

Sexual abuse*

Sexual abuse is any sexual exploitation of a child by a caregiver or someone else and includes sexual touching, engaging in sexual activity with a child, exposing genitals to a child and incest. Physical signs that a child has been sexually abused include excessive itching in the genital or anal areas, torn, stained or bloody underwear and injuries to the genital area. Behavioural signs include age inappropriate sexually explicit drawings, displaying sexual acts or unusual sexual knowledge. The signs and indicators of abuse and neglect may include but are not limited to:

Behavioural indicators

  • Age inappropriate play of a sexual nature with toys, self or others
  • Age inappropriate sexually explicit drawing and/or descriptions
  • Bizarre, sophisticated or unusual sexual knowledge
  • Prostitution
  • Seductive behaviours

Physical indicators

  • Unusual or excessive itching in the genital or anal area
  • Torn, stained or bloody underwear (may be observed if the child needs bathroom assistance)
  • Pregnancy
  • Injuries to the genital or anal areas, e.g. bruising, swelling or infection
  • Venereal disease

*In addition to providing protection from sexual abuse, the Child and Family Services Act states that a child is also in need of protection when a caregiver is aware of the possibility of abuse and fails to protect the child.

From the OACAS website

Recognizing Signs of Abuse

Deciding whether or not a child is being abused or neglected can be a difficult and complex decision that Children's Aid Society social workers face every day. There are many questions that must be addressed: Is this child at risk? Can this child be protected through support and counseling for the family? Should this child be removed from the home? Are there family members or friends who could care for the child other than a foster home?

In the early 1990's, Children's Aid Societies throughout Ontario developed the "Eligibility Spectrum" to help social workers make consistent and accurate decisions about child welfare intervention at the time of referral. This tool is now a part of the more comprehensive Ontario Risk Assessment Model that the Provincial Ministry of Community and Social Services has made mandatory for use by all of Ontario's Children's Aid Societies since April 2000. The goal of the Risk Assessment Model is to provide a consistent and dependable response pattern to child abuse and neglect throughout the province that is consistent with the Ontario Child and Family Services Act and its regulations.

  • What kind of authority do CAS workers have?
  • Read an example of how the Eligibility Spectrum is used by the CAS in cases of suspected abuse
  • How long do children stay in the care of a Children's Aid Society?