Identify signs of child abuse

This page will help you to recognise the signs of child abuse and includes definitions and physical and behavioural indicators, including:

Physical child abuse

What is child abuse?

Physical child abuse is the non-accidental infliction of physical injury or harm of a child.

Examples of physical abuse may include beating, shaking or burning, assault with implements and female genital mutilation.

What are the physical indicators of physical child abuse?

Physical Indicators of physical child abuse include (but are not limited to):

  • evidence of physical injury that would not likely be the result of an accident
  • bruises or welts on facial areas and other areas of the body, (back, bottom, legs, arms and inner thighs)
  • burns from boiling water, oil or flames or burns that show the shape of the object used to make them, (iron, grill, cigarette)
  • fractures of the skull, jaw, nose and limbs, especially those not consistent with the explanation offered, or the type of injury possible at the child's age of development
  • cuts and grazes to the mouth, lips, gums, eye area, ears and external genitalia
  • bald patches where hair has been pulled out
  • multiple injuries, old and new
  • effects of poisoning
  • internal injuries.

What are the behavioural indicators of physical child abuse?

In an infant or toddler:

  • self-stimulatory behaviours, for example, rocking, head banging
  • crying excessively or not at all
  • listless and immobile and/or emaciated and pale
  • exhibits significant delays in gross motor development and coordination
  • their parent/carer is unresponsive or impatient to child's cues and unreceptive to support.

In all children, infants and toddlers:

  • disclosure of physical abuse, (by child, friend, family member)
  • inconsistent or unlikely explanation for cause of injury
  • wearing clothes unsuitable for weather conditions to hide injuries
  • wariness or fear of a parent, carer or guardian and reluctance to go home
  • unusual fear of physical contact with adults
  • fear of home, specific places or particular adults
  • unusually nervous, hyperactive, aggressive, disruptive and destructive to self and/or others
  • overly compliant, shy, withdrawn, passive and uncommunicative
  • change in sleeping patterns, fear of the dark or nightmares and regressive behaviour (bed-wetting)
  • no reaction or little emotion displayed when being hurt or threatened
  • habitual absences from the service without reasonable explanation, where regular attendance is expected
  • complaining of headaches, stomach pains or nausea without physiological basis, poor self-care or personal hygiene.

Child sexual abuse

What is child sexual abuse?

Child sexual abuse is when a person uses power or authority over a child to involve them in sexual activity.

This can include a wide range of physical and non-contact sexual activity

Physical sexual contact:

  • kissing of fondling a child in a sexual way
  • masturbation
  • fondling the child's genitals
  • oral sex
  • vaginal or anal penetration by a penis., finger or other object
  • exposure of the child to pornography.

Non-contact offences:

  • talking to a child in a sexually explicit way
  • sending sexual messages or emails to a child
  • exposing a sexual body part to a child
  • forcing a child to watch a sexual act including showing pornography to a child
  • having a child pose or perform in a sexual manner (including child sexual exploitation)
  • grooming or manipulation.

Child sexual abuse does not always involve force. In some circumstances a child may be manipulated into believing that they have brought the abuse on themselves, or that the abuse is an expression of love through a process of grooming.

What is child sexual exploitation?

Child sexual exploitation is also a form of sexual abuse where offenders use their power, (physical, financial or emotional) over a child to sexually or emotionally abuse them.

It often involves situations and relationships where young people receive something (food, accommodation, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, affection, gifts, money) in return for participating in sexual activities.

Child sexual exploitation can occur in person or online, and sometimes the child may not even realise they are a victim.

Who is most at risk of child sexual abuse?

Any child can be victim of sexual abuse, however children who are vulnerable, isolated and/or have a disability are disproportionately abused and are much more likely to become victim.

What are the physical indicators of child sexual abuse?

Physical Indicators of sexual abuse may include (but are not limited to):

  • injury to the genital or rectal area,(bruising, bleeding, discharge, inflammation or infection)
  • injury to areas of the body such as breasts, buttocks or upper thighs
  • discomfort in urinating or defecating
  • presence of foreign bodies in the vagina and/or rectum
  • sexually-transmitted infections
  • frequent urinary tract infections.

What are the behavioural indicator​s of child sexual abuse?

The behavioural indicators of sexual abuse may be, but are not limited to in an infant or toddler:

  • self-stimulatory behaviours, for example, rocking, head banging
  • crying excessively or not at all
  • listless and immobile and/or emancipated and pale
  • exhibits significant delays in gross motor development and coordination.

In all children, infants and toddlers:

  • disclosure of sexual abuse, (by child, friend, family member)
  • drawings or descriptions of stories that are sexually explicit and not age-appropriate
  • persistent and age-inappropriate sexual activity, (excessive masturbation or rubbing genitals against adults)
  • wariness or fear of a parent, carer or guardian and reluctance to go home
  • unusual fear of physical contact with adults
  • change in sleeping patterns, fear of the dark or nightmares and regressive behaviour such as bed-wetting
  • wearing clothes unsuitable for weather conditions to hide injuries
  • unusually nervous, hyperactive, aggressive, disruptive and destructive to self and/or others
  • exhibits significant delays in gross and fine motor development and coordination
  • overly compliant, shy, withdrawn, passive and uncommunicative
  • fear of home, specific places or particular adults
  • poor self-care or personal hygiene
  • complaining of headaches, stomach pains or nausea without physiological basis.

Further information about age appropriate sexual behaviour is available on DHHS website

How can I identify perpetrators of child sexual abuse?

In addition to identifying the physical and behavioural signs of sexual abuse within children, you can play a critical role in identifying signs that a staff member or member of the community may be engaging in child sexual abuse, or grooming a child for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity.

Most critically you must follow the four critical actions if you:

  • feel uncomfortable about the way an adult interacts with a child/children
  • suspect that the adult may be engaging in sexual abuse of a child/children
  • suspect that the adult is grooming the child/children for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity
  • reasonably believe that the adult is at risk of engaging in sexual behaviour with a child/children.

You must report suspected child sexual abuse, or risk of abuse regardless of any concerns about the risk to the reputation of the suspected perpetrator or service. Your report could prove critical to protecting children in your care, and a failure to report can result in criminal charges.

Who are the common perpetrators of child sexual abuse?

Child sexual abuse is most commonly perpetrated by someone who is known to, and trusted by the child (and often someone highly trusted within their family, communities, schools and/or other institutions). See advice on identifying perpetrators of child sexual abuse below.

Perpetrators can include (but are not limited to):

  • a family member (this is known as intra family abuse and can include sibling abuse)
  • a staff member, coach or other carer
  • a peer/child 10 years or more in age
  • a family friend or stranger
  • a person via a forced marriage (where a child is subject to a marriage without their consent, arranged for by their immediate or extended family- this constitutes a criminal offence and must be reported).

Unwanted sexual behaviour toward a child by a child 10 years or over can constitute a sexual offence.

What are the behavioural indicators for perpetrators?

In many cases the signs that an adult is sexually abusing or grooming a child with the intent of sexually abusing them may not be obvious. However there are a number of signs to look for.

Behaviour indicators for perpetrators of child sexual abuse include (but are not limited to) the following people.

Family member:

  • attempts by one parent to alienate their child from the other parent
  • overprotective or volatile relationship between the child and one of their parents/family members
  • reluctance by the child to be alone with one of their parents/family members.

Service staff member, contractor, volunteer, coach or other carer with any child:

  • touching a child inappropriately
  • obvious or inappropriate preferential treatment of the child, making them feel special
  • inappropriately befriending the parents and making visits to their home and offering to drive a child to or from the service
  • giving of gifts to the child
  • undermining the child's reputation, so that the child won't be believed.

With older children:

  • bringing up sexual material or personal disclosures into conversations
  • inappropriate contact (calls, emails, texts, social media)
  • having inappropriate social boundaries, (telling the potential victims about their own personal problems)

Grooming

What is grooming?

Grooming is when a person engages in predatory conduct to prepare a child for sexual activity at a later time. Grooming can include communicating and/or attempting to befriend or establish a relationship or other emotional connection with the child or their parent/carer.

Sometimes it is hard to see when someone is being groomed until after they have been sexually abused, because some grooming behaviour can look like "normal" caring behaviour.

Examples of grooming behaviours may include:

  • giving gifts or special attention to a child or their parent or carer (this can make a child or their parent feel special or indebted)
  • controlling a child (or that child's parents) through threats, force or use of authority (this can make a child or their parent fearful to report unwanted behaviour)
  • making close physical contact or sexual contact, such as inappropriate tickling and wrestling
  • openly or pretending to accidentally expose the victim to nudity, sexual material and sexual acts (this in itself is classified as child sexual abuse but can also be a precursor to physical sexual assault).

What is online grooming?

Online grooming is a criminal offence and occurs when an adult uses electronic communication (including social media) in a predatory fashion to try to lower a child's inhibitions, or heighten their curiosity regarding sex, with the aim of eventually meeting them in person for the purposes of sexual activity.

This can include online chats, sexting, and other interactions. Any incidents of suspected grooming must be reported by following the four critical actions.

Online grooming can also precede online child exploitation, a form of sexual abuse where adults use the internet or a mobile to communicate sexual imagery with or of a child (via a webcam). Any incidents of suspected online child exploitation must be reported.

What are the behavioural indicators of child grooming?

Behavioural indicators that a child may be subject to grooming include (but are n​ot limited to):

  • developing an unusually close connection with an older person
  • displaying mood changes (hyperactive, secretive, hostile, aggressive, impatient, resentful, anxious, withdrawn, depressed)
  • using street/different language; copying the way the new 'friend' may speak; talking about the new 'friend' who does not belong to his/her normal social circle
  • possessing gifts, money and expensive items given by the 'friend'
  • being excessively secretive about their use of communications technologies, including social media
  • being dishonest about where they've been and whom they've been with.​

Emotional child abuse

What is emotional abuse?

Emotional child abuse occurs when a child is repeatedly rejected, isolated or frightened by threats, or by witnessing family violence.

It also includes hostility, derogatory name-calling and put-downs, and persistent coldness from a person, to the extent that the child suffers, or is likely to suffer, emotional or psychological harm to their physical or developmental health. Emotional abuse may occur with or without other forms of abuse.

What are the physical indicators of emotional child abuse?

Physical indicators of emotional abuse include (but are not limited to):

  • language delay, stuttering or selectively being mute (only speaking with certain people or in certain situations)
  • delays in emotional, mental or physical development.

What are the behavioural indicators of emotional child abuse?

Behavioural indicators of emotional abuse include (but are not limited to):

In an infant or toddler:

  • self-stimulatory behaviours, for example, rocking, head banging
  • crying excessively or not at all
  • listless and immobile and/or emancipated and pale
  • exhibits significant delays in gross motor development and coordination
  • their parent/carer is unresponsive or impatient to child's cues and unreceptive to support.

In all children, infants and toddlers:

  • overly compliant, passive and undemanding behaviour
  • extremely demanding, aggressive and attention-seeking behaviour or anti-social and destructive behaviour
  • low tolerance or frustration
  • poor self-image and low self-esteem
  • unexplained mood swings, depression, self-harm
  • behaviours that are not age-appropriate, e.g. overly adult, or overly infantile
  • exhibits significant delays in gross and fine motor development and coordination
  • poor social and interpersonal skills
  • violent drawings or writing
  • lack of positive social contact with other children.

Neglect

What is neglect?

Neglect includes a failure to provide the child with

  • an adequate standard of nutrition
  • medical care
  • clothing
  • shelter
  • supervision

to the extent that the health or physical development of the child is significantly impaired or placed at serious risk.

In some circumstances the neglect of a child:

  • can place the child's immediate safety and development at serious risk
  • may not immediately compromise the safety of the child, but is likely to result in longer term cumulative harm.

This includes low-to-moderate concerns for the wellbeing of a child, such as:

  • concerns due to conflict within a family
  • parenting difficulties
  • isolation of a family or a lack of apparent support

Both forms of neglect must be responded to via the Four Critical Actions for Early Childhood Services.

What are the physical indicators of neglect?

Physical indicators of neglect include (but are not limited to):

  • appearing consistently dirty and unwashed
  • being consistently inappropriately dressed for weather conditions
  • being at risk of injury or harm due to consistent lack of adequate supervision from parents
  • being consistently hungry, tired and listless
  • having unattended health problems and lack of routine medical care
  • having inadequate shelter and unsafe or unsanitary conditions.

What are the behavioural indicators of neglect?

Behaviour indicators of neglect include (but are not limited to):

In an infant or toddler:

  • self-stimulatory behaviours, for example, rocking, head banging
  • crying excessively or not at all
  • listless and immobile and/or emancipated and pale
  • exhibits significant delays in gross motor development and coordination
  • inadequate attention to the safety of the home (e.g. dangerous medicines left where children may have access to them)
  • being left unsupervised, either at home, on the street or in a car
  • their parent/carer is unresponsive or impatient to child's cues and unreceptive to support
  • developmental delay due to lack of stimulation.

In all children, infants and toddlers:

  • being left with older children or persons who could not reasonably be expected to provide adequate care and protection
  • gorging when food is available or inability to eat when extremely hungry
  • begging for, or stealing food
  • appearing withdrawn, listless, pale and weak
  • aggressive behaviour, irritability
  • little positive interaction with parent, carer or guardian
  • indiscriminate acts of affection and excessive friendliness towards strangers
  • exhibits significant delays in gross and fine motor development and coordination
  • poor, irregular or non-attendance at the service (where regular attendance is expected)
  • refusal or reluctance to go home
  • self-destructive behaviour
  • taking on an adult role of caring for parent.

Family violence

What is family violence?

Family violence is behaviour towards a family member that may include:

  • physical violence or threats of violence
  • verbal abuse, including threats
  • emotional or psychological abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • financial and social abuse.

A child's exposure to family violence constitutes child abuse. This exposure can be very harmful and may result in physical harm and long-term physical, psychological and emotional trauma. Action must be taken to protect the child, and to mitigate or limit their trauma.

Research shows that during pregnancy and when families have very young babies:

  • there is an increased risk of family violence
  • pre-existing family violence may increase in severity
  • there is an opportunity for intervention as families are more likely to have contact with services.

The longer that a child experiences or is exposed to family violence, the more harmful it is. This is why if you suspect that a child is exposed to, or at risk of being exposed to family violence, you must follow the four critical actions.

Family violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

In identifying family violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities it is important to recognise that:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family violence may relate to relationships that aren't captured by the Western nuclear family model (grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins and other community and culturally defined relationships)
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family violence can also include cultural and spiritual abuse
  • perpetrators of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family violence may not be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family violence occurs in a historical context of colonisation, dispossession, and the loss of culture. This has resulted in the breakdown of kinship systems and of traditional law, racism, and previous government policies of forced removal of children from families.

However, this should never detract from the legitimacy of the survivor's experience of violence, or your obligation to report and respond to any suspected family violence.

What are the physical indicators of family violence?

Physical indicators of family violence may include (but are not limited to):

  • speech disorders
  • delays in physical development
  • failure to thrive (without an organic cause)
  • bruises, cuts or welts on facial areas, and other parts of the body including back, bottom, legs, arms and inner thighs
  • any bruises or welts (old or new) in unusual configurations, or those that look like the object used to make the injury (such as fingerprints, handprints, buckles, iron or teeth)
  • internal injuries.

What are the behavioural indicators of family violence?

Behavourial indicators of family violence may include (but are not limited to):

In an infant or toddler:

  • self-stimulatory behaviours, for example, rocking, head banging
  • crying excessively or not at all
  • listless and immobile and/or emancipated and pale
  • exhibits significant delays in gross motor development and coordination.

In all children, infants and toddlers:

  • violent/aggressive behaviour and language
  • depression and anxiety
  • appearing nervous and withdrawn, including wariness of adults
  • difficulty adjusting to change
  • developmentally inappropriate bedwetting and sleeping disorders
  • extremely demanding, attention-seeking behaviour
  • participating in dangerous risk-taking behaviours to impress peers.
  • overly compliant, shy, withdrawn, passive and uncommunicative behaviour
  • 'acting out', such as cruelty to animals.
  • demonstrated fear of parents, carers or guardians, and of going home
  • complaining of headaches, stomach pains or nausea without physiological basis.

Children exhibiting inappropriate sexual behaviour

What is inappropriate sexual behaviour?

Inappropriate sexual behaviour includes:

Problem sexual behaviour

Problem sexual behaviour is the term used by the Victorian government and funded service providers to describe concerning sexual behaviour exhibited by children under the age of 10 years. Children under 10 years are deemed unable to consent to any form of sexual activity and cannot be held criminally responsible for their behaviour.

Sexually abusive behaviour

Sexually abusive behaviour is the term used by the Victorian Government and funded service providers to describe concerning sexual behaviour by children aged 10 years or older and under 15 years of age.

A child is considered to exhibit sexually abusive behaviour when they have used power, authority, or status to engage another party in sexual activity that is unwanted or the other party is unable to give consent.

A child who engages in sexually abusive behaviour may be in need of therapeutic treatment. It may also be an indicator that the child has been or is being sexually abused by others.

Sexually abusive behaviour may amount to a sexual offence. A sexual offence includes rape, sexual assault, indecent acts and other unwanted sexualised touching, all of which are offences under the Crimes Act 1958​.

It may be difficult to determine the nature of children's sexual behaviour, including whether the behaviour:

  • constitutes a sexual offence
  • is indicative of any underlying abuse.

Under Victorian Law:

  • children aged between 12-15 can only consent to sexual activity with a peer no more than two years their senior (therefore sexual contact led by a child with another child outside of these age parameters may amount to a sexual offence)
  • in order for a person to consent to sexual activity they have to have the capacity to understand the context and possible consequences of the act (therefore sexual contact led by a child involving a person with a cognitive impairment or affected by alcohol and other drugs may also amount to a sexual offence).

Most critically you must follow the four critical actions if:

  • you witness an incident, receive a disclosure or form a reasonable suspicion that a child has engaged in inappropriate sexual behaviour, even if you're not sure (these actions will support you to report to Victoria Police)
  • a child's inappropriate sexual behaviour leads you to form a reasonable belief that the child may be subject to abuse.

Reporting a child in need of protection or therapeutic treatment

Any member of the public is able to report concerns about inappropriate sexual behaviour to DHHS Child Protection and / or Victoria Police.

In the case of sexually abusive behaviour by a child aged between 10 – 15 years of age, DHHS Child Protection may determine that the child may be in need of therapeutic treatment. This therapeutic treatment can be provided on a voluntary basis, with the consent and support of parents / carers; or it can be ordered by a court via the making of a therapeutic treatment order.

DHHS Child Protection may make an application to the children's court for a therapeutic treatment order if it is assessed that:

  • a child is of, or above the age of 10 and under the age of 15 years; and
  • has exhibited sexually abusive behaviours.

A therapeutic treatment order must require the child to attend an appropriate treatment program to address their sexually abusive behaviours. It may also direct the child's parent(s) or carer(s) to take any necessary steps to enable the child to participate in the treatment.

Reporting to DHHS Child Protection in relation to a child who may be in need of therapeutic treatment does not replace your requirement to report possible sexual offending to Victoria Police as per the four critical actions.

Actions

When identifying child abuse, it is critical to remember that:

  • the trauma associated with child abuse can be catastrophic to the wellbeing and development of a child, and can continue after the abuse has ended
  • all concerns about the safety and wellbeing of a child, or the conduct of a staff member, contractor or volunteer should b​e acted upon as soon as practicable. Early intervention can save lives.

If physical and/or behavioural indicators lead you to suspect that a child has, or is being abused, or is at risk of abuse, you must respond as soon as practicable by following the four critical actions for early childhood services.

you believe that a child is not being abused, but you still hold concerns for their safety or wellbeing,  to determine who to consult with, when to make a report and when to engage other wellbeing professionals, see: responding to concerns about the wellbeing of a child.

Support

If you need to talk to someone, it is recommended that you speak to your manager/service provider about arranging appropriate support. You can also talk to your GP or another allied health professional, and report historical or current experiences of abuse to Victoria Police.

You can also contact Life Line on 13 11 14 or chat to someone online at Life Line​