Child Abuse: A Painful Secret

This publication examines causes and prevention of child abuse.

Gail L. Brand and Marilyn S. Fox
Extension Educators

Child abuse was not recognized as a serious problem in the United States until the 1960s. In 2004 almost 1,900,000 child abuse and neglect cases were reported in the U.S. Of those cases almost 480,000 (25.7 percent) were confirmed. Some statistics related to those cases include:

In Nebraska in 2005, approximately 14,000 cases of child abuse and neglect were investigated. Of those investigated a little over 3,000 Nebraska cases were substantiated. Cases could include more than one child, depending upon the size of the family. According to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services Office of Protection and Safety (2005):

In some cases, more than one type of abuse was involved.

Nebraska Child Abuse Law

A person commits child abuse if he or she knowingly, intentionally or negligently causes or permits a minor child to be:

(a) placed in a situation that endangers his or her life or physical or mental health;
(b) cruelly confined or cruelly punished;
(c) deprived of necessary food, clothing, shelter, or care;
(d) placed in a situation to be sexually exploited by allowing, encouraging, or forcing such minor child to solicit for or engage in prostitution, debauchery, public indecency, or obscene or pornographic photography, films, or depictions; or
(e) placed in a situation to be sexually abused as defined in section 28-319, 28-319.01, or 28-320.01 (Sec. 15, Section 28-707 Nebraska Revised Statutes).

What is Child Abuse and Neglect?

Any action or lack of action that in any way may endanger or impair a child’s emotional, physical or psychological health and development is considered child abuse. There are several forms of abuse.

Neglect is just as detrimental to children’s well-being as is abuse. Neglect occurs when a child is deprived of essential needs.

Factors Leading To Child Abuse and Neglect

Why does child abuse and neglect occur? There is no one single cause. It occurs in all types of families regardless of race, culture, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or religious group. Research does indicate that several risk factors are commonly associated with child abuse and neglect. Earlier findings closely mirror more recent theories which the Child Welfare Information Gateway suggests can be organized into four main systems: 1) the family, 2) the child, 3) the community, and 4) the society. (2007, http://www.childwelfare.gov/preventing/overview/risk.cfm)

Family Characteristics

Those factors in the family system which place children at a high risk for maltreatment are:

Child Characteristics

Children are not responsible for the abuse they receive, but some of their characteristics are associated with higher risk:

Community Characteristics

National studies have linked several community factors with increased child abuse and neglect:

Society Characteristics

Although this factor is the least understood and researched, it is thought there are social factors which might be linked:

Signs of Child Abuse and Neglect

There are numerous indications in the child’s appearance or behavior that raise the possibility that child abuse or neglect has occurred or might occur. These signs individually are not predictors of child abuse, but if several are evident, suspicion of abuse may be warranted.

Child’s Appearance

Child’s Behavior

Signs of Child Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is usually perpetrated by relatives or family members. A report from the U.S. Department of Justice indicated that girls are significantly more likely (more than six times) than boys to be victims of sexual abuse. Further, it indicated that males are significantly more likely to be perpetrators of sexual abuse/assault (96 percent of cases reported to law enforcement). The most common assault victims for female offenders (12 percent) were children under the age of 6 while male offenders perpetrated 88 percent of the sexual abuse/assaults for children in this same age group.

Child’s Appearance

Child’s Behavior

Impact of Child Abuse

Effects of Physical and Verbal Abuse

Reviews of research on the effects of child abuse suggest the following:

  1. Abused children tend to exhibit aggression, low self-esteem, depression and low academic achievement.
  2. Severely abused children suffer more from intellectual deficits, communication problems and learning disabilities.
  3. Adults who were physically abused as children may exhibit low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies, unhappiness, increased risk of alcohol abuse and are less able to intimately bond with others.
  4. Physical injuries sustained by child abuse cause pain, disfigurement and scarring, physical disability and death.

Effects of Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse has serious, negative long-term consequences:

  1. Among adolescent females, sexual abuse is associated with lower self-esteem, higher levels of depression, antisocial behavior (e.g., running away, illegal drug use) and suicide attempts.
  2. The most devastating effects of being sexually abused occur when the sexual abuse is forceful, prolonged and involves intercourse, and when the abuse was perpetrated by the father or stepfather.
  3. Sexually abused girls are more likely to experience teenage pregnancy.
  4. Fear, guilt, shame, sleep disturbances and eating disorders have been associated with child sexual abuse.
  5. Adult males who were sexually abused as children by their mothers revealed several problems, including difficulty establishing intimate relationships, depression and substance abuse.
  6. Sexually abused males tended to develop negative self-perceptions, anxiety disorders, sleep and eating disturbances and sexual dysfunctions.

If You Suspect Child Abuse

If you observe or suspect child abuse or neglect, report it immediately to local law enforcement or the local Department of Health and Human Services office. Nebraska Statute 28-711 says: (1) When any physician, medical institution, nurse, school employee, social worker, or any other person has reasonable cause to believe that a child has been subjected to abuse or neglect or observes such child being subjected to conditions or circumstances which reasonably would result in abuse or neglect, he or she shall report such incident or cause a report to be made to the proper local law enforcement agency, the local Department of Health and Human Services or by calling the statewide hotline number at 1-800-652-1999.

You are not required to give your name. However, you will be asked to provide your name so that, if necessary, the child protective services worker can request additional information. You are protected from liability, provided that the report is made in good faith. Your report is confidential. It may only be released to law enforcement or to a court involving a judicial proceeding.

Nebraska Statute 28-716 says: Persons participating in an investigation or making a report of child abuse or neglect shall be immune from any liability, civil or criminal, that might otherwise be incurred or imposed, except for maliciously false statements.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is required by law to investigate all reports of suspected child abuse and neglect. HHS and law enforcement work together on reports and law enforcement also may conduct an investigation. Due to the confidential and delicate nature of such situations, the person who reports an incidence of abuse cannot be informed of the action taken or of the result of the report.

Nebraska Statute 28-717 says: Any person who willfully fails to make any report required by the law shall be guilty of a Class III misdemeanor. This means: 1) that if you suspect child abuse or neglect, you must report it, 2) you should give as much information about the circumstances as possible, 3) you are immune from suit from any civil or criminal liability, and 4) if you know of abuse but are not reporting it, you are breaking the law.

Combating Child Abuse

There are many ways individuals and communities can work together to prevent child abuse and neglect. Two approaches are: the punitive approach, which views abuse and neglect as crimes for which parents or other adults should be punished, and the intervention approach, which views abuse as a family problem requiring learning appropriate parenting and child development skills and therapy. Usually a combination is used in preventing and treating child abuse.

Those who support the punitive approach believe that one or both parents should be held clearly (i.e. legally) responsible for abusing a child. The abuser should be tried in a court of law, and if convicted, suffer the penalty of violating the law. According to Nebraska statutes:

  1. child abuse is a Class I misdemeanor if the offense is committed negligently;
  2. child abuse is a Class IIIA felony if the offense is committed knowingly and intentionally and does not result in serious bodily injury;
  3. child abuse is a Class III felony if the offense is committed knowing and intentionally and results in serious bodily injury; and
  4. child abuse is a Class IB felony if the offense is committed knowingly and intentionally and results in death of such child.

The intervention approach may involve several interrelated strategies which may be either recommended or required:

Research has shown other protective factors also can be successful interventions. Those linked to lower incidence of child abuse and neglect include nurturing and attachment. Through home visits, support groups and classes, parents can learn strategies to develop a bond with their child. Building a bond helps a parent be more attentive and responsive and builds communications.

Helping parents build a social connection or network lessens the feelings of social isolation and perceived lack of support that have been linked to child abuse and neglect. Supportive family and community members can serve as a resource and help parents expand their social network. Parents also need concrete support beyond the parent-child relationship. Food, shelter, transportation, clothing, medical help and access to essential services that help fulfill those needs are critical.

If you are a parent or caretaker under stress and are at risk for abusing a child:

If you are abusing alcohol or drugs, remove yourself from the area and seek help by calling the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Helpline at 800-252-6465.


Maltreatment of children is an insidious and destructive behavior pattern with both short-term and long-term consequences. The community, its organizations, churches, and people must get involved. If they are unwilling to get involved, the abuse will continue. If it continues, it gets worse and children will die or suffer permanent physical or emotional injury. The abusing parent or caregiver may go to jail or the family may break up; however, none of this needs to happen. The child must be able to live and grow in a nurturing environment. Most abusive adults know that hurting children is not acceptable and the abuse must stop. Reporting usually stops the abuse, and it forces the caregiver to get professional assistance and to learn more age-appropriate parenting skills. To prevent child abuse and neglect it is important to remember these ten most powerful two-letter words: If it is to be, it is up to me!


Beitchman, J.H., K.J. Zuker, J.E. Hood, G.A. daCosta, and E. Cassvia. (1992). A review of the long-term effects of child abuse. Child Abuse and Neglect, 19, 101-119.

Center for the Study of Social Policy. (2003). Protective factors literature review: Early care and education programs and the prevention of child abuse and neglect. Washington, D.C. www.cssp.org/uploadFiles/horton.pdf

Gelles, R.J. (1991). Domestic violence and sexual abuse of children: A review of research in the eighties. In A. Booth (Ed.), Contemporary families: Looking forward, looking back (pp. 327-340). Minneapolis: National Council on Family Relations.

Lloyd, S.A. & Emory, B.C. (1993). Abuse in the family: An ecological, life-cycle perspective. Family Relations: Challenges for the Future, T.H. Brubaker, ed. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Snyder, H.N. (2000). Sexual assault of young children as reported to law enforcement: Victim, incident, and offender characteristics. U. S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. (2006). Child maltreatment 2004. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved April 2006 from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/pubs/cm04/index.htm


This is a major revision of the original NebGuide by this title, which was written by Herbert G. Lingren, Extension Family Specialist, and published in 1996.

Visit the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension Publications Web site for more publications.
Index: Families
1996, Revised January 2008

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