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What is Child Abuse?

Neglect and emotional abuse, especially being exposed to domestic violence, are two of the most common forms of child abuse in Alaska. Child abuse is broken down into four categories: 1) neglect 2) emotional abuse 3) physical abuse and 4) sexual abuse. There is a path from being terrorized as a child to bullying and terrorizing as an adolescent and adult. Children who witness violence in their homes are more likely to become batterers or victims of spousal or sexual abuse. Children who experience child abuse and neglect are also much more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, arrested as an adult, or commit violent crimes. 



Intentional physical injury that harms or threatens a child's health or welfare. These types of injuries are not accidental and can include hair pulling, bruises, confinement or restraint, severe beatings or burns, human bites, strangulation, broken bones, scars, and serious internal injuries. It includes excessive discipline or punishment not suited to a child's age or condition. Spanking at an appropriate level is not considered abuse under Alaskan laws. Physical abuse does not always leave visible marks. If there are unexplained injuries, or inconsistent or implausible explanations for injuries, it is important to report suspected abuse. Fifty percent of fatal child abuse cases have physical signs that show up in the months proceeding the death—it is important that adults notice these signs and take action.


Failure to care for a child, including neglect of the necessary physical (food, shelter, clothing and medical attention), emotional, mental, and social needs. 

Neglect and poverty are often confused with each other. Neglect however, is a pattern of not providing a safe place to sleep, caring for hygiene needs, or not providing adequate nutrition. Neglect also includes not attending to a medical condition, leaving a child unattended for long periods of time, exposing children to alcohol and drugs, or leaving children under supervision of other children or unsafe adults.


Emotional abuse is injury to the emotional, intellectual or psychological capacity of a child, evidenced by a substantial impairment in a child's ability to function in a developmentally appropriate manner. It is a pattern of extensive ridiculing, unreasonable and constant criticism, withholding emotion, intimidation, not giving children positive emotional support or recognition. Witnessing domestic violence is a form of emotional abuse. There is a special exemption for domestic violence shelter regarding this -- if an advocate knows the child is not currently in danger (because, for instance, they are in the shelter), they do not have to report this kind of mental injury to Office of Children’s Services (OCS). 


Sexual abuse is forcing a child into sexual contact, including assault, molestation or incest. This form of abuse does not have to involve physical contact. Forcing a child to undress, look at the offender's genitals or view pornographic images is also considered sexual abuse. Molestation is the handling of the child's genitals or forcing the child handle the offender's genitals. Incest is the sexual abuse of a child by their family member or guardian; this can also extend to relatives like step-siblings, step-parents, and adoptive parents. Sexual exploitation is when a perpetrator forces a child to perform sex acts in exchange for money, drugs, or other items of value. Several studies have shown that perpetrators of child sexual abuse are often family members or adults who know the child and have frequent access to them like, coaches, babysitters, teachers, etc.


Many signs and symptoms are similar across different types of abuse. Examples include:


  • Wariness of adults

  • Apprehensiveness when other children cry 

  • Behavioral extremes--aggressiveness or withdrawal from peers and adults

  • Fear of parents or fear of going home

  • Reenacting verbally abusive situations or repetitive play about violent events

  • Eating and/or sleeping disorders

  • Decline in academic performance

  • Hyperactivity and hyper vigilance

  • Memory loss

  • Severe separation anxiety inappropriate for the child's age

  • Regression of skills and behaviors relative to age (thumb-sucking, temper tantrums, 

  • Constant worry about danger or about safety of loved ones

  • Emotional numbing and inability to feel remorse 

  • Using bullying or aggression to control others

  • Abuse of animals

  • Recurring stomachaches, headaches, or other body aches and pains with no reasonable explanation (could be caused by undue stress)

  • Self-destructive behaviors (drugs/alcohol, suicidal gestures, vandalism)  


Physical abuse may or may not have physical signs. Any welts, bruises, or other injuries inconsistent with their age or developmental ability should be seen by a doctor right away. 


Children who are neglected may be consistently underdressed for the weather, hungry,  or have unmet medical needs. They may also be excessively tired if they do not have a safe place to sleep. 


Other indicators often associated with sexual abuse are: 


  • Excessive or unusual rubbing of genitals (their own or others)

  • Familiarity with sexual terms and activity beyond the child's age and level of development  

  • Excessive and/or inappropriate physical contact our sexual exploration with other children or adults, that continues despite requests to stop

  • Sexual promiscuity or unusually seductive behavior

  • Child sexually perpetrates on other children

  • Child’s sexual behaviors increase in frequency, intensity, violence, etc., over time

  • Sexually Transmitted Infections or Urinary Tract Infections


In the US alone, at least 6 million children are either victims of or witnesses to physical abuse, domestic violence, or violence in the community each year. Neglect occurs in over 75% of child abuse cases, either alone or in conjunction with another form of abuse. A report of child abuse is made every ten seconds and five children die every day from child abuse. Over fifty percent of homeless children are homeless because their mother is escaping an abusive environment. 


Many parents in unhealthy relationships believe the abuse or violence only impacts them, because their child never directly witnesses it. But 80-90% of children who live in homes with abusive parents can give detailed descriptions of violent incidents. Both perpetrators and victims of domestic violence are seventy percent more likely to abuse the children in the home. In homes with domestic violence, the rate of neglect is 15 times higher than homes without domestic violence. 


As the numbers show, child abuse is a serious problem in our country, one that is highly intertwined with domestic violence and other forms of abuse. For diagrams, go to the Child Help website. 


There is a path from being terrorized as a child to terrorizing others as an adolescent and adult. Male children who witness violence in their homes are seventy percent more likely to become batterers themselves and female children are fifty percent more likely to be victims of spousal or sexual abuse. About thirty percent of abused children will later abuse their own children. Children who experience child abuse and neglect are also much more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, arrested as an adult, or commit violent crimes.


In 1995, the Center of Disease Control identified the acronym, "ACE" or Adverse Childhood Experiences, which refers to potentially traumatizing events that are linked to toxic stress, PTSD, and poor health outcomes in children. Experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect, witnessing violence in the community, having a family member attempt or die by suicide, living with someone suffering from substance abuse and mental illness, and having a household member in jail are all categorized as an ACE.  The greater the exposure to these Adverse Childhood Experiences, the higher the risk for unsafe behaviors in teenagers and the development of chronic illnesses later in life. ACEs also negatively impact education, job opportunities, and earning potential. 


Children who grow up in abusive homes often end up living in a persistent state of fear, or a “fight or flight” state. Severe and chronic trauma causes a "Toxic Stress" response in kids, which is linked to health problems like gastrointestinal illness, chronic headaches, autoimmune disorders, and more. Children in a flight or fight state are unable to learn and function appropriately in social settings and these effects often precipitate into the community.

In recent years, there has also been an increase in research into the effects of maltreatment on early brain development, showing that the brain’s development can by physiologically altered by prolonged, severe, or unpredictable stress during a child’s early years. This impact during critical development years—ages birth to 3 years old—can negatively affect a child’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social growth. Brains affected by chronic stress have overdeveloped fear receptors, reduced complex thought regions, and may even be devoid of empathy and remorse neural pathways. 


  • Be a supportive, safe adult! This can look like being a non-judgmental confidant, keeping a child safe, and being a steady and trusted presence. A safe adult never keeps secrets or breaks physical or emotional boundaries. 

  • Let children know you are a safe adult--do Safety Planning with the youth in your life.

  • Keep updated on resources for children exposed to violence.  

  • Speak up—it’s dangerous for children to get the message that “no one cares” or “abuse is normal and acceptable.” Children need to know that violence is never their fault.

  • If a child discloses to you, report to the local or State Office of Children’s Services at 1-800-478-4444 or email at OCS is a governmental child safety organization that conducts its own investigations. See the attached guide below to help you make a call to OCS.

  • Don’t ask leading questions or try to determine for yourself if the child’s allegations are true. Let OCS substantiate claims. 

  • Believe the child and validate her or his experiences and the mixed feelings that are likely present.  

  • Do tell the child you need to tell another adult.

  • Don't make promises that can't be kept, like "this will never happen again."

  • Respect the child’s confidentiality. Only tell who needs to know, including Office of Children’s Services.

  • Teach children media literacy and healthy sexuality

  • Refer children to services like school counselors, domestic violence programs, and trauma specialists.

  • Offer support or resources to non-offending parents when it’s possible to do so safely and discreetly. 

  • Model and maintain healthy boundaries with children. Demonstrate living, healthy relationships. 

  • Make school a place where bullying and violence are not acceptable. 


Children may disclose abuse in private but it is more common for children to hint at the abuse in indirect ways. They may speak about the abuse indirectly because they haven’t learned more specific vocabulary, they may feel ashamed or embarrassed, have promised not to tell, are trying to see your initial reaction, or a combination of these reasons. Remember it is important to remain calm and open, and to avoid directing the conversation.


Children may disguise a disclosure by talking about a “friend” who has a problem. They may say they have a problem but will only talk about it if you promise not to tell. Most children are very aware of negative consequences of breaking the silence of their abuse and may have been threatened by the offender(s) if they do so. You cannot promise that you won’t tell someone — especially if you're a mandated reporter; but it's important to let the child know that you’ll only discuss the situation with the people you have to tell. 


If a child tries to interact with you on these subjects it means they are ready to talk.  Be open, respectful, and non-judgmental. Do not try to direct the conversation or ask leading questions, this can impact future investigation or confuse the child. Open-ended and non-threatening questions—ones that have no right or wrong answer but require more than a yes or no answer—are good ways to get a child talking.


How a person responds when a child discloses abuse has a tremendous impact on that child and her ability to heal from what has happened to them. There are many reasons a child may be afraid to disclose, and it is our responsibility to be reaffirming and supportive. Do your best to not overreact, panic, or show shock, anger or any other strong negative emotional reaction. This child is terrified -- you may be their only link to the world that is safe and sane. It is important to find a quiet place to talk, let the child take their time, and actively listen to what they are saying.


  • Believe them.

  • Make sure they know you believe them.

  • Reassure them that you will get them help.

  • Make sure they are currently safe.

  • Tell them it is not their fault.

  • Tell them that the adult is the only person who did something wrong. Avoid judgmental statements, especially if alleged perpetrator is someone the child knows well and loves.

  • Tell them it took a lot of courage to disclose abuse.

  • Tell them it was the right thing to do.

  • Don’t promise to keep it a secret even if they ask; let them know the steps you have to take to get them help.

  • Be ready to listen, but don’t pry. Let them talk instead of asking a lot of questions.  It is not your place to investigate and this may affect an official case.

  • Let them talk about it as much as they want to.

  • Use the child’s vocabulary for body parts and actions.

  • Ask permission for touching them or sitting near them. Find ways to give them back the control that they have lost.

  • Care for yourself—the responsibility of reporting can be very difficult to handle.


If you suspect that a child is experiencing abuse or neglect, SAFV urges you to report it. It is not your responsibility to determine whether your suspicions are correct, to confront the abuse, or to investigate. If you make a report in good faith, you are immune from any civil or criminal liability. 
If you have reason to believe that a child is in immediate danger, call 911. To report child abuse, call the Office of Children's Services (OCS): 1-800-478-4444. SAFV staff can support community members in making calls to OCS. If you would like support or have any questions, please contact SAFV at 907-747-3370.
SAFV employees are mandated reporters and are required by law to make reports of suspected or known abuse or neglect within 24 hours of learning about it. Check out our Mandatory Reporter Guidelines to find out what you will need to make a report. 


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