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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 themselves 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.  This injury is one that does not happen by accident.  It 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 is unrelated to poverty. It 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 an injury to the emotional well-being, intellectual or psychological capacity of a child, as evidenced by an observable and substantial impairment in the child's ability to function in a developmentally appropriate manner. It is a pattern of extensive ridiculing, unreasonable and constant criticism, withholding emotion, intimidation, out 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. Sexual assault may not involve physical contact, but the child is forced to undress or look at the offender's genitals or inappropriate images. Molestation could be the handling of the child's genitals or having the child handle the offender's genitals. Incest is penetrative sexual assault of a child when the offender is a family member or guardian. Sexual exploitation is when a child is permitted to or encouraged to prostitute themselves. Sexual assault also occurs when a child is exposed to adult sexual behaviors. Sexual abuse is usually perpetrated by a family member or someone else the child knows.


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 (beyond expectation for age group)

  • Regression of skills

  • Constant worry about danger or about safety of loved ones

  • Emotional numbing and inability to feel remorse or 

  • 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 be a doctor right away. 


Children who are neglected may be consistently inadequately dressed for the weather, hungry,  or have unmet medical needs. They may also be excessively tired if they do not have a safe or stable 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 give children die every day as the result of 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, and in a home with domestic violence rates of neglect are 15 times higher than the national average. 


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 being a terrorizing and bullying adolescent and adult. Children who witness violence in their homes are also seventy percent more likely to become batterers themselves if they are male and fifty percent more likely to be victims of spousal or sexual abuse if they are female. 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 addition, witnessing domestic violence or experiencing abuse, along with living with someone who is a substance abuser, is mentally ill, or has been in prison, are deemed “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs. Ongoing studies on ACEs shows immediate and longterm health and social impacts of experiencing stressors such as witnessing or experiencing abuse. The more exposure there is in childhood to these traumatic and toxic stressors, the higher risk there is for that person to practice risky behaviors starting as a teenagers and have chronic diseases and substance abuse later in life.


Even without longterm emotional and physical impacts, 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 toxic stress in kids. Toxic stress damages kid’s brains. When trauma or triggers launches kids into flight or fight mode, they cannot learn. It is physiologically impossible. The fear manifests at school, in social situations, and with family, and affects the whole 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! Offer respite from the unpredictability of abuse and neglect by providing structure and routine, being positive and trustworthy, and available to talk. 

  • 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, call SAFV or report to the local or State Office of Children’s Services.  OCS is a governmental child safety organization that makes its own investigations; the regional office for Sitka is located in Juneau (866-622-1650). See the attached guide to help you make a call to OCS (attachment)

  • 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 for services with 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 and be direct, but more commonly there are indirect and broad hints. They may talk in these terms because they haven’t learned more specific vocabulary, they feel ashamed or embarrassed, have promised not to tell, are trying to see how you will react to the information, or a combination of these reasons. It’s important to use the child’s vocabulary as you ask them for more specifics, but you do not need to pry and should not lead the discussion. 


Children may also disguise a disclosure by talking about a “friend” who has a problem. Encourage the child to tell you about the “other child,” to determine who they are actually talking about.  Finally, children 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 if they break the silence of abuse, and may have been threatened by an offender. You cannot promise that you won’t tell—let the child know that the law requires you to disclose abuse, but you’ll only discuss it with the people you have to tell. 


If a child tries to interact with you on these subjects—even if they are being indirect—it means they are ready to talk. You must turn your radar up to maximum and "hear" what they are trying to say. Do not try to direct the conversation—they may try to tell you what they think you want to hear, which can prejudice a later investigation. 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. These kinds of questions may help the child to loosen up and feel freer to talk to you about what is happening to them: 


"What is your favorite color?"  

"What is your favorite class in school?"  

"What is your favorite thing to do with your mom?"  

"What do you do when you are happy?"  

"What do you do when you are sad?"


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 her. There are many reasons a child may be afraid to disclose, and it is our responsibility to be reaffirming and supportive. Do 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 tell the truth.

  • 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 our place to investigate and this may affect the official case.

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

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

  • Ask permission for touching them or sitting near them. Find ways to give them back 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. In fact, you should NOT 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 Southeast Alaska Regional Office of Children's Services (OCS): 888-622-1650. 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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