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What Adults Need To Know About Child Abuse

OVC Help Series for Crime Victims - What Adults Need To Know About Child AbuseThe Facts About Child Abuse

Child abuse isn’t something that only happens to little children: 32 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds in the United States are abused or neglected in their lifetimes, and 28 percent are sexually victimized.1

During 2009, 763,000 children in the United States were victims of maltreatment. Of these, 62 percent were victims of neglect, 14 percent were physically abused, 8 percent were sexually abused, and 6 percent were psychologically maltreated.2

Fifty-one percent of child abuse or neglect victims were girls and 49 percent were boys.3

During 2009, approximately 1,770 children ages 1 to 17 died as a result of maltreatment. Infants and toddlers (birth to age 3) accounted for 80 percent of these child fatalities.4

In 2009, approximately 81 percent of child abusers were parents. Other relatives accounted for an additional 4.5 percent, and unmarried partners of parents accounted for 2.5 percent.5

What Is Child Abuse?

Child abuse can be physical, sexual, or emotional. Neglect—the failure to provide for a child’s basic physical and emotional needs—is also a form of child abuse. In homes where child abuse occurs, fear, instability, and confusion may replace the love, comfort, and nurturing that children need. Although child abuse may not always lead to serious physical injury, it often results in serious emotional harm and may have long-lasting effects.

As an adult you may encounter a child who has been hurt by abuse. Regardless of your role in that child’s life—parent, teacher, coach, neighbor, family member—you can help. Children who have experienced abuse need caring adults to help them recognize it’s not their fault, to provide support, and to help them grow into healthy adults. Whether it’s helping to protect a child or helping a child to heal and thrive, you can make a difference in a child’s life.

What Should You Know About Child Abuse?

Child abuse is seldom a single event. It usually occurs with regularity, often increasing in severity and in conjunction with other types of abuse and neglect. Child abuse happens in every community, rural and urban, and crosses all boundaries of economics, race, ethnic heritage, and religious faith. Most often the abuser has a close relationship with the child (such as a parent, stepparent, or other caregiver). However, abuse by strangers does occur.

Abused children may live in constant fear of harm. They may feel guilty for loving the abuser or blame themselves for causing the violence. In addition to suffering direct physical injuries from the abuse, child victims may also develop physical illnesses, eating disorders, sleep disturbances, speech disorders, or developmental lags in their motor skills. They may become self-destructive.

The impact on children may not be noticeable for some time and may surface at various points throughout a child’s life. For instance, children from violent homes are at higher risk for alcohol or drug abuse and juvenile delinquency.

Abuse affects children differently, based on a number of factors, including the nature of the abuse, the age of the child, the relationship between the child and the abuser, and the child’s environment. It’s also important to know that help exists—for children and their families and friends.

What Are the Signs of Child Abuse and Neglect?

In younger children—

In older youth—

How Do I Respond to a Child Who Has Been Abused?

If a child tells you that he or she has been abused, one of the most important things you can do is stay calm. You should also—

You may not feel confident about discussing this sensitive subject with children, especially if you have never done so. Please see Tips for Talking to Children About Child Abuse for age-appropriate language to help you respond to children’s commonly asked questions about abuse and neglect.

What Else Can I do To Help?

If you suspect that a child is the victim of abuse or neglect, report your suspicions to your local child protective services agency. These professionals work to ensure that children are safe and, whenever possible, try to keep families together. If you think the child may be in immediate danger, call your local emergency number (usually 911) or your local law enforcement agency. Even though you may be reluctant to get involved, you may be the only person in a position to help a child who is being abused.

If you are a "mandated reporter"—a person in a profession such as a social worker, teacher, or child care provider—you are required by law to report suspected abuse. Laws about reporting suspected child abuse vary from state to state. For more information about laws and reporting procedures in your state, visit the Child Welfare Information Gateway Web site, hosted by the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, at

Resources for Information and Assistance

ChildHelp National Child Abuse Hotline
Crisis counselors are available to talk 24 hours/day.
1-800-4-A-CHILD or 1-800-422-4453

National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation
This Web site provides information about organizations nationwide that are working together to prevent child abuse.

National Domestic Violence Hotline
Advocates are available 24 hours/day to provide resources and support.

National Sexual Assault Hotline
This 24-hour online hotline provides free and confidential support to survivors of sexual assault and their family and friends.

This product was developed by the National Center for Victims of Crime under an agreement with ICF International in support of the Office for Victims of Crime Training and Technical Assistance Center under contract number GS–23F–8182H/OJP–2006F_124. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.


1 D. Finkelhor et al., 2009, "Violence, Abuse, and Crime Exposure in a National Sample of Children and Youth," Pediatrics 124(5).
2 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, "Statistical Briefing Book,"
3 Ibid., calculations.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.