Signs of child abuse and what you can do to help

Signs of child abuse and what you can do to help
PHOTO: Berita Harian
W.T.M. Why This Matters
The number of child abuse cases in Singapore is on the rise, from 551 cases in 2015 to 873 cases in 2016. Learning about signs of child abuse and what you can do about it helps you to detect such cases earlier and prevent worse things from happening.

The recent incident of a man who subjected his step-daughter to physical and psychological abuse for two months brought the serious topic of child abuse to light.

According to Mayo Clinic, child abuse is defined as the intentional mistreatment of a child, including physical, sexual, emotional, medical abuse and neglect. 

Often times, a child is abused by someone whom he or she is familiar with and trusts, such as a parent or a relative. 

AsiaOne spoke to Ms Siti Noor Adilla, a social worker from Big Love Child Protection Specialist Centre - which specialises in working with children and families to raise child protection concerns within the community - to find out how to identify whether a child is abused and what steps can be done to help children who are believed to be abused.

Signs of an abused child

While most cases of child abuse may be easily spotted by observable external injuries, physical signs may be deliberately hidden at times and cases of psychological abuse is even more elusive. 

According to Ms Siti, apart from apparent physical indicators, child abuse may be detected through a child's display of unusual behaviors, like frozen watchfulness, excessive aggression, and hiding or excessive consumption of food.

Emotionally, the child may become very attention-seeking or clingy and display fear of their caregivers or that of going home. 

When there is sexual abuse, the child may exhibit sexualised behaviours or knowledge of sexual matters at an appropriate age.

Besides, the child may have a low self-esteem and appear to have difficulties trusting and forming attachments to others.

Of course, these indicators may not necessarily point to child abuse, but they should alert us to be wary and find out more about the child's circumstances at home to provide help or support if needed, said Ms Siti.

Signs of the child abuser

Signs of child abuse may not only be apparent in the victim but in the parents or caregivers too.

From her experience, Ms Siti revealed that because some parents or caregivers are too caught up with their own issues and needs, they are observed to be somewhat emotionally unavailable. They are seen to be not connected with the child and are not able to give the child the love and attention the child deserves.

Some may also not be attuned to the needs of a child and hence unable to provide the appropriate responses to them when necessary. They may not be able to understand that the child has certain emotional needs that they needed to attend to.

Signs of child abuse may not only be apparent in the victim but in the parents or caregivers too.

Moreover, the parents or caregivers may also be obsessively focused on the negative behaviour of the child and take steps to correct those, but never give praise towards positive behaviors. They may also take out their anger and frustrations on the child due to unrelated matters such as financial or marital issues.

Negative comments may be exclusively said to the child to make him/her feel worthless. Some even go to the extent of threatening their child and making him or her constantly afraid.

It is, however, important to note the intensity and frequency of such behaviour in the parents or caregiver and check in with them for more details in order to render the appropriate support.

What can we do?

When suspicion of child abuse arises, members of the public may report the suspected case to the police, Family Service Centres, Child Protective Specialist Centres, or the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) with details (i.e. instances of child abuse and contact details of the child and family).

When a report is received, all possible details of the case will be collected from the person who made the report and other relevant institutions, such as the school or student/child care centres.

The information would then be checked through by assessment tools such as the Child Abuse Reporting Guide (CARG). The guide helps to deduce the severity of the child abuse case and determines if the case should be referred for statutory interventions.

According to Ms Siti, the trend of child abuse cases remains largely consistent over the years, with cases of physical abuse being more common, followed by child neglect.

Cases with only emotional or psychological abuse remain low, said Ms Siti. This is because those forms of abuse usually co-exist with other forms of abuse, such as physical, sexual abuse and even neglect.

There is, however, an increasing number of cases reported to and investigated by the MSF over the past one year. At Big Love - the centre is part of  Montfort Care, a social services organisation with a network of programs providing community-based support - there is even a two-fold increase in the number of cases requiring their service.

While more horrifying cases of child abuse may be identified easily, many other cases may still be hidden behind walls, with terrified children suffering in silence.

"Children often don't have a voice in society. If you suspect a child is being abused, do something, tell someone," said Ms Siti.

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