Ethical Considerations in Identifying and Reporting Child Abuse

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Child abuse is a crucial ethical issue for mental health practitioners to understand and be competent in addressing. According to Childhelp (2018), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention and treatment of child abuse, child abuse occurs when a parent or caregiver, whether through action or failing to act, causes injury, death, emotional harm or risk of serious harm to a child (para. 1). In certain instances, child abuse can also be committed by peers or siblings. There are four distinct forms of child abuse, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect.

Physical abuse is the most common form of child abuse, with approximately 28.3% of adults reporting experiences of physical abuse in childhood (Childhelp, 2018). Physical abuse involves physical injury to a child, such as bruises, blisters, burns, cuts, scratches, broken bones, sprains, dislocation of joints, internal injuries, brain damage, or death, resulting from striking, kicking, burning, biting, hair pulling, choking, throwing, shoving, whipping or any other action that injures a child (Childhelp, 2018, para. 2). Physical abuse does not include acts of physical discipline, given that the action does not injure or impair the child. Signs of physical abuse to a child can be both physical and behavioral. Physical signs may include visible or severe injuries, any injury to a child who is not yet crawling, injuries at different stages of healing, unexplained injuries, injuries explained in a way that do not make sense, injuries with distinctives shapes, and/or patterns in frequency, timing, or history of injuries, such as after weekends, vacations, or school absences (Childhelp, 2018). Behavioral signs of physical abuse include aggression towards peers, pets, or other animals; being fearful of parents or other adults; withdrawal, depression, or anxiety; wearing long sleeves out of season; violent themes in art or fantasy; sleep disruptions such as insomnia or nightmares; reports of injury or severe discipline; immaturity, acting out, or other behavioral extremes; and/or self-destructive behavior or attitudes (Childhelp, 2018). Parents and caregivers may also show signs of committing physical abuse, including refusal or inability to explain the child’s injury, explaining the injury in a way that does not make sense, aggression towards the child, appearing overly anxious about the child’s behavior, delaying or preventing medical care for the child, taking the child to different doctors or hospitals, isolating the child from social activities, and/or having a history of violence or abuse (Childhelp, 2018).

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The second most prevalent form of child abuse is sexual abuse. Sexual abuse involves using a child in sex acts or for sexual gratification (Childhelp, 2018). This may take place in the form of non-contact or contact abuse. Non-contact abuse involves making a child view a sex act, making a child view or show sex organs, or talking to a child inappropriately about sex.

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