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Helen DeVos Children's Hospital News
Prevention Is the Best Treatment for Abuse


Expert Offers Tips for Intervention and Dispels Myths

Nearly 30,000 children were abused or neglected in the state of Michigan in 2009. An estimated 1,700 children die annually from child abuse and neglect. These sobering statistics concern physicians and staff of the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital Center for Child Protection who offer advice on how even small personal interventions in public can prevent abuse.

"Whether abuse occurs behind closed doors at home or in public places, the number of reported cases continues to grow," said Deb Simms, MD, division chief, Center for Child Protection. "Despite human instinct to stop abuse, many people witness it and simply don't know what to do."

Child abuse consists of anything that endangers or impairs a child's physical or emotional health. Abuse includes any damage done to a child which can't be reasonably explained. It is often represented by an injury or series of injuries that appear to be non-accidental in nature.

Simms and her colleagues offer the following tips for those witnessing an abusive situation:

  • Offer understanding and assistance. A calm, sympathetic, physical presence is likely the most effective response.
  • Sometimes a parent's anger is fueled by embarrassment at the scene a child is making. Try saying one of the following:
    • "Children sure can wear you out. Is there anything I can do to help?"
    • "It looks like you're having a difficult time. May I help you with anything?"
    • "Children his/her age can be a handful. May I get him/her a drink or hold something for you?"
    • "Most 2-year-olds can't sit still for long periods of time. Would it help if I found something for him/her to play with?"
  • Move the anger away from the child. Start a conversation with the adult. Ask a question to provide distraction.
  • Compliment or praise the parent. Say something positive such as "It's tough to shop with a toddler, I admire your effort."
  • If the child is in imminent danger of injury, call 911.

"Observing a child being mistreated is an awkward situation," added Dr. Simms. "It's natural to be uncomfortable around abusive, or what you think is potentially abusive, behavior. It's perfectly natural to question the safety of a child yet not know what to do."

Not all children are abused in public places. It's important to know the warning signs that may be indicators of abuse.

Potential Signs of Physical Abuse

  • Unexplained burns, cuts, bruises or welts in the shape of an object
  • Bite marks
  • Anti-social behavior
  • Problems in school
  • Fear of adults

Potential Signs of Sexual Abuse

  • Inappropriate interest in, or knowledge of, sexual acts
  • Nightmares and bed wetting
  • Drastic changes in appetite
  • Overcompliance or excessive aggression
  • Fear of a particular person or family member

Potential Signs of Emotional Abuse

  • Apathy
  • Depression
  • Hostility or stress
  • Lack of concentration
  • Eating disorder

According to Dr. Simms, the cure for abuse is prevention. Prevention comes in many forms:

  • Know where your child is and who they are with
  • If your child goes to a daycare facility, make sure it is staffed by licensed providers
  • Set a good example for other parents by being a good parent
  • Help your children tell you if something has happened to the private areas of their body by giving a name to those parts.
  • Have an open relationship with your child so that if they are being abused, they feel comfortable telling you

Misconceptions and not knowing who to call are two reasons that abuse is unreported. Myths about child abuse include:

Myth: By law, abused children must be removed from their homes immediately.
Fact: This is the least likely outcome.

Myth: Child abuse cannot be reported anonymously.
Fact: In most states, including Michigan, you don't need to provide your name. 

Myth: The person reported for abuse is entitled to know who made the report.
Fact: The person reported for abuse does not know who made the report.

If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD.

The Center for Child Protection is a multidisciplinary hospital-based program providing services for physically and sexually abused and neglected children on both an inpatient and outpatient basis. The physicians and staff have served more than 1,000 patients annually since it was founded in 1993 through philanthropy.

The team provides comprehensive medical evaluations facilitating prevention, identification, diagnosis and treatment of child abuse or neglect through education, clinical practice and research. The team includes 40 members from a variety of disciplines including pediatricians, nurses, emergency medicine physicians, medical social workers, radiologists, critical care physicians and clergy.

Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, a member of Spectrum Health, is a Grand Rapids-based hospital serving children throughout Michigan. A teaching hospital, it includes more than 150 pediatric specialty physicians with specialized training in providing medical and surgical care to children in more than 40 pediatric specialties.