Indicators of child abuse

There are no absolutes when it comes to determining whether a child is suffering significant harm. Whilst there are lists of possible indicators of abuse, any one of the points on the list in isolation is not necessarily clear proof that a child is being abused. There is therefore a need to couple this information with other evidence that is available to form a professional viewpoint.


The four categories of abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and neglect serve to focus the mind as to the type of abuse that is occurring, however, there are also risks associated with thinking about abuse in this way.

Although child abuse is divided into these four types, they are more typically found in combination than alone. A physically abused child, for example, is often emotionally maltreated as well, and a sexually abused child may also be neglected.

Silo thinking

A number of recent serious case reviews have identified that professionals as a group can get caught up with categorising abuse.  Once the category or label has been decided this then becomes the main focus around which support is provided using a problem-based approach.  However the reviews found that indicators of children being potentially harmed through other forms of abuse were then explained away as this did not fit the 'label' that had been given.  This is known as silo-thinking.

Therefore it is important to remain open to what you are seeing and hearing, and if something doesn't seem right then it is important to ask why, even when it may not fit into a pattern that has already been established.

Analysis and critical thinking

A recent publication by Turney (2012), reminds us that:

Critical thinking is purposeful; it takes a questioning (and self-questioning) attitude towards the issue or problem at hand and examines the information, ideas, assumptions, concepts and so on associated with it and considers how they act to support a particular view or interpretation of the situation. It involves maintaining an open-minded attitude and being able to think about different ways of understanding the information before you. And critical thinking also includes a process of evaluating claims and arguments in order to come to logical and consistent conclusions, assessing these conclusions against clear and relevant criteria or standards, and being able to spell out the reasons for the judgements you have reached. (p.3)

We therefore must ensure that we always question what we see and hear and ask what it means for the child to experience what is being reported, even if it is not on a list as a possible indicator of abuse. That way we can ensure that in our work we remain child-focused.

Definition of abuse

 Working Together 2013 states that abuse is:

A form of maltreatment of a child. Somebody may abuse or neglect a child by inflicting harm, or by failing to act to prevent harm. Children may be abused in a family or in an institutional or community setting by those known to them or, more rarely, by others (e.g. via the internet). They may be abused by an adult or adults, or another child or children. (p.85)