Earlier this year, Netflix released the heart-wrenching mini-series, “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez.” This series, which unpacks the complex legal proceedings following the abuse and eventual death of an eight-year-old boy in Los Angeles Country, has viewers feeling heartbroken and confused. Gabriel, who experienced eight months of physical and mental torture at the hands of his mother (Pearl Fernandez) and mother’s boyfriend (Isauro Aguirre), seemingly fell through the cracks of an oversaturated child protection system. This case, which continues to impact both Los Angeles County and national child protection efforts, has concerned Americans wondering: What more can we do to recognize and prevent child abuse in our communities? As April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, SOS Children’s Villages Illinois is committed to not only creating a reduction of child abuse in Illinois, but to teaching others how to do the same.
Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Child Abuse in Babies, Youth, and Teens
Child abuse – whether in the form of neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse, or sexual abuse – presents different signs and symptoms. As advocates of ending child abuse in all its forms, it is important to know how child abuse may be present. Here are some of the key signs to watch for when considering if a child may be experiencing abuse:
Consider neglect a possibility when a child or teen is:
• Frequently absent from school
• Begging or stealing food or money
• Lacking needed medical or dental care, immunizations, or glasses
• Consistently dirty and has severe body odor
• Lacking sufficient clothing for the weather
• Abusing alcohol or other drugs
• Stating that there is no one at home to provide care, purchase food, etc.
Consider emotional abuse a possibility when a child or teen:
• Shows extremes in behavior, such as overly compliant or demanding behavior, extreme passivity, or aggression
• Is either inappropriately adult (parenting other children, for example) or inappropriately infantile (frequently rocking or head-banging, for example)
• Is delayed in physical or emotional development
• Has attempted suicide or often talks about suicide
Consider physical abuse a possibility when a child or teen:
• Has unexplained burns, bites, bruises, broken bones, or black eyes
• Has fading bruises or other marks noticeable after an absence from school
• Seems frightened of the parents and protests or cries when it is time to go home
• Shrinks at the approach of adults
• Asks questions about hitting, punching, etc. (“Is it normal that my Dad hits me?”)
• Reports injury by a parent or another adult caregiver
Consider sexual abuse a possibility when a child or teen:
• Has difficulty walking or sitting
• Suddenly refuses to change for gym or to participate in physical activities
• Reports nightmares or bedwetting
• Experiences a sudden change in appetite
• Demonstrates bizarre, sophisticated, or unusual sexual knowledge or behavior
• Becomes pregnant or contracts an STI, particularly if under age 14
• Runs away
• Reports sexual abuse by a parent or another adult caregiver
As infants, young children, and children and teens with specific disabilities may not be able to communicate the verbal signs of abuse, your eyes are just as important as your ears in spotting the signs. Please know that a child or teen does not to have to display every sign of abuse in order to be experiencing abuse. Many children only display one or more signs.
When (and How) to Make a Report of Suspected Child Abuse
Knowing when or how to make a report when you suspect that a child is being abused could be the life-saving measure that prevents instances, like the Gabriel Fernandez case.
A report to your area child protective services agency (resources below) should be made as soon as you believe you have reasonable support behind your claim of abuse. If helpful, you should take a few moments before your call to write down the details of your allegation in order to ensure you cover all of your suspicions with the child protective services personnel.
Additionally, if you believe a child is in immediate danger of being harmed or harming themselves, please call 9-1-1 (if in the U.S.) in order to receive emergency services.
To make a report to the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS), you can call the Child Abuse Hotline 24/7 at: 800-252-2873.
To make a report in the U.S., but outside of Illinois, you can find the correct agency here: State Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Numbers.
Special Notice: It is important to note that even if someone else has already made a report about a specific child, or if you have reported suspected abuse about this child in the past, you can (and should) file a new report with each new instance that raises a red flag. This helps child protective systems and personnel track repeat behavior, recognize escalating situations, and provide evidence in the event that a child or children are removed from a home and a case goes to court.
Common Questions about Child Abuse Reporting
Filing a report of suspected child abuse can be worrisome, especially if it is your first time or you hold personal connection to the child or family in question. SOS Illinois wants to offer responses to three of the most common concerns regarding making a child abuse report.
“I’m Afraid of the Parents Knowing I Made a Report. Can I Make an Anonymous Call?”
We know that filing a report of suspected child abuse can be scary, especially if you’re afraid of the child’s parents getting upset, retaliating against you or the child, or severing an existing relationship. Sometimes this creates a barrier in filing a report at all.
Please note that many reporting agencies accept anonymous reports of alleged child abuse and neglect, though policies range state-by-state. Regardless of if reports can remain anonymous, all states are required to preserve the confidentiality of all child abuse and neglect reports, except in certain limited circumstances. In this case, “confidentiality” refers to protecting the information of the reporter from public view, including protecting the identity of the reporter from the person suspected of abuse or neglect. This means that while some states may allow you to file a report without giving your name, the states that do require a name at the time of filing will not share your name with those suspected of the maltreatment.
“I Made a Report. Now What?”
After filing a child abuse report, individuals are eager to learn about the status and findings of the report, and are often confused about the process that happens once they hang up the phone.
Once a report of child abuse has been made, the appropriate protective authorities (in the case of Illinois, DCFS), decides whether or not to follow up the report depending on the suspicions shared. This also means referencing other reports that may have been made regarding the same child or another member of the child’s home, such as a sibling.
If the report is determined to warrant investigation, the proper authorities begin doing so. This component of the process varies case-by-case, but can include interviewing the child, having the child examined by medical personnel, interviewing parents and other children and adults in the home, speaking with teachers, coaches, and more. If a child is determined to be in danger of remaining at home, this is when a child may be placed with a relative or in temporary foster care (such as with SOS Children’s Villages Illinois).
Depending on your state, you may be privy to certain updates about the investigation, and may receive a notification letter sharing the results of the investigation. You can ask questions about your rights for information about the investigation during your report call, or by reaching out to the appropriate agency at a later date. It is important to know that the agency may not be able to share specific details with you.
“My Child Abuse Report Was Determined to Be Unfounded. What Do I Do Now?”
After a full investigation is conducted, you may learn that your suspicions of abuse were unfounded (also known as “unsubstantiated”). This means that, after a full investigation, the child services team in charge of the investigation determined that there was no risk of child abuse or neglect, or that there was an insufficient amount of evidence to support abuse or neglect accusations.. We recognize that there have been both publicized and unpublicized cases where allegations were deemed unfounded, despite further instances of abuse to the child. This can create distrust of the child welfare system. As a foster care agency, we urge you to take advantage of the reporting tools and resources of your local child protective services agency, and learn about your rights as a reporter. Additionally, here is what you can do moving forward:
• Report any new suspected instances of abuse and neglect. Mention during this report that you have file a report/reports before and an investigation found child abuse to be unfounded.
• Encourage others who suspect abuse to report it through the appropriate channels.
Please note that regardless of findings, child protective services may refer a family to social services and programs that would be helpful to their circumstances.
A Commitment to Keeping Children and Families Safe
Keeping children free from abuse and neglect is a true community effort, requiring the eyes, ears, and voices of us all. At SOS Illinois, we’re committed to providing compassionate foster care services to children and families in Illinois, many who have experienced abuse and neglect. Additionally, through providing in-home prevention services to families through Casa Tepeyac, our site in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, we help reduce instances of child neglect and abuse in Chicago through offering supportive programming and resources.
We cannot do this important work without you; and we are grateful for the many ways you help us keep children safe. To assist SOS Illinois in continuing to build the future of foster care and promote the ongoing protection of children, we ask you to consider making a gift in honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month. These gifts allow us to provide the important services necessary for at-risk families to thrive. Together, we’re able to create healthy and stable futures, regardless of backgrounds.