Understanding And Dealing With Child Abuse

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D

Revised: May 21, 2014

Child Abuse Is Against The Law In Oregon

If child abuse is severe, or there is an immediate risk or danger to a child, you should contact 911 or police immediately. 

The following is based in large part on handouts published by State of Oregon Department of Human Resources.  Specific laws pertaining to Child Abuse can be viewed on the State of Oregon Web site at http://www.dhs.state.or.us/

What Is Child Abuse?

  • Physical Abuse:  Any physical injury to a child that is not accidental, such as bruises, welts, burns, cuts and broken bones.
  • Neglect:  Lack of care that risks or causes harm to a child, including lack of food, clothing, supervision or medical attention.
  • Mental Injury or Emotional Harm:  Harm to a child's ability to think, reason, or have feelings, such as cruel acts or statements, intimidation, rejection and indifference.
  • Sexual Abuse:  Any incident of sexual contact including rape, sodomy, and fondling. Sexual exploitation, including use of children for pornography and prostitution.
  • Threat of Harm:  Activities, conditions or persons that place a child at risk of abuse. Threats, domestic violence, and drug/alcohol abuse fall in this category.

What Are The Signs Of Child Abuse?

Physical Abuse

Abuse constitutes any physical injury to a child which has been caused by other than accidental means including injury which appears to be at variance with the explanation.  Abuses includes reckless and negligent use of drugs during pregnancy.

Possible Indicators

  • Bruises or welts in various stages of healing
  • Bruises or welts reflecting the shape of objects
  • Cigar or cigarette burns
  • Immersion burns that are sock like or glove like
  • Patterns burns
  • Rope burns
  • Fractures
  • Lacerations

Behavioral Indicators

  • Wary of adults
  • Apprehensive when other children cry
  • Behavioral extremes such as aggressiveness or withdrawal
  • Frightened of parents
  • Afraid to go home


Neglect is negligent treatment or maltreatment of a child which causes actual harm or substantial risk of harm to a child's health, welfare and safety.  

Possible Indicators

  • Consistent hunger, poor hygiene, inappropriate dress
  • Consistent lack of supervision
  • Unattended physical/emotional problems or medical needs

Behavioral Indicators

  • Begging, stealing food
  • Staying at school and avoiding going home
  • Constant fatigue, listlessness or falling asleep in class
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • States there is no care taker
  • Shunned by peers

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is any incident of sexual contact including, but not limited to rape, sodomy, incest, sexual penetration with a foreign object, sexual exploitation for purposes of pornography, or prostitution.

Possible Physical Indicators

  • Difficulty in walking or sitting
  • Torn, stained or bloody underclothing
  • Pain or itching in genital area
  • Bruises, bleeding or infection in external genitalia, vagina or anal areas
  • Venereal disease, especially in pre-teens

Possible Behavioral Indicators

  • Withdrawal, fantasy or infantile behavior
  • Poor peer relationships
  • Delinquent or run away behavior
  • Indirect allusions to problems at home such as "I want to live with you"
  • The child reports sexual assault
  • Fear of a person or an intense dislike at being left with someone
  • Unusual interest in or knowledge of sexual matters, expressing affection in ways that are inappropriate for  child of that age
  • Behavioral extremes
  • Habit disorders (sucking, biting, rocking)
  • Attempted suicide
  • Conduct disorders (antisocial, run away, fire setting, destructive)
  • Emotional neediness

Threat of Harm

Threat of harm includes all activities, conditions and persons which place the child at substantial risk of physical harm or sexual abuse, neglect, or mental injury.

  • Severe expressions of intent to inflict pain, injury, evil or punishment on a child.
  • An avowed determination to injure the child presently or in the future.
  • A caretaker telling a child that independent decisions will result in terrifying consequences and possibly death will happen
  • Circumstances that expose children to domestic violence threatening a child's emotional or physical well-being.

What Can You Do If You Suspect Child Abuse?

If the child abuse is severe or there is an immediate risk to the child, you should contact 911 immediately.  The first thing you can do is read this handout and then take the next most appropriate step.  After you have read the entire handout there are three generally accepted steps you can take when you suspect child abuse.  The first step is to contact your local branch of Services to Children and Families (CPS) and discuss the situation.  Contacting CPS does not automatically result in an investigation.  CPS is available to discuss the situation and to offer you their opinion regarding what you should do next.  They may discuss what will most likely happen next.   In some cases CPS will direct you to contact your local law enforcement agency.   This will most likely happen during evenings, weekends and holidays. 

Who Can Help If You Suspect Child Abuse?

There are at least three sources of help if you suspect child abuse.   The State of Oregon provides investigation through Child Protective Services (CPS).  In most cases, CPS will be the first contact.  However, CPS is not always available and the circumstance may involve an immediate danger and serve abuse.  In such situations you should contact local enforcement.  As a third alternative you might also contact a crisis intervention specialist who is experienced in dealing with child abuse.  Contacting a crisis intervention specialist is normally not the first step but it can be an alternative if you need support.

How Do You Report Child Abuse To The Proper Authorities?

According to ORS 419B.015, "a person making a report of child abuse shall make an oral report by telephone or otherwise to the local office of the State Office for Services to Children and Families, to the division's designee, or to a law enforcement agency within the county where the person making the report is at the time of the contact."

A law enforcement agency can be defined as a local police department, county sheriff, county juvenile department, or Oregon State Police.

What Can You Do If CPS Or Law Enforcement Don't Help?

Your experience with your first contact with CPS or Law Enforcement may be very helpful or it may be very discouraging.   Don't give up if you feel discouraged but you still believe something should be done.   If you are discouraged but still want to help, the next step is to contact a competent mental health professional who has experience dealing with child abuse and crisis intervention.   Intensive investigation and intervention is available in the private sector.  There are many legal steps you can take to protect a child when CPS and Law Enforcement won't.   In addition, there is information that you can gather with the involvement of a crisis intervention specialist that can compel a judge or CPS to take action.  There is an unavoidable but painful truth.  CPS and Law Enforcement are not adequately trained or funded to intensively or aggressively pursue child abuse reports.  Children can fail to receive the protection they deserve when people simply report child abuse and then give up.

Who Is Legally Required To Report Child Abuse?

According to Oregon Revised Statute 419B.010, "Any public or private official having reasonable cause to believe that any child with whom the official comes in contact has suffered abuse, or that any person with whom the official comes in contact has abused a child shall report or cause a report to be made . . ." Those "public or private officials" include:

  • Physician, including any intern or resident
  • Dentist
  • School employee
  • Licensed practical nurse or registered nurse
  • Employee of the Department of Human Resources, county health department, community mental health and developmental disabilities program, a county juvenile department, a licensed child-serving agency, or an alcohol and drug treatment program
  • Peace officer
  • Clergyman
  • Licensed clinical social worker
  • Optometrist
  • Chiropractor
  • Certified provider of day care, foster care, or an employee thereof
  • Attorney
  • Naturopathic physician
  • Firefighters
  • Emergency medical technicians
  • Licensed professional counselor
  • Psychologists
  • Licensed marriage and family therapist

A court appointed special advocate, as defined in ORS 412A.004 psychiatrist, psychologist, clergyman, or attorney shall not be required to report information communicated to him by a person if the communication is privileged under ORS 40.225 to 40.295.

Reporting should be considered a request for an assessment of a suspected incident of abuse or neglect. A report is not an already established fact, but rather the request for assessment into the condition of a child. It is the beginning of a helping process for children and families. All Oregon citizens are encouraged to report suspected cases to CPS or law enforcement. Over one-third of the substantiated cases of child abuse are reported by concerned citizens who are not required to report.

The penalty for mandated reporters who fail to report a suspected victim of child abuse (ORS 419B.035(5)) is a fine not exceeding $1,000.

How Can You Respond To A Child Who Reveals Their Abuse?

If there is evidence of severe abuse, an immediate danger or threat, contact 911 immediately.  For less immediate dangers, there are several steps you can take.  Tell the child that you believe them and that you are going help.  Tell them you will also need to contact people who can help.  Respect the privacy of the child. The child will need to tell their story in detail later to the investigators, so don't press the child for details. Remember, you need only suspect abuse to make a report. Don't display horror, shock, or disapproval of parents, child, or the situation. Don't place blame or make judgments about the parent or child.  Tell the child that he or she will be talking to people who will help: a CPS Child Protective Services worker or the police.  It is O.K. for now  to believe the child if she/he reports sexual abuse.  An investigation is intended to either substantiate the allegation or reveal what really happened.  If you, or the child are in counseling or therapy, you may want to discuss your next steps privately with the child's counselor or therapist.

What Information Do You Need To Report Suspected Child Abuse?

If known, a report of suspected child abuse shall include the name, age, and address of the child and his/her parents or other persons responsible for the child's care.  The nature and extent of abuse, including any evidence of previous abuse and any explanation given by caretakers for injuries should also be reported.   Include all information which you believe might be helpful in establishing the cause of the abuse and for identifying the abuser.  CPS and especially Law Enforcement tends to pursue cases more intensely if there is evidence of physical harm or a credible report by the child.  Be sure to report the nature and extent of  physical harm that you are aware of.

Will Your Report Be Confidential?

The reporter's identity will remain confidential to the full extent allowable by law.  This means that CPS will not officially disclose your name but this does not mean your name will not come up during a police investigation.  If court action is initiated, the reporting person may be called as a witness or the court may order that the reporter's name be disclosed.  Only people with firsthand knowledge of the child's situation can provide testimony proving that abuse has occurred.

Can You Be Sued If You Make A Report?

Oregon law (ORS 419B.025) provides that anyone participating in good faith in the making of a report of child abuse and who has reasonable grounds for making the report, shall have immunity from any liability, civil or criminal, that might otherwise be incurred or imposed with respect to the making or content of such report. Any such participant shall have the same immunity with respect to participating in any judicial proceeding resulting from such report.

What Happens After You Make A Report?

Upon receiving a report concerning the possible occurrence of abuse or neglect, a Child Protective Services worker from the State office for Services to Children and Families and/or a law enforcement official will assess the situation as soon as possible. An assessment includes:

  • Determining the presence or absence of child maltreatment and the nature and extent of abuse and neglect.
  • Evaluating the child's condition, including the risk of harm to the child and the need for medical attention.
  • Identifying all of the factors that cause risk and the problems underlying the abuse or neglect.
  • Evaluating parental or caretaker responses to the identified problems and willingness to cooperate to protect the child.
  • Taking appropriate action to protect the child and to arrange for services to help the family.

In some cases you may find the response of CPS or Law enforcement inadequate.  CPS and Law Enforcement have many competing priorities and do have a history of "dropping the ball" in clear cases of child abuse.  For this reason, you may want to consider seeking additional consultation from a crisis intervention specialist or an attorney who is familiar with child abuse and custody issues.  There are many cases in which the preliminary investigation made by law enforcement is inadequate or negligent and there is a lack of follow-up.  Effective communication between you, CPS and law enforcement is not certain.   Mistakes are more likely when CPS is unavailable and during evenings, weekends, or holidays.  CPS and law enforcement generally lack the resources or time to investigate and take actions in cases involving Threat of Harm or Mental and Emotional Abuse.  This does not mean the law does not cover these issues.  In most cases, it means that CPS and law enforcement don't have the time or skills to become intensively involved.  For these cases you may need to seek out private rather than state interventions.

What Services Does CPS Offer In Cases Of Abuse And Neglect?

Protective Services are provided by State Office for Services to Children and Families to abused/neglected children and their families without regard to income. Special rehabilitative services for prevention and treatment of child abuse are provided by CPS and other community resources to children and families such as: homemaker services, parenting classes, respite day care, foster care, financial assistance, psychological and psychiatric services, and sexual abuse treatment.

When Is A Child Taken Into Protective Custody?

Where there is an immediate danger to a child's well being, Oregon statute permits law enforcement or the State Office for Services to Children and Families to take a child into protective custody without a court order. When it is determined that a child is abused or neglected and would probably be injured because parents or caretakers are unable to protect him/her, then the child is placed in shelter care. Shelter care is usually provided by families or special care facilities licensed by the State Office for Services to Children and Families.

Parents are notified immediately if their child is placed in shelter care. A juvenile court hearing is held within 24 judicial hours to review the need for continued protection of the child through shelter care while the investigation of child abuse and assessment of the risk continues. Parents are provided the opportunity at the shelter hearing to present evidence that their child can be returned home without danger of physical injury or emotional harm.

When Are Juvenile Court Hearings Necessary?

Juvenile court hearings are held when children are removed from their parents' custody and when CPS supervision of abused or neglected children in their own homes is ordered.

The court ensures that the parents' and the child's rights will be protected. The parents have a right to legal counsel and, if they cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed by the court.

The juvenile court holds a "shelter hearing" within 24 judicial hours of an emergency protective custody situation when a child has been removed from parents' care. A subsequent hearing is held to consider the facts of the child abuse/neglect investigation.

Additional hearings are held if the court determines that the child needs its protection. At each hearing, the court reviews the efforts of the parents to remedy problems and the services arranged or provided by the State Office for Services to Children and Families to help the parents and child.

What About Criminal Prosecution?

Law enforcement agencies are obligated to investigate reported cases of child abuse and to submit a report to the district attorney's office.

Criminal prosecution of parents in cases of physical abuse is rare. Criminal prosecution in cases of sexual abuse and fatalities is more common. Prosecution of sexual offenders is often essential to protect the victim from subsequent abuse and to begin the treatment process by breaking through the strong denial system that is characteristic of sexual offenders.

Criminal prosecution is at the sole discretion of the District Attorney.

What Is The Central Registry?

When it is confirmed that a child is a victim of abuse, the child's name is entered into the Central Registry. The purpose of the Central Registry is to gather data on the incidence and nature of child abuse in Oregon. It is also used as a resource for identifying repeated cases of abuse. The Central Registry was established by Oregon law and is maintained by the State Office for Services to Children and Families.