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Topic 1: Recognizing Child Abuse and Neglect—Definitions and Indicators


In order to meet your responsibility as a mandated reporter, you must first understand what it is that you are required to report. Often, recognizing abuse/neglect is not a simple task. In this topic, we will go over the definitions and the common indicators of the types of abuse and neglect.

In this topic, you will learn about:

We will be talking about legal and operational definitions of abuse and neglect. The legal definitions are what you will find in the Code of Virginia. The operational definitions are the practical application of the Code as described in Child Protective Services policy.

To recognize child abuse and neglect, you need to study the legal definitions, operational definitions, and indicators of each type of abuse.

Legal Definitions—The State Statute Defining Child Abuse and Neglect

Virginia recognizes and defines five types of child abuse and neglect:

Substance-exposed newborns are required to be reported to CPS by health care providers. Circumstances requiring a report to be made for a substance exposed infant include:

While legal definitions provide a reasonable legal basis for understanding child maltreatment, they lack the detail you might need to make informed decisions about whether or not to report. Operational definitions are provided to guide you in deciding if a child in your care may be suffering from child maltreatment.

Pie Chart: Virginia Reports of Child Abuse by Type, 2007

Virginia Reports of Child Abuse by Type
The chart above shows the prevalence of each type of abuse/neglect. Physical neglect accounts for over one-half of all child maltreatment.

Virginia Department of Social Services Online Automated Data System (OASIS), December, 2010.

What are Operational Definitions?

Legal definitions do not provide enough detail to allow mandated reporters—like teachers—to determine whether or not a report of child maltreatment is required. Therefore, researchers and social workers have developed a set of operational definitions to help with this task. Operational definitions are definitions that specify what to look for when you are deciding whether or not to report.


What are Indicators?

Often we use the term “indicators” to refer to those specific behaviors, conditions, or consequences that support suspicion of maltreatment. For example, certain types of bruises on a child might be an indicator of abuse. If a child is afraid to go home, or expresses fear of a parent, this might also be an indicator of abuse. However, remember that an indicator of abuse only indicates that abuse may have occurred.

The following pages will describe the legal and operational definitions and indicators of various forms of maltreatment. We’ll also discuss some issues that may arise as you are making your decision about whether or not to report.

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