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Child Abuse

  • Author: Julia Magana, MD; Chief Editor: Kirsten A Bechtel, MD  more...
Updated: May 13, 2015


The majority of childhood injuries are accidental, but an inflicted injury missed or improperly evaluated can escalate to child fatality.[1, 2, 3] The emergency medicine (EM) provider must be familiar with how inflicted injuries present and how to intervene. Intervention can save the child’s life in the same way protecting an airway or administering antibiotics for meningitis can save a child’s life.

In the United States, medical providers are mandated reporters of child abuse. The EM provider is obligated by law to report when there is a reasonable suspicion of child abuse. The provider cannot be held legally responsible for reporting in good faith if the suspicion cannot be proven, but he or she can be held legally responsible if they do not report suspected child abuse when there is a reasonable suspicion of such. Mandated child abuse and neglect reporting laws vary from state to state; it is the physician’s responsibility to know the law in his or her state.

The EM provider must approach each suspected victim systematically. The first priority is appropriate medical care for the patient. The other steps include a thorough history, a complete physical examination, consultation with a social worker and/or child abuse pediatrician, and making a report to Child Protective Service (CPS) agencies. One must carefully and clearly document all historical information (and sources), as well as any injury (drawing, diagrams, and/or photographs). It is not required that the EM provider diagnose child abuse with 100% confidence, but to reasonably suspect child abuse and initiate referral for subsequent investigation while providing medical care for the patient.

Child abuse is a challenging diagnosis to manage in the emergency department (ED). It is best managed systematically, with a multidisciplinary team, and with established guidelines to maintain objectivity and thoroughness. Local and institutional resources such as social workers, child abuse physicians, pediatric radiologists, CPS, and law enforcement should be consulted early in the evaluation when possible. Institutional child abuse protocols facilitate the physician’s ability to objectively focus on the needs of the individual patient.

While each state may have slightly different definitions of child abuse and neglect, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), which was originally enacted by Congress in 1974, defines child abuse and neglect as, at a minimum: “Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act, which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”[4]



Child abuse may occur for a multitude of reasons. Risk factors exist within society (eg, poor familial support systems, poverty, inadequate/overcrowded housing), within families (eg, depression, poor role models, drug abuse), and within the child (eg, medically fragile, prematurity, behavioral problems). It has been proposed that abuse requires a parent who is capable of abuse, a child who is actively or passively a target, and a crisis that triggers an inappropriate response.[5]

The 4 overlapping categories of child abuse are (1) physical abuse, (2) sexual abuse, (3) psychological abuse, and (4) neglect. Each has unique characteristics and requires individual approaches to diagnosis and management.

Physical abuse is characterized by physical injury (eg, bruises, fractures, tissue disruption) resulting from hitting, punching, pinching, kicking, biting, burning, shaking, or otherwise harming a child. Sometimes, the injury is inflicted in the course of physical punishment. From both a legal and medical standpoint, the intent of the abuser (to inflict injury or not) is not relevant to the diagnosis. Pathophysiology is unique to each type of injury.

Sexual abuse is described in Child Sexual Abuse.

Neglect is the most common type of child maltreatment in the United States (78.5%)[6] and is caregiver failure to meet basic nutritional, medical, educational, and emotional needs of a child. Neglect is legally reportable. Nutritional neglect is likely the most common form of neglect that recognized in the ED, typically in the form of failure to thrive (FTT). Nutritional neglect associated with FTT is not diagnosed in one visit. The EM provider should refer to specialists for further evaluation either on admission or as an outpatient. Risk factors for neglect include poverty, poor support systems, parenteral mental health issues or mental disability, parenteral substance abuse, poor parenting skills, or complex child physical/medical/psychological needs.

Medical child abuse (previously known as Munchausen-by-proxy) involves a complex dynamic of a parent fabricating a child’s illness and then presenting persistently, often to an ED, for care. The perpetrator is most often the mother who appears very knowledgeable about the child’s condition. The symptoms are often unusual and do not generally respond to treatment. Presentations are varied, but can include bleeding/bruising (warfarin, dye, exogenous blood), seizure (poison, suffocation, lying), apnea (lying, suffocation), infection (line contamination), diarrhea (laxative), vomiting (ipecac), and altered mental status (drug exposure). Older children often internalize the parent’s projection of their illness and believe they are sick. The outcome can be fatal. When children are brought repeatedly for care for unusual symptoms that do not respond to medical therapy, it is reasonable to consider this diagnosis and consult with a child abuse pediatrician.




United States

In 2011, 3.4 million referrals were made to child protective authorities in the United States; 8.4% of the referrals were from medical personnel.[6] The rate of child maltreatment in the United States was 9.1 cases per 1000 children.[6] Seventy-eight percent of child maltreatment reports were from neglect, 17.6% from physical abuse, and 9.1% from child sexual abuse.[6] The overall child fatality rate was 2.1 deaths per 100,000 children.[6] Women represented 53.6% of perpetrators.[6] From 2000-2008, almost 340,000 children were treated in US EDs for inflicted injury, or 1.3% of all pediatric ED visits.[7]


Child maltreatment is a global problem. Accurate incidence is difficult to determine, owing to lack of good studies in many areas of the world.


The child who is maltreated may experience immediate pain, fear, humiliation, injury of varying severity, and loss of self-esteem. Apart from the potential physical sequelae (eg, death, traumatic brain injury, disfigurement), long-term health consequences of child maltreatment and adverse childhood experiences include increased risk for substance abuse, self-injurious and suicidal behavior, depression, anxiety, criminal behavior, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, premature mortality, low mental well being and life satisfaction, obesity and other mental health problems.[8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13]

Mortality increases with recurrent episodes of inflicted trauma.[14] In 2010, homicide was the third leading cause of death in aged children 1-4 years[15] and 81.6% of fatalities from child abuse were in children younger than 4 years.[6]


Child maltreatment is found in every race, ethnicity, culture, and socioeconomic status. It is important for clinicians to approach all children in the same manner regardless of background.


The sexes are equally affected by child maltreatment, but homicide rates are slightly higher in males.[6]


Child maltreatment can occur at any age, but the highest rate of victimization is in children younger than 1 year, at 21.2 cases per 1,000 children.[6] Children younger than 4 years represent the majority of childhood fatalities. The incidence of physical abuse decreases during early school years and increases again during adolescence.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Julia Magana, MD Assistant Professor of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, Division of Emergency Medicine, University of California, Davis, School of Medicine

Julia Magana, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics, The Ray Helfer Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Marilyn Kaufhold, MD, FAAP Clinical Instructor, Department of Pediatrics, University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine; Senior Medical Staff, Child Abuse Pediatrics, Rady Children's Chadwick Center for Children and Families

Marilyn Kaufhold, MD, FAAP is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, San Diego County Medical Society, The Ray Helfer Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Mary L Windle, PharmD Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Wayne Wolfram, MD, MPH Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, Mercy St Vincent Medical Center; Chairman, Pediatric Institutional Review Board, Mercy St Vincent Medical Center, Toledo, Ohio

Wayne Wolfram, MD, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American Academy of Pediatrics, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Kirsten A Bechtel, MD Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Section of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, Yale University School of Medicine; Co-Director, Injury Free Coalition for Kids, Yale-New Haven Children's Hospital

Kirsten A Bechtel, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Ann S Botash, MD Director, Child Abuse Referral and Evaluation Program, Professor and Vice Chair for Educational Affairs, Department of Pediatrics, State University of New York Upstate Medical University

Ann S Botash, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Ambulatory Pediatric Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Pediatric Society, Helfer Society, and Society for Pediatric Research

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Dylan M McKenney, MD Resident Physician, Department of Psychiatry, Maine Medical Center, Portland

Dylan M McKenney, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Phi Beta Kappa

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Lawrence R Ricci, MD Director of Spurwink Child Abuse Program, Assistant Professor, Department of Pediatrics, University of Vermont College of Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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A 4-year-old boy who was forcibly grabbed about the neck by his father. The 2 anterior chest bruises are consistent with thumbprints.
A 5-year-old girl who presented within 24 hours of being slapped on the leg. The markings are bruises and not erythema. The linear parallel lines are virtually diagnostic of a human handprint.
An 8-month-old infant who is brought into the emergency department by his mother with the history of having fallen from a changing table. Note the acute transverse midshaft humeral fracture. This fracture is most consistent with a snapping injury, not a fall onto a flat surface. The mother subsequently described grabbing the child's arm to lift him after the fall and hearing a snap.
A 2-month-old infant presented to the emergency department with the history from the father that the child had slipped in the tub the night before. Note the periosteal callus formation, indicating that the fracture is at least 1 week old and, thus, inconsistent with the history being offered.
A 15-month-old whose babysitter told the child's mother that she "lost it" and spanked too hard. This paddle injury is in a protected area rarely bruised accidentally and with gluteal cleft sparing. Note the areas of vertical bruising on either side of the gluteal cleft; this is characteristic of paddling.
A 4-year-old girl brought in by her father who picked her up from her mother's house and found these patterned, whip lashes on her buttocks and lower back. The patient reported her mom would get "really mad" at her.
A 5-year-old reported by his mother to have suddenly developed neck pain while playing at home. The mother denied any traumatic event and the child gave no history. This was reported to Child Protective Services as a likely inflicted injury. Inflicted ear bruises occur with pinching, pulling, twisting, cuffing, and punching.
A 5-year-old reported by his mother to have suddenly developed neck pain while playing at home. The mother denied any traumatic event and the child gave no history. This was reported to Child Protective Services as a likely inflicted injury. Inflicted ear bruises occur with pinching, pulling, twisting, cuffing, and punching.
A 3-month-old presented with the chief complaint of apparent life-threatening event but had extensive bruising, a spinal fracture, subdural hematoma, and multiple rib fractures in various stages of healing.
A 3-month-old presented with the chief complaint of apparent life-threatening event, but had extensive bruising, a spinal fracture, subdural hematoma, and multiple rib fractures in various stages of healing.
A 3-month-old presented with the chief complaint of apparent life-threatening event, but had extensive bruising, a spinal fracture, subdural hematoma, and multiple rib fractures in various stages of healing.
A 2-month-old brought to the emergency department with 2-day history of congestion, rhinorrhea, and cough. On the day of admission, the patient had poor feeding, lethargy, and episodes of apnea. A skeletal survey showed multiple rib fractures and there were extensive retinal hemorrhages in one eye. The parents denied a history of any trauma. The head CT scan showed multiple foci of subdural hematoma and subarachnoid hemorrhage predominantly over the bilateral convexities.
A 7-day-old boy who presented with unexplained bruises and multiple fractures, including these classic metaphyseal lesions seen at the distal femur. There was no history of birth trauma.
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