What Do I Do If I Suspect My Spouse Abusing My Child?

Abuse is a difficult subject to talk about, especially when it involves a child. Unfortunately, child abuse is more common than parents may realize. One out of every four girls and one in six boys will experience abuse before they turn 18.

In nine out of ten cases, the victim knows their abuser. That can be a neighbor, teacher, coach, or even a parent. It can take months or even years for parents or grandparents to notice the signs of abuse. That is often because the abuser often goes unsuspected when the perpetrator is a trusted family member.

There are signs and symptoms of abuse that every parent should be aware of. Learn more about these red flags and the steps you should take to protect your child of you believe your child is being abused.

Child Abuse Takes Many Forms

There are several types of child abuse, and unfortunately, they are not mutually exclusive. Some children are exposed to multiple forms of abuse by a parent or caregiver.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse affects a child’s sense of security, their confidence, and their overall well-being. Abusers chip away at the child’s self-esteem with verbal berating, criticism, and belittling.

The parent who ignores, isolates, or neglects the child also inflicts emotional abuse. While emotional abuse does not leave physical wounds and scars behind, it is just as damaging as physical violence.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is physical harm inflicted upon a child: hitting, slapping, or worse. The abuser intentionally injures the child or puts them in a situation where they are in danger of being harmed by someone else.  

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse involves any sexual activity with a child including exposure to pornography, exploitation, fondling, or intercourse.

What is Grooming?

“Grooming” is a common tactic abusers use to control their victims. It is a process where the abuser slowly gains the victim’s trust through manipulation and coercion. They gradually introduce (seemingly innocent) physical contact like tickling or touching until the victim becomes desensitized to the behavior.

Over time, the abuser convinces the victim these behaviors are natural. Isolation is another important part of the grooming process. The victim is separated from others emotionally and/or physically. They are made to feel special or “chosen” by their abuser and encouraged to keep their relationship a secret.

Medical Abuse

While this is less common than other types of abuse, it is just as dangerous to the victim. Medical abuse occurs when a parent, guardian, or caregiver provides false medical information about a child leading to unnecessary treatments and procedures that may be painful, invasive, and even life-threatening.

What Is Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy?

Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP) is a mental disorder where a person (typically a parent) lies about their child’s symptoms, falsifies test results, or intentionally creates symptoms to convince others their child is ill.

While experts are not clear exactly what causes MSBP, it is generally believed abusers are motivated by the attention they receive for having a child with a serious medical condition. Children victimized by MSBP have a greater risk of physical and emotional problems and are more likely to develop Munchausen syndrome as adults.

Neglect

Neglect is also considered child abuse. It is the failure to provide life’s basic essentials for the child including food, clothing, education, and medical care. Withholding attention and affection are also considered child neglect. A child’s emotional needs are just as essential as the practical needs like food and shelter.

Do You Know the Signs of Child Abuse?

When you think of child abuse, you might imagine a child with a black eye or a broken arm. But as we have discussed, the abuse red flags are not always so obvious. To help you recognize abuse in your own home or family, we have compiled this list of child abuse signs and symptoms:

Physical indicators of abuse:

  • Bruising, bleeding, or discharge in the genital area
  • Burns or bites
  • Cuts or bruises
  • Malnutrition
  • Oral and dental injuries
  • Poor hygiene
  • Signs of restraints on the neck or extremities
  • Traumatic hair loss

Behavioral indicators of abuse:

  • Bed wetting
  • Chronic absenteeism from school
  • Cutting and other self-harm behaviors
  • Destroys property
  • Excessive clinging, fears, anxiety
  • Hyperactivity
  • Intentionally injuring or abusing animals
  • Passivity and/or depression
  • Regression
  • Sexualized behavior
  • Social withdraw
  • Trouble sleeping, nightmares

Beyond the obvious signs of physical or sexual abuse and behaviors that suggest something unhealthy is taking place, there are other indicators of child abuse.

Symptoms of child abuse include:

  • Abnormal rapid weight loss or gain
  • Difficulty walking or sitting
  • Headaches
  • Painful urination or other genital discomfort
  • Reluctance to use an extremity
  • Stomachaches

A word of caution: this list is far from exhaustive and should not be used to definitively determine if your spouse is abusing your child. If you have any concerns at all, contact your child’s healthcare provider, law enforcement, and a trusted child abuse lawyer in your area for help.

The Lasting Impact of Child Abuse

All forms of child abuse have an impact on a child’s health and well-being. Mistreatment in childhood has been linked to a host of physical, emotional, and behavioral issues later in life. Physically, childhood maltreatment may cause an increased risk of diabetes, arthritis, and other health conditions.

Psychologically, many abuse victims have trouble trusting others and forming healthy adult relationships. They may be more likely to engage in criminal activity, substance abuse, and other risky behaviors. Abused children may also have diminished executive functioning and cognitive skills.

The good news is victims of childhood abuse cannot only survive but they can thrive after their experience. Once your child is safe and removed from the abusive situation, talking with a mental health professional is essential. Counseling is an invaluable tool to help abused children reclaim their power and go on to lead fulfilling and productive lives after trauma.

What To Do If You Suspect Your Spouse is Abusing Your Child?

If you believe your child is being abused, seek help immediately. Depending on your situation, you can call the child’s physician, a local child protection agency, or the police. You can also call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 800-422-4453 for guidance.

Assess the situation.

If you or your child fear for your safety, call 911 without delay. If there is no threat of immediate danger, call the local child protection agency in your community. Even if you caught the abuse the first time, you should never assume it will not happen again.

Child Advocacy Centers (CACs) are community-based organizations that combine resources from law enforcement, child protective services, family advocates, and mental and medical healthcare providers to create a coordinated and comprehensive response to abuse in the home. When you work with a CAC, you have a wealth of tools at your disposal to help achieve the best outcome possible for your child.

Visit this link to find a CAC near you: Find A CAC – National Children’s Advocacy Center (nationalcac.org).

Consult an Attorney for Legal Protection from an Abusive Spouse

Finally, it is important to meet with an attorney to find out what you can do legally to keep your child safe and protected from an abusive parent or stepparent. Domestic violence and abuse are often enough to modify custody orders if a change is in the child’s best interests. If you are divorcing an abusive spouse, it makes sense to retain full custody to protect your child. That is something to discuss with your divorce lawyer.

An order of protection to require the abusive parent to avoid all contact with the child under may be needed in more serious cases. While this situation may be scary and feel overwhelming, help is available through law enforcement, legal representation, and child protection organizations.

Somerville Child Abuse Lawyers with Lyons & Associates, P.C. are Dedicated to Protecting the Rights of Children Across the New Jersey and the Nation

It is unthinkably painful to learn your child is may be abused by your spouse or another trusted family member. Our experienced Somerville child abuse lawyers at Lyons & Associates, P.C. help clients seeking protection for children victimized by abuse. Call 908-575-9777 or fill out our online form to learn more about the legal process and our team’s experience advocating for New Jersey’s children. Based in Somerville and Morristown, Lyons & Associates represents clients in and around Woodbridge, Somerset, Parsippany, Rockaway, Short Hills, Chatham, Randolph, Madison, and Morris Plains, New Jersey.