Staying Alert to Signs of Child Abuse

One sorrowful statistic, according to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information, is that almost a million children in the United States are victims of substantiated cases of abuse or neglect, though several studies suggest that many more cases go unreported.

Prevention of child abuse, wherever it may occur, is part of the commitment GSUSA makes to protecting the well-being of girls and helping them grow into healthy, responsible adults.

Child Abuse Defined

The federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) defines child abuse as any "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" to a child under the age of 18.

Each state is responsible for defining child abuse and neglect, with respect to its criminal and civil laws, to enable the state to prosecute offenders (most often parents) and to provide juvenile and family courts with definitions to use in examining cases.

Child abuse is not confined to any particular segment of society but affects children of all ages and races and from all religious, educational, and socio-economic backgrounds.

Mandated Reporters

In some states, Girl Scout leaders are considered mandated reporters, meaning they are legally obligated to report suspicions of abuse or neglect and can be held liable for criminal penalties if they are aware of abuse and fail to report it. Check with your Girl Scout council to determine your responsibilities for reporting suspected abuse. All councils should have incidence-reporting procedures in place.

If you suspect a girl has been abused, consult with your Girl Scout council about what to do. Report the suspected abuse to the local agency designated to investigate such cases.

Signs of Abuse

There are four types of abuse—physical, sexual, emotional maltreatment, and physical neglect, which is the most common type of maltreatment. (For signs of abuse, go to http://www.child-abuse.com).

But even if physical signs of abuse are not apparent (and no one sign is a definitive indicator of abuse), sudden changes in behavior may provide clues. Many abused children exhibit low self-esteem, anger, guilt, aggressive or disruptive behavior, withdrawal, poor school performance, or the use of drugs and alcohol.

If A Girl Confides that She is Being Abused

  • Tell her you believe her.
  • Tell her it is not her fault.
  • Tell her you are glad she told you.
  • Be sympathetic and non-judgmental.
  • Do not promise to keep what she has told you a secret. You must tell your council contact, and you will probably have to talk with the local agency that investigates.


Research suggests that the intervention of a nurturing and trusted adult, such as a Girl Scout leader, who takes the necessary steps to support an abused child, is instrumental in protecting her from future abuse and in helping prevent her from becoming an abusive parent.

Girl Scouts of the USA recommends that councils conduct criminal background checks on all adult volunteers who work with girls and, indeed, cases of child abuse within Girl Scouting are exceedingly rare. However, if you suspect that a volunteer or staff member has committed an abusive act, you must tell your council immediately.

Web sites and Toll-Free Phone Numbers

Child Abuse Prevention Network

Childhelp USA

To find the telephone number for reporting child abuse in your state, call the Clearinghouse at 800-FYI-3366 (800-394-3366).