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Recognising Signs of Child Abuse or Neglect

EthicalThe Department of Health defines four categories of child abuse and neglect.

  • Physical: Physical abuse might involve hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning, suffocating, or otherwise causing physical harm to a child. Physical harm might also be caused when a parent or carer fabricates the symptoms of, or deliberately causes, illness in a child.
  • Emotional: Emotional abuse is the persistent emotional maltreatment of a child such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child’s emotional development.
  • Sexual: Sexual abuse involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, including prostitution, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening.
  • Neglect: Neglect is the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health or development. Dental neglect is considered to be a failure to respond to a known significant dental problem.

In Scotland, an additional category of abuse is recognised (‘Child Protection and the Dental Team: An addendum for Scotland’ [1]):

  • Non-organic failure to thrive: This can be defined as children who significantly fail to reach normal growth and development milestones (i.e. physical growth, weight, motor, social and intellectual development), where physical and genetic reasons have been medically eliminated and a diagnosis of failure to thrive has been established. In its chronic form non-organic failure to thrive can result in greater susceptibility to more serious childhood illnesses, and reduction in potential stature.

Abuse or neglect can present to the dental team in several ways:

  • through a direct allegation (sometimes termed a ‘disclosure’ made by the child, a parent or another person);
  • through observation, by a dental team member, of signs and symptoms that are suggestive of physical abuse or neglect;
  • through observations of child behaviour or parent–child interaction by a dental team member.

Irrespective of the manner in which concerns are raised, take any concerns seriously and take appropriate action (see What to do if Child Abuse is Known or Suspected).

Refer to Section 2 ‘Abuse and Neglect: Recognising’ of ‘Child Protection and the Dental Team: An Introduction to Safeguarding Children in Dental Practice’ [2] for more detailed descriptions of each category of abuse and neglect and what signs to look for.

Sources of Information

  1. Child Protection and the Dental Team: An addendum for Scotland (2006) bda.org/childprotection
  2. Child Protection and the Dental Team: An Introduction to Safeguarding Children in Dental Practice. Department of Health (2009)