AAP Updates Guideline on Child Physical Abuse

Troy Brown, RN

April 28, 2015

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has updated its child physical abuse guideline to include new information on the lasting effects of abuse and on how pediatricians can protect children. The guideline highlights risk factors for abuse and abusive injuries that are frequently overlooked.

Cindy W. Christian, MD, and colleagues on the AAP's Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect present the updated guideline in an article published online April 26 in Pediatrics.

"Minor injuries in children are incredibly common, and most are not the result of abuse or neglect," Cindy Christian, MD, the lead author of the report and past chair of the AAP Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, explained in an AAP news release. "But sadly we also know how common it is for physicians to miss cases of child physical abuse. When these injuries are not correctly identified, children often return for medical care later with more severe or even fatal injuries."

The report incorporates recent research that shows that traumatic events during childhood affect a child's physical and mental health for decades.

"Both retrospective and prospective studies published in recent years have identified strong associations between cumulative traumatic childhood events including maltreatment, family dysfunction, and social isolation, and adult physical and mental health disease," the authors write.

Identification of Risk Factors Critical

The updated guideline stresses the need for pediatricians to be alert for signs that children are being abused and summarizes ways clinicians can protect children from abuse.

Child physical abuse affects children from all socioeconomic groups, although racial and socioeconomic factors play a role in determining which cases get reported to child protective services.

Adolescents are more likely to be physically abused than younger children, but infants and toddlers are most likely to suffer severe or fatal abusive injuries.

Pediatricians should be alert to risk factors including other family dysfunction, inappropriate parental expectations regarding child development, the presence of physical or mental disabilities in the child, families with stressors including military deployment of a parent, poverty, and previous reports to child protective services.

"Parents who have inappropriate developmental knowledge and expectations of their children, those who lack empathy for their children, those with harsh or inconsistent parenting practices, and those who reverse parent-child roles are also at risk for abusing their children," the authors note.

Although certain factors place children at risk for child physical abuse, much can be done to prevent it as well. For example, pediatricians have a unique opportunity to educate parents about realistic expectations regarding their child's development and to help them identify support services in the community.

Further information about risk and prevention of child maltreatment can be found in the AAP's clinical report on the pediatrician's role in child maltreatment prevention.

Index of Suspicion, Physical Examination Essential

Several factors can lead a pediatrician to suspect child physical abuse. When a parent gives an explanation for how an injury occurred that either changes over time or is inconsistent with the child's actual injuries, the pediatrician should investigate further. Certain injuries, such as multiple fractures in a child or fractures in babies who are not yet crawling or walking and have no known medical conditions, are also suspicious. Some parents may claim a child obtained fatal injuries from a short fall, but in reality these types of injuries are rarely fatal. The AAP also has a report on fractures in cases of suspected child abuse.

The current report updates recommendations on the diagnosis of abusive head trauma in infants, which can result from shaking or blunt impact. The AAP has also made available a report on guidance on diagnosing abusive head trauma and a report on retinal hemorrhage.

When physicians suspect abuse as the cause of injury, they may conduct tests to screen for additional injuries or underlying medical issues to rule out physical abuse. The AAP has provided a report on the investigation of bleeding disorders in cases of suspected child abuse.

More than 650,000 children are substantiated as victims of child abuse or neglect, and more than 1500 child deaths are attributed to child abuse or neglect each year. Most of these deaths (80%) occur in children who are younger than 4 years. "Adult reports of childhood experiences indicate that physical abuse is more common than statistics reported from any pediatric data source," the authors note.

"[R]ecognizing abuse and intervening on behalf of an abused child can save a life and can protect a vulnerable child from a lifetime of negative consequences," the authors conclude.

All authors have filed conflict of interest statements with the American Academy of Pediatrics, and any conflicts have been resolved through a process approved by the Board of Directors.

Pediatrics. Published online April 26, 2015. Full text


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