Identify child abuse

As a school staff member, it is critical to be able to recognise the physical or behavioural signs of child abuse.

Trigger warning

This page includes explicit descriptions of abuse and may be distressing to read. Information on how to access support for any issues it may raise can be found at the end of the page.

The information on this page guides schools to meet their roles and responsibilities under Child Safe Standard 5: Procedures for responding to and reporting suspected child abuse.

As a school staff member, it is critical to be able to recognise the physical or behavioural signs of child abuse. In many circumstances, they may be the only indication that a child is subject to abuse.

You may be the best-placed or only adult in a position to identify and respond to suspected abuse. When identifying child abuse, it is critical to remember that:

  • some instances of child abuse will fall across multiple categories (for instance, family violence may involve physical, sexual, or emotional child abuse)
  • the trauma associated with child abuse can significantly impact the well-being and development of a child
  • all concerns about the safety and wellbeing of a child, or the conduct of a staff member, contractor or volunteer must be acted upon as soon as possible.

If physical or behavioural indicators lead you to suspect that a child has or is being abused, or is at risk of abuse, regardless of the type of abuse, you must respond as soon as practicable by following the Four Critical Actions.

Types of child abuse

Physical child abuse

Physical child abuse can consist of any non-accidental infliction of physical violence on a child by any person. Examples of physical abuse may include beating, shaking or burning, assault with implements and female genital mutilation.

Indicators and signs of physical abuse

Physical indicators of physical child abuse include (but are not limited to):

  • bruises or welts on facial areas and other areas of the body including back, bottom, legs, arms, or inner thighs
  • bruises or welts in unusual configurations
  • bruises or welts that look like the object used to make the injury (for example fingerprints, handprints, buckles, iron, or teeth)
  • burns from boiling water, oil, or flames
  • burns that show the shape of the object used to make them (for example, iron, grill, or a cigarette)
  • fractures of the skull, jaw, nose, or limbs - especially those not consistent with the explanation offered, or the type of injury not possible at the child's age of development
  • cuts and grazes to the mouth, lips, gums, eye area, ears, or external genitalia
  • bald patches where hair has been pulled out
  • multiple injuries - old and new
  • effects of poisoning
  • internal injuries.

Behavioural signs of physical abuse

Behavioural indicators of physical child abuse include (but are not limited to):

  • disclosure of an injury inflicted by someone else (parent, carer, or guardian)
  • an inconsistent or unlikely explanation, or inability to remember the cause of injury
  • unusual fear of physical contact with adults
  • aggressive behaviour
  • disproportionate reaction to events
  • wearing clothes unsuitable for weather conditions to hide injuries
  • wariness or fear of a parent, carer, or guardian
  • reluctance to go home
  • no reaction or little emotion displayed when being hurt or threatened
  • habitual absences from school without reasonable explanation
  • overly compliant, shy, withdrawn, passive, or uncommunicative
  • unusually nervous, hyperactive, aggressive, disruptive, or destructive to self or others
  • poor sleeping patterns, fear of the dark, nightmares, or regressive behaviour (for example, bed-wetting)
  • drug or alcohol misuse, suicidal thoughts, or self-harm.

Please note that physical harm may also be caused by student fights or bullying. Strategies for teachers to address bullying is available on our Bully Stoppers website.

Support for Government schools

Support for Catholic schools

Support for Independent schools

Child sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse is when a person uses power or authority over a child to involve them in sexual activity and can include a wide range of sexual activity including:

  • fondling the child’s genitals
  • oral sex
  • vaginal or anal penetration by a penis, finger or another object
  • exposure of the child to pornography.

Child sexual abuse may not always include physical sexual contact and can also include non-contact offences, such as:

  • talking to a child in a sexually explicit way
  • sending sexual messages or emails to a child
  • exposing a sexual body part to a child
  • forcing a child to watch a sexual act (including showing pornography to a child)
  • having a child pose or perform in a sexual manner (including child sexual exploitation).

Child sexual abuse does not always involve force. In some circumstances, a child may be manipulated into believing that they have brought the abuse on themselves, or that the abuse is an expression of love, through a process of grooming.

Child sexual exploitation

Child sexual exploitation is also a form of sexual abuse where offenders use their power - physical, financial, or emotional - over a child to sexually or emotionally abuse them.

It often involves situations and relationships where young people receive something (such as food, accommodation, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, affection, gifts, money etc.) in return for participating in sexual activities.

Child sexual exploitation can occur in person or online, and sometimes the child may not even realise they are a victim.

Children most at risk of sexual abuse

Any child can be a victim of sexual abuse, however, children who are vulnerable, isolated, or have a disability are much more likely to become victims, and are disproportionately abused. Refer to advice on identify perpetrators of child sexual abuse.

Common perpetrators of child sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse is most commonly perpetrated by someone who is known to and trusted by the child, and often someone highly trusted within their families, communities, schools or other institutions. Refer to advice on identify perpetrators of child sexual abuse.

Perpetrators can include, but are not limited to:

  • a family member (this is known as intrafamily abuse and can include sibling abuse)
  • a school staff member, coach, or another carer
  • a peer or child 10 years or over*
  • a family friend or stranger
  • any person via a forced marriage (where a student is subject to marriage without their consent, arranged for by their immediate or extended family - this constitutes a criminal offence and must be reported).

*Unwanted sexual behaviour toward a student by a person 10 years or over can constitute a sexual offence and is referred to as student-to-student sexual offending.

Please note that a child who is under 10 years of age is not considered capable of committing an offence. Any suspected sexual behaviours by children under 10 are referred to as problem sexual behaviour.

Physical indicators of child sexual abuse

Physical indicators of sexual abuse include (but are not limited to):

  • injury to the genital or rectal area (for example bruising, bleeding, discharge, inflammation or infection)
  • injury to areas of the body such as breasts, buttocks or upper thighs
  • discomfort in urinating or defecating
  • presence of foreign bodies in the vagina or rectum
  • sexually-transmitted diseases
  • frequent urinary tract infections
  • pregnancy, especially in very young adolescents
  • anxiety-related illnesses (for example anorexia or bulimia)

Behavioural indicators of child sexual abuse

Behavioural indicators of sexual abuse include (but are not limited to):

  • disclosure of sexual abuse, either directly (from the alleged victim) or indirectly (by a third person or allusion)
  • persistent and age-inappropriate sexual activity (for example excessive masturbation or rubbing genitals against adults)
  • drawings or descriptions in stories that are sexually explicit and not age-appropriate
  • fear of home, specific places, or particular adults
  • poor or deteriorating relationships with adults and peers
  • poor self-care or personal hygiene
  • complaining of headaches, stomach pains or nausea without physiological basis
  • sleeping difficulties
  • regressive behaviour (for example bed-wetting or speech loss)
  • depression, self-harm, drug or alcohol abuse, or attempted suicide
  • sudden decline in academic performance, poor memory or concentration
  • engaging in sex work or sexual risk-taking behaviour
  • wearing layers of clothing to hide injuries and bruises.

Identifying perpetrators of child sexual abuse

In addition to identifying the physical and behavioural signs of abuse in children, you can play a critical role in identifying signs that a member of the school community may be engaging in child sexual abuse, or grooming a child to engage in sexual activity.

Most critically you must follow the Four Critical Actions if you:

  • feel uncomfortable about the way an adult interacts with one or more children
  • suspect that the adult may be engaging in sexual abuse of one or more children
  • suspect that the adult is grooming the child or children to engage in sexual activity
  • reasonably believe that the adult is at risk of engaging in sexual activity with one or more children.

You must report suspected abuse, or risk of abuse regardless of any concerns about the risk to the reputation of the suspected perpetrator or school.

A failure to report can result in criminal charges and your report could prove critical to protecting children in your care.

Behavioural indicators for perpetrators of child sexual abuse

Behavioural indicators for perpetrators of child sexual abuse include (but are not limited to):

Family member (adult)

  • attempts by one parent to alienate their child from the other parent
  • the overprotective or volatile relationship between the child and one of their parents or family members
  • reluctance by the child to be alone with one of their parents or family members.

Family member (sibling)

  • the child and a sibling behaving like they are in an intimate relationship
  • reluctance by the child to be alone with a sibling
  • embarrassment by siblings if they are found alone together.

School staff member, coach, or another carer

  • touching a child inappropriately
  • bringing up sexual material or personal disclosures into conversations with a student
  • inappropriately contacting a student (for example calls, emails, texts, or social media)
  • obvious or inappropriate preferential treatment of the student (making them feel 'special')
  • giving of gifts to a student
  • having inappropriate social boundaries (for example: telling the potential victim about their problems)
  • offering to drive a student to or from school
  • inviting themselves over to their homes, or calling them at night
  • befriending the parents themselves and making visits to their home
  • undermining the child's reputation, so that the child won't be believed.

More information


Grooming is a criminal offence. It occurs when an adult engages in predatory conduct to prepare a child for sexual abuse at a later time. Grooming can include:

  • communicating or attempting to befriend
  • establish a relationship or other emotional connection with the child, their parent, or carer.

Sometimes it is hard to see when someone is being groomed until after they have been sexually abused because some grooming behaviour can look like 'normal' caring behaviour. For example:

  • giving gifts or special attention to a child, their parent, or carer (this can make a child feel special or indebted to an adult)
  • controlling a child through threats, force, or use of authority (this can make a child fearful to report unwanted behaviour)
  • making close physical contacts sexual, such as inappropriate tickling or wrestling
  • openly or pretending to accidentally expose the victim to nudity, sexual material or acts (this in itself is classified as child sexual abuse but can also be a precursor to physical sexual assault).

Online grooming

Grooming includes online grooming. It occurs when an adult uses electronic communication (including social media) in a predatory fashion to try to lower a child’s inhibitions or heighten their curiosity regarding sex, to eventually meet them in person for sexual activity. This can include online chats, sexting, and other interactions. Any incidents of suspected grooming must be reported by following the Four Critical Actions.

Online grooming can also precede online child exploitation, a form of child exploitation where adults use the internet or mobile to communicate sexual imagery with or of a child (for instance, via a webcam).

Any incidents of suspected online child exploitation must be reported.

Behavioural indicators that a child may be subject to grooming

Behavioural indicators that a child may be subject to grooming include (but are not limited to):

  • developing an unusually close connection with an older person
  • displaying mood changes (such as hyperactive, secretive, hostile, aggressive, impatient, resentful, anxious, withdrawn, or depressed)
  • using street or different language, copying the way the new 'friend' may speak, talking about the new 'friend' who does not belong to his or her normal social circle
  • possessing jewellery, clothing or expensive items given by the 'friend'
  • possessing large amounts of money which he or she cannot account for
  • using a new mobile phone (given by the 'friend') excessively to make calls, videos, or send text messages
  • being excessively secretive about their use of communications technologies, including social media
  • frequently staying out overnight, especially if the relationship is with an older person
  • being dishonest about where they've been and who they’ve been with
  • using drugs (physical evidence can include spoons, silver foil, ‘tabs', or ‘rocks’)
  • assuming a new name and owning a false ID, stolen passport, or driver's license provided by the 'friend' to avoid detection
  • being picked up in a car by the 'friend' from home, school, or 'down the street'.

More information

Family violence

The Family Violence Protection Act 2008 (Vic) defines family violence as behaviour towards a family member where the behaviour:

  • is physically or sexually abusive
  • is emotionally or psychologically abusive
  • is economically abusive
  • is threatening or coercive
  • in any other way controls or dominates the family member and causes that family member to feel fear for the safety or wellbeing of that family member or another person.

A child can be the victim of any of these behaviours. Family violence also includes behaviour that causes a child to hear or witness, or otherwise be exposed to the effects of any of these behaviours.

A child or young person might be a victim of family violence in the following ways:

  • being hit, yelled at, or otherwise directly abused
  • being injured
  • being sexually abused
  • experiencing fear for self
  • experiencing fear for another person, a pet, or belongings
  • seeing, hearing, or otherwise sensing violence directed against another person
  • seeing, hearing, or otherwise sensing the aftermath of violence (such as broken furniture, smashed crockery, or an atmosphere of tension)
  • knowing or sensing that a family member is in fear
  • being told to do something (such as to be quiet or to ‘behave’) to prevent violence
  • being blamed for not preventing violence
  • attempting to prevent or minimise violence
  • attempting to mediate between the perpetrator and another family member
  • being threatened or co-opted by the perpetrator into using violent behaviour against another family member
  • being co-opted into supporting the perpetrator or taking their side
  • being isolated or socially marginalised in ways that are directly attributable to the perpetrator’s controlling behaviours.

Family violence is predominantly (although not always) perpetrated by men against women and children. Children most commonly experience family violence through a partner or ex-partner of the mother. A child (or children) may also be the target of the behaviour (including a direct or indirect attack on the mother-child relationship) or may witness the behaviours, or the effects of the behaviours.

Family violence can have devastating impacts on children

Experiences of family violence create significant risks to a child’s social, emotional, psychological and physical health and wellbeing. The longer a child experiences family violence, the greater the impact can be.

Action must be taken to protect the child and to limit their trauma and support their recovery. As a school staff member, you may be in the best position to identify that a child may be experiencing family violence and to take steps to protect the child by following the Four Critical Actions.

Family violence in our communities

Unfortunately, the incidence of family violence is high. Family violence is one of the most significant and serious issues facing our communities, with a devastating impact on the health and wellbeing of many Victorians.

It occurs within all social, cultural and economic groups, although some groups experience greater barriers to accessing help and support. Women are particularly vulnerable to family violence during pregnancy. Family violence does not necessarily end if the relationship ends. The family violence may not only continue but may increase in frequency and severity, especially during the period where the action is taken to leave or end the relationship.

Identifying family violence

Family violence can be difficult to identify. Victims of family violence, including children, often become very adept at hiding their distress as a coping and safety strategy.

The following sections outline some of the key physical and behavioural indicators of family violence in children. These indicators are drawn from the Department of Families, Fairness, and Housing (DFFH) family violence multi-agency risk assessment and management framework.

The Framework was updated in response to recommendations of the Royal Commission into Family Violence: the Family Violence Multi-Agency Risk Assessment and Management Framework (published under the former title, Department of Health and Human Services - DHHS)

Physical indicators of family violence

Physical indicators of family violence include (but are not limited to):

  • speech disorders
  • delays in physical development
  • failure to thrive (without an organic cause)
  • bruises, cuts, or welts on facial areas, and other parts of the body including back, bottom, legs, arms or inner thighs
  • any bruises or welts (old or new) in unusual configurations
  • any bruises or welts that look like the object used to make the injury (such as fingerprints, handprints, buckles, iron, or teeth)
  • fractured bones, especially in an infant where a fracture is unlikely to have occurred accidentally
  • poisoning
  • internal injuries.

Behavioural indicators of family violence

Behavioural indicators of family violence include (but are not limited to):

  • violent or aggressive behaviour and language
  • depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts
  • appearing nervous and withdrawn - including wariness or distrust of adults
  • difficulty adjusting to change
  • psychosomatic illness
  • bedwetting or sleeping disorders
  • 'acting out', such as cruelty to animals
  • extremely demanding, attention-seeking behaviour
  • participating in dangerous risk-taking behaviours to impress peers
  • overly compliant, shy, withdrawn, passive, and uncommunicative behaviour
  • taking on a caretaker role prematurely, or trying to protect other family members
  • embarrassment about family
  • demonstrated fear of parents, carers, or guardians, and of going home
  • disengagement from school (absenteeism, lateness, school refusal) or poor academic outcomes
  • parent-child conflict
  • wearing long-sleeved clothes on hot days in an attempt to hide bruising or another injury
  • becoming fearful when other children cry or shout
  • being excessively friendly to strangers.

For older children and young people indicators can also include:

  • moving away or running away from home
  • entering a relationship early to escape the family home
  • entering into other violent or unsafe relationships
  • involvement in risk-taking or unlawful activity
  • alcohol and substance misuse.

Identifying family violence in parents and carers

As a school staff member, you will likely have contact with a child’s parent or carer. Through interactions with parents and carers, you may identify signs, or receive a disclosure that a child is experiencing family violence. Noting that if a parent is experiencing family violence, it is highly likely that their child is also impacted.

You should always respond to any reasonable suspicion or belief that a child may be experiencing family violence by following the Four Critical Actions

Key indicators that a family member is experiencing violence include:

  • nervous, ashamed or evasive behaviour
  • describing their partner as controlling or prone to anger
  • appearing to be uncomfortable or anxious in the presence of their partner
  • being accompanied by their partner, who does most of the talking
  • having physical signs of violence, such as bruising
  • giving an unconvincing explanation of injuries that they (or their child) have sustained
  • suffering anxiety, panic attacks, stress, or depression.

Some alleged perpetrators of family violence may also be subject to court orders, including family violence intervention orders.

More information

Emotional child abuse

Emotional child abuse occurs when a child is repeatedly rejected, isolated, or frightened by threats, or by witnessing family violence.

It also includes hostility, derogatory name-calling and put-downs, and persistent coldness from a person, to the extent that the child suffers, or is likely to suffer, emotional or psychological harm to their physical or developmental health. Emotional abuse may occur with or without other forms of abuse.

Physical indicators of emotional child abuse

Physical indicators of emotional abuse include (but are not limited to):

  • speech disorders such as language delay, stuttering, or selectively being mute (only speaking with certain people or in certain situations)
  • delays in emotional, mental, or physical development.

Behavioural indicators of emotional child abuse

Behavioural indicators of emotional abuse include (but are not limited to):

  • overly compliant, passive, and undemanding behaviour
  • extremely demanding, aggressive, and attention-seeking behaviour or anti-social and destructive behaviour
  • low tolerance or frustration
  • poor self-image and low self-esteem
  • unexplained mood swings, depression, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts
  • behaviours that are not age-appropriate (for instance overly adult or overly infantile)
  • fear of failure, overly high standards, and excessive neatness
  • poor social and interpersonal skills
  • violent drawings or writing
  • lack of positive social contact with other children.


Neglect includes a failure to provide the child with an adequate standard of nutrition, medical care, clothing, shelter, or supervision to the extent that the health or physical development of the child is significantly impaired or placed at serious risk.

In some circumstances the neglect of a child:

  • can place the child’s immediate safety and development at serious risk
  • may not immediately compromise the safety of the child, but is likely to result in longer-term cumulative harm.

Physical indicators of neglect

Physical indicators of neglect include (but are not limited to):

  • appearing consistently dirty and unwashed
  • being consistently inappropriately dressed for weather conditions
  • being at risk of injury or harm due to consistent lack of adequate supervision from parents
  • being consistently hungry, tired, and listless
  • having unattended health problems and lack of routine medical care
  • having inadequate shelter and unsafe or unsanitary conditions.

Behavioural indicators of neglect include (but are not limited to):

  • gorging when food is available or inability to eat when extremely hungry
  • begging for or stealing food
  • appearing withdrawn, listless, pale, and weak
  • aggressive behaviour or irritability
  • involvement in criminal activity
  • little positive interaction with a parent, carer, or guardian
  • poor socialising habits
  • excessive friendliness towards strangers
  • indiscriminate acts of affection
  • poor, irregular, or non-attendance at school
  • staying at school for long hours and refusing or being reluctant to go home
  • self-destructive behaviour
  • taking on an adult role of caring for parents.

You should always respond to any reasonable suspicion or belief that a child may be experiencing neglect by following the Four Critical Actions

Sexual behaviour in children under 10 Years

Student sexual offending

Student sexual offending refers to sexual behaviour that is led by a student 10 years and over, which may amount to a sexual offence.

If you suspect a student of sexual offending, refer to Identifying and responding to Student Sexual Offending.

The problem of sexual behaviour in children under 10

Most children and young people are likely to engage in some level of age-appropriate sexual behaviour as part of their development. Sexual behaviour can present itself along a broad continuum, with research suggesting that only a small number of children and young people develop problem sexual behaviour.

Video: Identifying signs of abuse

Report suspected child abuse

Report abuse

Find out about the four critical actions you must take when responding to an incident, disclosure, or suspicion of child abuse: Report child abuse in schools.

All school staff members have a moral and legal obligation and a Duty of Care to protect any child under their care from foreseeable harm, refer to Reporting and other legal obligations.

Responding to other concerns about the wellbeing of a child

If you hold other wellbeing concerns for the child in addition to or other than abuse, refer to Reporting abuse: responding to other concerns about the wellbeing of a child.

Guides and resources to support school staff

Download PROTECT guides

PROTECT guide for staff spotting the warning signs of child abuse:

The information on this page has been taken from PROTECT: Identifying and responding to all forms of abuse in Victorian Schools. Download the guide in full:

Providing support to staff members

Allegations and instances of student sexual offending can cause trauma and significantly impact the mental health and wellbeing of school community members.

For more information on how to support students and impacted staff members, refer to: Providing Ongoing Support.

Support for you

If you need to talk to someone, it is recommended that you speak to your school leadership team about arranging appropriate support. You can also talk to your GP or another allied health professional.

Government school staff can also contact the Employee Assistance Program on 1300 361 008.