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Child abuse can be defined as “all forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power.” – World Health Organisation

Child abuse is divided into four categories:

  • Physical abuse is when a child has been hurt or injured, and it is not an accident. While physical abuse does not always leave visible marks or injuries, it can include hitting, shaking, choking, smothering, throwing, burning, biting, poisoning, or using physical restraints.
  • Sexual abuse is when an adult, teenager or child uses their power or authority to involve another child in sexual activity. Sexual abuse can be physical, verbal or emotional, including kissing, holding or fondling a child in a sexual way, exposing genitals to a child, talking in an age-inappropriate sexual manner, making obscene phone calls, text messages or remarks, persistently intruding on a child’s privacy, penetrating a child’s vagina or anus by penis, finger or other object, having sex with a child under 16 years of age, showing pornographic films, magazines or photographs to a child, having a child pose or behave in a sexual way, forcing a child or young person to watch a sexual act, forcing a child or young person to have sex with another child, oral sex, rape, incest, or child prostitution.
  • Emotional abuse is when a child is treated in a way that negatively impacts their social, emotional or intellectual development. Emotional abuse can be caused by rejection, name calling, teasing or bullying, yelling, criticism, isolation or caging a child for extended periods, or by exposure to domestic and family violence.
  • Neglect is when a child’s basic needs (food, housing and clean living conditions, health care, adequate clothing, personal hygiene, and adequate supervision) are not met, affecting their health and development.

The EU does not have its own definition of child abuse, but commonly uses the UN’s definition: “all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse.”

Victims’ rights in the EU are established under The Victim’s Rights Directive and sets out the 6 key rights available to all victims of all types of crime that take place in any member state. To find out more about the legislation concerning child abuse, contact your local victim support service.

As child abuse has not been defined on a European level, there is no pan-European legislation. The Directive on combating the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children and child pornography is targeted at child victims of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. There are no European Directives on physical or emotional abuse or neglect, however, the EU Victims’ Rights Directive states that the specific needs of child victims must be taken into account by specialist support services.

The Council of Europe has several resources relevant to protection of children from violence:

Member states each have their own legal code that will apply to child abuse. However, a report on the abuse from the child is usually needed before any legal action can be taken. The collection of evidence in online abuse cases can be a problem for law enforcement, as it raises jurisdictional issues for information stored in the ‘cloud’.  Member States tend to underuse EU cooperation tools and agencies such as Europol and Eurojust in cases of cross-border child sexual abuse, despite their importance in the sharing of information, identification of victims and the coordination of investigations and prosecutions.

Punishment, whether custodial or financial, will depend on the crime and on the outcome of any court case.  However, all victims of crime in Europe are entitled to compensation and restitution under the Victim’s Rights Directive.

Steps EU Member States have to take to tackle child sexual abuse:
VIDEO — EU steps up the fight to combat child sexual abuse and exploitation

The German Criminal Code contains stringent provisions against the sexual exploitation of children. Its section 174 penalises those who have custody or authority over a person below the age of 18 for the commission of sexual acts upon these minors. The penalty is up to five years of imprisonment. Section 176 makes the commission of sexual acts on persons below the age of 14 punishable with imprisonment for up to ten years, and the same punishment applies to inducing a child to commit sexual acts with a third person.

  • If something doesn’t feel right, it’s okay to say no.
  • Talk to someone you trust, even if you feel embarrassed or think you’ve done something wrong.
  • If you feel threatened, call the police.

Help your child to be safe without frightening them. You could tell them:

  • Everybody has the right to feel safe;
  • The correct names for the parts of their body covered by underwear and that they are private;
  • That they should let you know if anyone tries to touch or photograph their private parts;
  • Who they can talk to if you’re not available.

If your child is not yet in school, you can:

  • Teach them about personal safety in simple language;
  • Repeat the same rules often;
  • Play ‘what if’ games to repeat the message about being safe e.g. what if a stranger asks you to go inside their house to look for their lost cat?

If your child is in primary school, you can teach them:

  • Your family safety rules;
  • How to use the rules in a situation that could be dangerous.

You can encourage your teenager to:

  • Think for themselves;
  • Make good decisions;
  • Be strong and confident.

Additionally, you should always:

  • Know who is looking after your children;
  • Listen to your children and believe what they say – children hardly ever make up stories about sexual abuse;
  • Watch your child for signs of distress in a specific person’s company;
  • Be aware of possible signs of grooming.

It is important to recognise signs of child abuse. Some common signs of child abuse include:

  • Unexplained changes in behaviour or personality – becoming withdrawn, anxious, or aggressive
  • Poor social skills and a lack of friends, if any
  • Poor bond or relationship with a parent
  • In appropriate knowledge, for their age, of adult issues
  • Running away or going missing
  • Wearing clothes that hide their body

Physical abuse symptoms include:

  • Bruises; broken or fractured bones; burns or scalds; bite marks
  • Injuries and health problems, such as: scarring; the effects of poisoning, such as vomiting, drowsiness or seizures; breathing problems from drowning, suffocation or poisoning
  • Visible signs of head injuries in babies and toddlers: swelling; bruising; fractures; being extremely sleepy or unconscious; breathing problems; seizures; vomiting; unusual behaviour, such as being irritable or not feeding properly

Children who have been sexually abused may:

  • Know more about sexual activities than other children their age and play in a sexual way
  • Masturbate more than is normal for their age and stage of development
  • Refuse to undress for activities or often wear layers of clothing
  • Have bruising, bleeding, swelling, tears, or cuts on their genitals or anus
  • Have unusual vaginal odour or discharge
  • Have itching or pain in the genital area, difficulty going to the toilet, walking, or sitting
  • Have a sexually transmitted disease, especially in a young child
  • Have torn, stained, or bloody clothing, especially underwear
  • Be afraid of being alone with a particular person
  • Be frequently depressed, feel suicidal, or attempt suicide
  • Create stories, poems, or artwork about abuse

Children who have been emotionally abused might:

  • Seem unconfident or lack self-assurance
  • Struggle to control their emotions
  • Have difficulty making or maintaining relationships
  • Act in a way that’s inappropriate for their age

Common signs of neglect include:

  • Poor appearance and hygiene
  • Health and development problems
  • Housing and family issues
  • Change in behaviour

Children, who are being or have been abused will usually try to hide the abuse from (other) family members, school-teachers, and friends.  They may fear further cruelty, or feel that they ‘deserve’ the mistreatment, or they may simply have no one to trust. However, the impact of physical or emotional child abuse can be felt for many years after the event and can lead to PTSD, failed relationships, substance or alcohol abuse, or lead to becoming an abuser yourself.  If you, or a child you know, is affected by any form of child abuse, it is important to reach out for help: there are many organizations ready to support you when you are ready to ask for assistance. Victim Support offers free, confidential advice and help to all victims and its staff will work with children and adults to in recovering from the experience of physical or emotional abuse.

It takes courage for a child to talk to an adult about any form of mistreatment it receives from an adult, or other child.  If the child does not have the support of its parents, the abuse may go unreported for years.  Even if a child does tell a responsible adult, making a report to the police can lead to further revictimization and trauma for the child.  No matter how embarrassing or humiliating the interaction with the police may seem, if you believe that you, or a child you know, is or has been a victim of physical or emotional child abuse, whether current or historic, it is essential that a report is submitted.  Your report may assist authorities in their investigations or may help to thwart people from taking advantage of other children in the future and is an important means of ensuring this crime is made a police priority.

You should contact the police either by phone or in person.  If you decide not to report the abuse immediately, you can do so later – contact your local Victim Support organization for assistance.

You, or the child, will need to give details of the assault, such as:

  • Date, time, place of the abuse
  • Who carried out the abuse
  • What was your response
  • What happened
  • Were you injured, if so did you go to the hospital or see a doctor
  • Were there any witnesses, who were they


You, or the adult responsible for a child victim, will be given a crime report number and a police investigator will be allocated the complaint.  The officer will handle the progress of the file up to and including the trial stage, assuming the abuser is apprehended and brought to justice.  You, or the child, will be expected to provide statements detailing the assault and its effect, these will be used at any trial that takes place.  You, or the adult responsible for a child victim, will be informed of victims’ rights and will be told what to expect if the case is brought before a jury.  Importantly, you, or the child, have the right to legal assistance in all EU member states and the right to an interpreter if the trial takes place outside your own country.

If you have come across child sexual abuse material online, visit Europol’s website to learn how to report the crime, online, in your country. Reporting mechanisms vary from one country to another. In Member States which do not have a dedicated online option in place, you are advised to go to your local police station to lodge a complaint.

If you’ve been affected by child abuse, there are a number of ways you can contact support services to get assistance or information.

  1. Get support locally. Contact your nearest victim support team.
  2. Call 116 006, the telephone number for helplines for victim support. This number is available in Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Sweden.

The 116 006 helps victims of crime by informing them of their rights and how to use these, offering emotional support, while also referring victims to relevant organisations. As a single access point, it will provide information about local police and criminal justice proceedings, possibilities for compensation and insurance matters, and other sources of help for victims of crime.

Watch Wendy’s story, victim of sexual abuse during her childhood.

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