Child abuse and child protection

Introduction

It is everyone’s responsibility to protect children and young people and keep them safe. It is important that families, communities and professionals can recognise when a child or young person is being harmed and that they know what action to take in response.

The purpose of the Children First Act 2015 and the Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children (pdf) is to raise awareness of child abuse and neglect, provide for mandatory reporting by key professionals and improve child safeguarding arrangements in organisations providing services to children.

What is child abuse?

Child abuse is categorised into 4 different types. A child may experience more than one form of abuse.

The 4 types of abuse are:

  • Neglect
  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse

Neglect

Neglect occurs when a child does not get proper care or supervision to the extent that the child is harmed physically or developmentally. Ongoing neglect is recognised as being extremely harmful to the development and well-being of a child and may have serious long-term negative consequences.

Some of the features of child neglect include:

  • Children being left alone without adequate care and supervision
  • Malnourishment, lacking food, unsuitable food or erratic feeding
  • Failure to provide adequate care for the child’s medical and developmental needs
  • Inadequate living conditions – unhygienic conditions, environmental issues, including lack of adequate heating and furniture
  • Lack of adequate clothing
  • Inattention to basic hygiene
  • Lack of protection and exposure to danger or lack of supervision appropriate to the child’s age
  • Persistent failure to attend school

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse occurs where a child’s need for affection, approval and security is not being met by the child’s parents or carer. Emotional abuse is not easy to recognise because the effects are not easily seen. The effects of emotional abuse on a child may be shown through the child’s behaviour, emotional state or development.

Emotional abuse of a child may include:

  • Rejection
  • Lack of comfort and love
  • Lack of continuity of care (for example, frequent moves, particularly unplanned)
  • Continuous lack of praise and encouragement
  • Persistent criticism, sarcasm, hostility or blaming of the child
  • Bullying
  • Conditional parenting in which care or affection of a child depends on his or her behaviours or actions
  • Extreme overprotectiveness
  • Inappropriate non-physical punishment (for example, locking a child in bedroom)
  • Ongoing family conflicts and family violence
  • Seriously inappropriate expectations of a child relative to their age and stage of development

Physical abuse

Physical abuse is when someone deliberately hurts a child physically or puts them at risk of being physically hurt. It may occur as a single incident or as a pattern of incidents.

Examples of physical abuse include:

  • Beating, slapping, hitting or kicking
  • Pushing, shaking or throwing
  • Use of excessive force in handling
  • Deliberate poisoning
  • Fabricated/induced illness
  • Female genital mutilation

The Children First Act 2015 abolishes the common law defence of reasonable chastisement in court proceedings. This defence could previously be used by a parent or other person in authority who physically disciplined a child.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse occurs where a child is used by someone for their own or someone else’s sexual gratification or arousal. It includes the child being involved in sexual acts or exposing the child to sexual activity directly or through pornography.

Examples of child sexual abuse include:

  • Any sexual act intentionally performed in the presence of a child
  • Sexual intercourse with a child
  • Sexual exploitation of a child including inviting, coercing or inducing a child to participate in, or to observe any sexual, indecent or obscene act
  • Showing sexually explicit material to children, which is often a feature of the ‘grooming’ process by perpetrators of abuse
  • Consensual sexual activity involving an adult and an underage person (in criminal law the age of consent to sexual intercourse is 17 years for both boys and girls)

How do you recognise child abuse?

You may have observed signs of abuse or have grounds for concern such as, where a child has a suspicious injury or appears distressed for no obvious reason. If you ignore what may be signs or symptoms of abuse, it could result in ongoing harm to the child.

Alternatively, a child may make a direct or indirect disclosure. A child needs to have someone they can trust in order to feel able to disclose abuse they may be experiencing. They need to know that they will be believed and will get the help they need.

The Child and Family Agency (Tusla) provides more information on the types of child abuse on its website and how to recognise them. You should always inform Tusla if you are concerned that a child may have been, is being, or is at risk of being abused or neglected.

If you are concerned about a child but unsure whether you should report it to Tusla, you may find it useful to contact Tusla to informally discuss your concern.

It is not necessary for you to prove that abuse has occurred to report a concern to the Child and Family Agency (Tusla). All that is required is that you have reasonable grounds for concern. It is Tusla’s role to assess concerns that are reported to it.

How do I report my concerns?

Tusla has a statutory responsibility to assess all reports of child welfare and protection concerns. Anyone who suspects that a child is being abused, or is at risk of abuse, has a duty to report their suspicions to Tusla. You should report your concerns to the Tusla social work duty officer in the area the child lives.

You can report your concerns in person, by writing or by phone. While you can report your concerns anonymously, Tusla does not normally reveal the names of people who report suspicions of child abuse unless they have permission to do so.

What happens after a report is received by Tusla?

Tusla will consider your report, and if concerns are found after the initial checks, further evaluation involving a detailed examination of the child and family’s circumstances will follow. It will then take whatever action is required to protect the child.

If no concerns are found, then the information gathered is recorded and kept on a confidential file where it will be examined if further concerns or more information comes to light.

If you need to report your concerns outside normal office hours (weekends and at night) you should report your concerns to the Garda Síochána.

Under the Protections for Persons Reporting Child Abuse Act 1998, as long as you report what you believe to be true and you do it in good faith you, cannot be sued for making a false or malicious report.

If you make a report about a child, Tusla will normally acknowledge it, and may contact you for further information, if necessary. It is understandable that you would like to be assured that the matter is being followed up. However, to protect the privacy of the child and family, it may not be possible for Tusla to inform you of the progress or outcome of Tusla’s contact with the child or family.

Are parents informed if concerns are reported?

If you are the parent of a child being assessed following the reporting of concerns, you should be told why and you should be given the opportunity to respond. Concerns about your child should be explained to you.

Tusla has published information for parents in their leaflet on social work assessment of child protection and welfare concerns (pdf).

Tusla has also published a leaflet on Information for parents about social work (pdf) that explains what Tusla is and what happens when there are concerns about the welfare, or safety of a child or when there are concerns a child has been abused or neglected. This leaflet is also available in:

Duties of organisations

Organisations that have statutory responsibilities under the Children First Act 2015 are those that provide a relevant service to children and young people. The Act sets out a list of these organisations.

All organisations that provide services to children must develop specific policies and procedures on how to create a safe environment to prevent deliberate harm or abuse to the children availing of their services.

The legislation imposes deadlines on organisations in both carrying out a risk assessment and preparing a Child Safeguarding Statement.

A designated liaison person may be appointed to ensure that reporting procedures within your organisation are followed, so that child welfare and protection concerns are referred promptly to Tusla. Some designated liaison persons will be working in organisations where mandated persons are also employed.

Under the Children First Act 2015, mandated persons are people who have ongoing contact with children and families and who, because of their qualifications, training and experience are in a key position to protect children from harm. A mandated person is required to report any knowledge, belief or reasonable suspicion that a child has been harmed, is being harmed, or is at risk of being harmed to Tusla. Tusla has detailed information on the legal obligations of a mandated person and the threshold for making a mandated report.

Tusla has published A Guide for the Reporting of Child Protection and Welfare Concerns (pdf) for individuals and organisations working with children.

Adults who have experienced abuse in childhood

The HSE National Counselling Service for adults with a history of child abuse provides counselling and support to any adult who has experienced abuse in childhood. Since its establishment, its primary clients have been adults who experienced abuse whilst in the care of the State as children. You can refer yourself directly to the National Counselling Service that is nearest to you. GPs and others can also make referrals. The service is available free of charge in all regions of the country.

Connect is a free professional telephone counselling and support service for adults who have experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse, trauma or neglect in childhood. It is an additional service to the HSE’s National Counselling Service. To speak to a counsellor call:

  • Ireland: Freephone 1800 477 477
  • UK and Northern Ireland: Freephone 00800 477 477 77
  • Outside Ireland and UK: 00353 1 865 7495 (International call rates apply)

Further information

Find more information in our page on reporting child abuse at primary and post primary level.

You can find more information about child protection and welfare and the role of Tusla on the Tusla website.

Tusla - Child and Family Agency

Brunel Building
Heuston South Quarter
Dublin 8
Ireland

Tel: (01) 771 8500


Page edited: 10 May 2021