Child Abuse: Five Tips for Parents who Suspect Child Abuse in a Divorce Custody Battle

Accusations of child abuse are often tossed about in the heat of child custody disputes. While most such accusations are based on fears generated by the boiling emotions surrounding divorce rather than actual incidents, that does not negate the fact that child abuse and neglect does happen in some divorced and blended families.

“Being a single parent is difficult and divorce creates two single parents,” explains Dr. Martin J. Drell, head of Infant, Child, Adolescent Psychiatry at LSU’s Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. “You no longer have that dual-parent tag team to fall back on where one parent can step in when the other is tired, angry or frustrated.”

In the case of blended families, the extra emotional baggage can add to the danger. A new wife may resent the reduction in family income imposed by child support or alimony payments to the ex-wife and take out her frustration on her husband’s child. Or, the child may act out during visits in anger over the divorce, the new marriage, or both and upset the delicate balance in the new family dynamics. Step and half-siblings may harm one another in fits of jealousy and rivalry. There are endless possibilities that can complicate the picture and contribute to abuse, neglect or simply gross misunderstandings.

“Sometimes just differences in parenting styles can cause an impression of child abuse or neglect,” says Dr. Drell. It’s not necessarily abuse or neglect if your ex and the new family allow your child to do something differently than you would allow.”

“Children can easily adapt to two sets of household rules. In fact, they do it all the time. They know to behave differently between their friend’s house, home, and their grandma’s for example. It isn’t a big deal unless you or your ex makes it a big deal,” says Dr. Drell.

“However, there is potential for the child to misinterpret parental behaviors in a new setting. For example, one parent may believe in spanking and the other be totally against it,” explains Dr. Drell. The same duality can exist between parent and stepparent of the same or different households. It’s easy in such a scenario for the child to see the discipline as abuse and report it as such.

“It’s the very rare parent that thinks they need to verify their child’s claim,” says Dr. Drell.

Beyond the mishaps and misunderstandings inherent to such situations, lies the very real threat of damaging or life-threatening abuse and neglect. If you truly suspect your child is a victim while visiting your ex, or elsewhere for that matter, here are five do’s and don’ts that can help you identify the problem and get responsible and professional help:

1. Don’t Proactively Look For Evidence of Abuse

“You are too close to the divorce drama to do a fair assessment so if you are out there really looking for signs of abuse, odds are you’ll probably find something to fit the bill,” says Dr. Drell. “Instead, watch your child for symptoms of any kind of trouble that may require professional help. Be aware that the symptoms of depression or disgruntlement over the divorce can easily be confused for symptoms of child abuse. Usually, only a professional can tell the difference.” Be cautious not to make any assumptions based merely on a hunch, especially if you are undergoing emotional stress of your own.

2. Be Informed of the Signs and Symptoms of Child Abuse

“It’s a mistake to automatically chalk up changes in your child’s behavior to the divorce. Your child could be the victim of abuse at your ex’s home, at his school or daycare, or even at the hands of neighborhood bullies. In other words, don’t assume your child’s behavior is tied to a single life event. While people are getting divorced, other crap happens too,” says Dr. Drell.

Learn more about the signs and symptoms you should be aware of:

3. Don’t Interrogate Your Child

“Don’t ask leading questions because you can accidentally end up suggesting to the child that there is a problem when maybe one doesn’t exist“ or the child will try to please you by providing the answer they think you want to hear. Either way, you won’t have the information you need,” says Dr. Kristi Murphy, clinical director of Child Help Children’s Center in Phoenix, Arizona.

“If your child tells you about a problem, stick to the basic facts of who, what, where, and how in your questions”, advises Dr. Murphy, “then let the professionals question the child further so that your child is not harmed in the process of gathering evidence.”

On the flip side, if you question your child too intensely, the Defense attorney may argue successfully that you told the child to make the accusation in the first place!

4. If in Doubt, Give A Shout 

“Call the Child Help Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child if you are unsure about whether your child, or someone else’s — is a victim of abuse or if you do not know where to go in your area for help. The worldwide hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week by masters level child counselors who can give you immediate and free professional advice. Children can also call the number for help. Sometimes, you just need someone to talk to and it helps to have someone really listen. If that’s the case for you or your child, pick up the phone and call,” says Dr. Murphy.

5. Document Signs of Physical Abuse Immediately

If you see physical signs of abuse such as bruises and other injuries, or genital or anal itching or bleeding, take the child to the doctor or hospital immediately. Do not bathe the child, as you may accidentally remove evidence such as semen, saliva or other body fluids, and do not wait until morning. Medical personnel will also report the abuse and speed help for you and your child on many fronts. It is also a good idea to take pictures of the child’s injuries, even if the doctor or the hospital also takes pictures, so you will have your own copy of the abuse if it’s needed later to help prosecute the abuser.