In 2017, the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) received reports of 637 cases of child sexual abuse—along with nearly 10,000 reports of child neglect and 2,000 reports of physical abuse. Reporting suspected abuse to DCFS can help children and teenagers get out of harmful situations, but how do you know when to file a report?
Many workers in Louisiana, including teachers, medical professionals, and clergy members, are mandatory reporters for child abuse and neglect. If they suspect a child is being sexually or physically abused or neglected, they must make a report to DCFS. Mandatory reporters must also undergo training to learn how to recognize the signs of sexual abuse in teenagers and adolescent children.
What Is “Sexual Abuse”?
Under Louisiana law, sexual abuse may involve physical contact between an adult and a minor (e.g., rape, oral sex, or fondling, kissing, or touching of a sexual nature). However, behavior can be sexually abusive without physical contact. Criminal sexual abuse of a minor also includes acts of a sexual nature like showing pornography or explicit images to a child, exposing oneself sexually to a child, or asking a child to expose themselves sexually. Louisiana also categorizes coerced abortion and female genital mutilation as sexual abuse.
Signs That Can Indicate Sexual Abuse in Adolescent Children
Children respond in different ways to sexual abuse, and adolescents often show different signs than younger children. Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish signs of abuse from normal adolescent development. If you notice multiple troubling behaviors, however, it may indicate sexual or physical abuse.
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) warns of these common symptoms of abuse in teenagers:
• Unusual weight gain or weight loss.
• Unhealthy eating patterns, like a loss of appetite or excessive eating.
• Signs of physical abuse, such as bruises.
• Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or other genital infections.
• Signs of depression such as persistent sadness, lack of energy, changes in sleep or appetite, withdrawal from normal activities, or feeling “down.”
• Anxiety or worry.
• Falling grades.
• Changes in self-care, such as paying less attention to hygiene, appearance, or fashion than they usually do.
• Self-harming behavior.
• Expressing thoughts about suicide or suicidal behavior.
• Drinking or drug use.
These behaviors do not necessarily mean a teen is being abused; many teenagers display one or more of these behaviors as they develop through puberty into adulthood. However, if you observe a pattern of destructive behaviors, it may be an indication of abuse.
Teenagers and Abusive Relationships
Teenagers often have consensual romantic relationships with their peers. As they learn to navigate these interactions, it is important for adults to watch for signs they are being bullied or coerced into sexual behavior. This can include being pressured not to use contraception or protection against STIs or to use drugs or alcohol to lower their inhibitions. Teenagers can also be abused by adults, who may ask them to keep the relationship secret, tell them they “seem older,” and pressure them into sexual activity.
Adolescents can also experience online and virtual sexual harassment and abuse. Sharing and forwarding sexual imagery, explicit material, or conversations can constitute sexual abuse. Transmitting explicit photos of a minor can also constitute the sexual abuse of a child.
What Should I Do If I Suspect a Teenager Is Being Abused?
If you know or suspect a teenager is being abused by a parent, partner, caregiver, clergy member, teacher, or other individual, you should contact DCFS immediately. You can file a report by calling 1-855-4LA-KIDS (1-855-452-5437), a toll-free hotline available 24 hours a day/365 days a year, or by filling out a reporting form online. If your child or teenager has been abused or victimized, you may be able to recover compensation for physical and emotional damages. An experienced sexual abuse attorney can evaluate your case and help you pursue claims to get the compensation you deserve.