Recognizing, diagnosing, and preventing child maltreatment: an update for pediatric clinicians

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Purpose of review

Despite an increasing understanding of the impact of emotional trauma and physical abuse on children, clinicians and hospitals still sometimes miss the diagnosis of abuse. The literature in 2017 focused on creating standardized approaches to recognition and diagnosis of physical abuse and occult injury, including using the electronic medical record to provide triggers for consultation of the hospital Child Protection Program. The American College of Radiology updated their standardized approach to the evaluation of physical abuse in the child, and other authors gave us screening tools for commercial exploitation, as well as guidance about how to recognize risks for emotional abuse in families. The opioid epidemic and legalization of marijuana are both impacting children, and providers are searching for ways to provide support for parents with substance use disorders whilst considering the safety of children.

Purpose of review

This article reviews relevant publications during the past year about issues of child maltreatment. It is intended to guide those providers in primary care or other medical disciplines who care for children and families.

Recent findings

Child maltreatment cases are still not always diagnosed, either because of provider bias (leading to under evaluation), or because clinicians lack experience or understanding of proper evaluation approaches. There are many new tools to assist in recognition of abuse, including screening instruments and flags that can be used in the electronic medical record to trigger a consult with the Child Protection Program. The evaluation and diagnosis of sexual abuse continues to evolve, with the literature providing advice about what is or is not normal on physical exam, as well as advice for providers who work with adolescent sexual assault victims. The debate about the validity of abusive head trauma (AHT) diagnoses continues, with sweden being the most recent center of controversy. With the opioid epidemic having such a significant effect on families and children, clinicians are struggling to support parents with substance use disorder while protecting children from the impact of their parents’ disease.


The past year in child abuse literature has yielded increased clarity in screening and diagnostic recommendations across the fields of physical abuse, AHT, sexual abuse, and commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). The body of literature surrounding emotional abuse and neglect continues to grow, especially in light of the burgeoning opioid epidemic. Critically, the year's research reflects an evolving understanding of effective prevention and intervention initiatives to address child maltreatment.

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