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Information on Child Abuse

What is Child Abuse and Neglect?

Child abuse and neglect is a growing national problem. Each year hundreds of thousands of children are abused by adults responsible for their care. But just what is meant by the term child abuse and neglect? While exact definitions differ from State to State and between military and civilian regulations and laws, most definitions describe an abused or neglected child as:

Source:National ClearingHouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information,

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Frequently Asked Questions about Child Abuse and Neglect

What are the different types of child abuse?
Children suffer several types of abuse, all harmful to their physical and emotional development and all requiring intervention. National statistics in 1996 breakdown in the following percentages:

Neglect 52%
Physical Abuse 24%
Other 14%
Sexual Abuse 12%
Emotional Abuse 6%
Medical Neglect 3%

"Other" includes cases such as abandonment, congenital drug addiction, educational neglect, and other situations endangering a child. Children may be the victims of more than one type of maltreatment.

How do these forms of abuse affect a child's development?
It's easiest to identify the dangers of physical abuse, which can cause serious harm such as broken bones or even lead to death. Sexual abuse can sometimes cause so much trauma to a child that years go by before he or she is able to understand or talk about what happened. Sexual victimization robs children of their childhood, creates a loss of trust and feelings of guilt, and can lead to antisocial behavior, depression, identity confusion, loss of self-esteem, and other serious emotional problems. Physical neglect, including medical neglect, can severely impact a child's development by causing failure to thrive, malnutrition, serious illness, physical harm resulting from a lack of supervision, and a lifetime of low self-esteem. Emotional abuse can lead to a poor self-image, alcohol and drug abuse, destructive behavior, and even suicide. Severe emotional neglect of an infant can prevent the baby from properly developing and can even lead to its death.

What makes people abuse children?
It is difficult to imagine that any person would intentionally inflict harm on his or her own child. Many times physical abuse is a result of excessive over-discipline or physical punishment that is inappropriate for the child's age. The parent may simply be unaware of the magnitude of force with which he or she strikes a child. Most parents want to be good parents, but sometimes they lose control and are unable to cope. Factors which contribute to child abuse include the immaturity of parents, lack of parenting skills, unrealistic expectations about children's behavior and capabilities, a parent's own negative childhood experiences, social isolation, frequent family crises, and drug or alcohol problems.

Child abuse is a symptom that parents are having difficulty coping with their situation. And, although neglect is commonly linked to poverty, there is a distinction between a caregiver's inability to provide needed care due to lack of financial resources and a caregiver's knowing reluctance and/or refusal to provide adequate care. In either case, children who end up in a neglectful situation need help.

What help is available for these children?
Every state and most counties have Social Services agencies that provide protective services to children. They have the legal authority to "explore, study and evaluate" the facts surrounding a reported case of abuse or neglect. Child welfare workers then base their decision on whether or not to remove a child from the family on factors such as: 1) What is the immediate danger or risk to the child? 2) What are the motivation, capacity and intent of the alleged perpetrator?

Child welfare workers are also legally required to make all "reasonable efforts" to reunite the family whenever possible. Sometimes a child is placed in substitute care until the immediate danger has passed and support services can be provided to the family. However, the number of children actually removed from their homes in substantiated cases of maltreatment is relatively small -- about 15%. Sometimes criminal charges have to be filed, depending on the type and severity of the abuse. Convicted perpetrators face a range of penalties from therapy to prison sentences.

What should I know about reporting child abuse?
If you feel that a child is in an emergency situation, call local law enforcement immediately. Professionals who work with children, such as doctors and teachers, are required by law in all 50 states to report suspected child abuse or neglect to local child protective agencies. For any citizen, "reasonable suspicion" is all that is needed to contact authorities and file a report. The person responding to your call may ask you several questions to ensure that enough information is available to enable the investigating team to make decisions concerning whether or not abuse and/or neglect has occurred. You might be asked to give your name, the names and address of the family and child, your reasons for suspecting abuse, your relationship to the alleged victim, and any previous suspicions of injury to the child.

Anonymous reports can be made in all 50 states, but are greatly discouraged because they impede the agency's ability to gather all information needed or call the reporter of the abuse as a crucial evidentiary witness if the case goes to trial. All states have laws that protect the reporter of suspected abuse or neglect from legal liability as long as the report was made "in good faith" and not maliciously. Very few reports are deliberately false. Knowing how, when, and what to report about child abuse and neglect may make a life or death difference for a child.

Source: American Humane Association,
Copyright American Humane Association 2000, 1999, 1998

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Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is the most visible form of child maltreatment and is defined as non-accidental trauma or physical injury resulting from punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning, or otherwise harming a child. While any of these injuries can occur accidentally when a child is at play, physical abuse should be suspected if the explanations do not fit the injury or if a pattern of frequency is apparent. The presence of many injuries in various stages of healing make it obvious that they did not all occur as a result of one accident.

The physical indicators of abuse include the presence of bruises, lacerations, swollen areas, or marks on the child's face, head, back, chest, genital area, buttocks, or thighs. Wounds like human bite marks, cigarette burns, broken bones, puncture marks, or missing hair may also indicate abuse. A child's behavior might signal that something is wrong. Behavioral indicators include withdrawn or aggressive behavioral extremes, complaints of soreness or uncomfortable movement, wearing clothing that is inappropriate for the weather, discomfort with physical contact, or becoming a chronic runaway.

It is difficult to imagine that any person would intentionally inflict harm on a child. Many times, physical abuse is a result of inappropriate or excessive physical discipline. An angry caretaker or parent may be unaware of the magnitude of force with which he or she strikes the child.

There are better alternatives to use in disciplining children than physical punishment. Parents who discipline their children are motivated by their children's best interests. They want their children to be responsible, courteous, well mannered, and more. Yet, kids will be kids. Children can be loud, unruly, and destructive. They will break things, interrupt telephone conversations, track mud through the house, not pick up their toys or clean their rooms, struggle over eating their vegetables, or pester routinely. Children will inevitably do things that may make their parents feel irritated, frustrated, disappointed, and mad. Changing a child's behavior is not easy. However, inflicting pain and injury does not cause change because the child does not learn what he or she is doing wrong. Children should be disciplined, but not through violence.

Raising a child is not easy. Denying children privileges when they do something that is unacceptable, as well as rewarding them when they do something good, serves to teach children that there are responsibilities and consequences for their actions.

Below are several more suggestions on alternatives to losing control. Make sure the child is in a safe place, or ask a neighbor to relieve you for a few minutes. Then try to calm down with the following suggestions:

Other factors that can contribute to child abuse include the immaturity of parents, the lack of parenting skills, a parent's own poor childhood experiences, social isolation, frequent crises, and drug or alcohol problems. Child abuse is a symptom of difficulty coping with stressful situations. The problem will not go away unless an effort is made to treat it. Help is available for families at risk of abuse through their local child protection agency, community center, church, physician, mental health facility, school, etc.

Source: American Humane Association - Copyright American Humane Association 2000, 1999, 1998

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Sexual Abuse

It is very difficult for most people to talk about sexual abuse and even more difficult for society as a whole to acknowledge that the sexual abuse of children of all ages-including infants-happens every day in this country. The sexual abuse of children has become the subject of great community concern and the focus of legislative and professional concern as well. This is evidenced by steadily rising reports of sexual abuse, by an expanding body of sexual abuse literature, by public declarations from adult survivors, and by increased media coverage of sexual abuse issues.

At the extreme end of the spectrum, sexual abuse includes sexual intercourse and/or its deviations. These behaviors may be the final acts in a worsening pattern of sexual abuse. For that reason and because of their devastating effects, exhibitionism, fondling and any other sexual contact with children are also considered sexually abusive.

Generally, non-touching sexual offenses include:

Touching sexual offenses include:

Sexual exploitation of a child is also an offense and can include:

These definitions are broad and general. In most states, the legal definition for the molestation of a child is an act of a person-adult or child-which forces, coerces, or threatens a child to have any form of sexual contact or to engage in any type of sexual activity at the perpetrator's direction.

What Should I look for if I Suspect a Child is Being Sexually Abused?
Child sexual abuse cases can be very difficult to prove largely because cases where definitive, objective evidence exists are the exception rather than the rule. The first indicators of sexual abuse may not be physical signs, but behavioral changes or abnormalities. Unfortunately, because it is usually so difficult to accept that sexual abuse may be occurring, the adult may misinterpret the signals and feel that the child is merely being disobedient or insolent. The reaction to the disclosure of abuse then becomes disbelief and rejection of the child's statements.

Sexual abuse is usually discovered in one of two ways: by direct disclosure (i.e., statements from the victim, victim's family member, or parent seeking help) or by non-direct methods (i.e., someone witnesses the abuse to the child, the child contracts a sexually transmitted disease, or the child becomes pregnant).

The child victim may be the only witness. In that case, the child's statements may also be the only evidence that sexual abuse has occurred. In such cases, the central issue sometimes becomes; can the child's statements be trusted to be true? Some child welfare experts believe that children never lie about sexual abuse and that their statements must always be believed. But according to Douglas Besharov in his book, Recognizing Child Abuse, it is the job of the investigating child protective agency to make the determination as to whether or not sexual abuse has occurred. He writes, "As a general rule, all doubts should be resolved in favor of making a report (of sexual abuse). A child who describes being sexually abused should be reported unless there is clear reason to disbelieve the statement."

What Are the Effects of Child Sexual Abuse?
Sometimes the child may be so traumatized by sexual abuse that years may pass before he or she is able to understand or talk about what happened. In these cases, adult survivors of sexual abuse may come forward for the first time at the age of 40 or 50 and divulge the horror of their experiences.

The sexual victimization of children is ethically and morally wrong. Its effects extend far beyond childhood occurrence. It robs children of their childhood and creates a loss of trust, feelings of guilt and/or self-abusive behavior. It can lead to antisocial behavior, depression, identity confusion, loss of self-esteem, and other serious emotional problems.

How Do I Report Child Sexual Abuse?
If you suspect sexual abuse and believe a child to be in imminent danger, call the police immediately. Remember that you may be the only person in a position to help a child who is being sexually abused so you must contact the appropriate child protective agency any time sexual abuse is suspected.

What Can Parents Do to Protect Their Children?
Parents can help protect children against sexual abuse. They can teach their children about what appropriate sexual behavior is and when to say "no" if someone tries to touch sexual parts of their bodies or in any way that makes them feel uncomfortable. Parents can also observe their children when they interact with others to see if they are hesitant or particularly uncomfortable around a certain adult. Most importantly, children need to know that they can speak openly to a trusted adult and that they will be believed. Children who are victims of sexual abuse should always be reassured that they are not responsible for what has happened to them and they should not feel ashamed.

Sexual abuse is a problem that can affect all members of a community. You can do your part in your community to help combat this pervasive problem. You've taken the first step by educating yourself about sexual abuse. Make others aware of the problem, also, by arranging for knowledgeable guest speakers to give presentations about sexual abuse to groups you belong to. Encourage your local school board to put programs in place that will educate both teachers and students about the problem. Offer encouragement for victims by supporting organizations that help victims of incest or by simply reassuring a victim of sexual abuse that they should not feel shame or guilt about what has happened to them. It is important to understand that troubled families can be helped and that everyone can play a part in the process.

Source: American Humane Association - Copyright American Humane Association 2000, 1999, 1998,

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Child Neglect

Child neglect is the most common form of child maltreatment reported to public child protective services. Neglect can be defined as "a type of maltreatment that refers to the failure to provide needed, age-appropriate care." Unlike physical and sexual abuse, neglect is usually typified by an ongoing pattern of inadequate care and is readily observed by individuals in close contact with the child.

Physicians, nurses, day-care personnel, relatives, and neighbors are frequently the ones to suspect and report neglected infants, toddlers, and preschool-aged children. Once children are in school, school personnel often notice indicators of child neglect such as poor hygiene, poor weight gain, inadequate medical care, or frequent absences from school. Professionals have defined four types of neglect: physical, emotional, educational, and medical.

Physical neglect accounts for the majority of cases of maltreatment. It is estimated that 8 of every 1,000 children experience physical neglect (NCANDS, 1997). The definition includes the refusal of or extreme delay in seeking necessary health care, child abandonment, inadequate supervision, rejection of a child leading to expulsion from the home, and failing to adequately provide for the child's safety and physical and emotional needs. Physical neglect can severely impact a child's development by causing failure to thrive; malnutrition; serious illnesses; physical harm in the form of cuts, bruises, and burns due to lack of supervision; and a lifetime of low self-esteem.

Educational neglect occurs when a child is allowed to engage in chronic truancy, is of mandatory school age but not enrolled in school or receiving school training, and/or is not receiving needed special educational training. Educational neglect can lead to underachievement in acquiring necessary basic skills, dropping out of school, and/or continually disruptive behavior.

Emotional neglect includes such actions as chronic or extreme spousal abuse in the child's presence, allowing a child to use drugs or alcohol, refusal or failure to provide needed psychological care, constant belittling, and withholding of affection. This pattern of behavior can lead to poor self-image, alcohol or drug abuse, destructive behavior, and even suicide. Severe neglect of infants can result in the infant failing to grow and thrive and may even lead to infant death.

Medical neglect is the failure to provide for appropriate health care for a child although financially able to do so. In 1995, 3% of the substantiated cases of child maltreatment dealt with medical neglect (NCANDS, 1997). In some cases, a parent or other caretaker will withhold traditional medical care during the practice of certain religious beliefs. These cases generally do not fall under the definition of medical neglect, however, some states will obtain a court order forcing medical treatment of a child in order to save the child's life or prevent life-threatening injury resulting from lack of treatment. Medical neglect can result in poor overall health and compounded medical problems.

Although neglect is highly correlated with poverty, there is a distinction to be made between a caregiver's ability to provide the needed care due to the lack of financial resources, illness, or cultural norms, and a caregiver's knowing reluctance and/or refusal to provide care. Either way, children may be found to be in neglectful situations and in need of services even though the parent may not be intentionally neglectful. Whereas poverty may limit a parent's resources to adequately provide necessities for the child, services may be offered to assist families in providing for their children.

Source: American Humane Association, Copyright American Humane Association 2000, 1999, 1998

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Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is commonly defined as a pattern of behavior that can seriously interfere with a child's positive emotional development. Those patterns of behavior can include:

According to Douglas Besharov in his book, Recognizing Child Abuse, "emotional abuse is an assault on the child's psyche, just as physical abuse is an assault on the child's body." Children who are constantly shamed, terrorized, humiliated, or rejected suffer at least as much, if not more, than if they had been physically assaulted. In fact, children who are physically abused also suffer psychologically, although it may be difficult to see the immediate effects.

An infant who is being severely deprived of basic emotional nurturing, even though physically well cared for, can fail to thrive and can eventually die. Less severe forms of early emotional deprivation may produce babies who grow into anxious and insecure children who are slow to develop or who might have low self-esteem.

Other types of abuse are usually identifiable because marks or other physical evidence is left; however, emotional abuse can be very hard to diagnose or even to define. In some instances, an emotionally abused child will show no signs of abuse. For this reason, emotional abuse is the most difficult form of child maltreatment to identify and stop, because often child protective services must have demonstrable evidence that harm to the child has been done before they can intervene.

Although the visible signs of emotional abuse can be hard to find, this type of abuse leaves hidden scars that manifest themselves in numerous behavioral ways. Insecurity, poor self-esteem, destructive behavior, angry acts (such as fire-setting, and/or cruelty to animals), withdrawal, poor development of basic skills, alcohol or drug abuse, suicide, difficulty forming relationships, and unstable job histories can all be possible results of emotional maltreatment.

Because of the difficulty in defining emotional abuse, we must be very careful not to lump all negative parental attitudes and/or actions under the category of emotional maltreatment. Even the best of parents have occasions when they have momentarily "lost control" and said hurtful things to their children, ignored them during a time when attention needs were critical, or unintentionally scared them. What is truly harmful, according to James Garbarino of the Family Life Development Center at Cornell University, and a national expert on emotional abuse, is "the chronic pattern that erodes and corrodes a child...that persistent, chronic pattern of behavior toward a child." It is important to understand that emotional abuse in not just an isolated incident. Dr. Arthur Green, Director of the Family Center at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City, says, "We're talking about the kind of things that a good mother may do 10% of the time, but a troubled mother does 80% or 90% of the time."

All children need acceptance, love, encouragement, discipline, consistency, and positive attention. Emotionally abused children often grow up thinking that they are deficient in some way and the ultimate tragedy of this kind of abuse is that when these children become parents, they may continue the cycle with their own children.

Emotional maltreatment can, and does, happen in all types of families, regardless of background. Most parents want the best for their children. However, due to stress, poor parenting skills, social isolation, lack of available resources, and inappropriate expectations of children, some parents harm their children.

What can you do when you feel that your behavior toward your child may be bordering on emotional abuse?
Here are some suggestions:

Source: American Humane Association - Copyright American Humane Association 2000, 1999, 1998

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What are the Symptoms of Child Abuse?
It is not possible to list specific characteristics that will always point to child abuse. Certain emotional consequences that have been documented as signs of abuse include but are not limited to:

  • Tantrums
  • Hyperactivity
  • Bizarre behavior
  • Low self-esteem
  • School learning problems
  • Social withdrawal
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Anger
  • Aggression
  • Guilt and Shame
  • Impaired ability to Trust
  • Sexually inappropriate Behavior
  • Truancy
  • Running Away
  • Delinquency

Source:National ClearingHouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information,

Signs of Physical Abuse
Physical signs can be the easiest to identify. Child abuse should be suspected when similar injuries are recurrent and the explanation does not fit the type of injury. Young children frequently have accidents that may result in injuries to their elbows, chins, noses, foreheads, and other bony areas. However, bruises and marks on the soft tissue of the face, back, neck, buttocks, upper arms, thighs, ankles, backs of legs, or genitals are more likely to be caused by physical abuse. Several bruises in different stages of healing can also point to abuse. The age of bruises usually follows this pattern: red, blue, black-purple, dark green tint, then pale green to yellow.

Internal injuries to the head and abdomen can be hard to detect. Internal abdomen injuries can cause swelling, tenderness, and vomiting. Internal head injuries can cause swelling, dizziness, blackouts, retinal detachment, and bilateral black eyes.

Examples of behavior signs pointing to physical Abuse:

Signs of Neglect
Signs of neglect are not always clear, and are generally chronic where physical abuse is episodic. It is important to look for reoccurring patterns.

Examples of signs that point to neglect:

Signs of Sexual Abuse
A child who has been sexually abused can exhibit both physical and behavioral signs. While routinely caring for young children the caregiver may notice torn, stained or bloody underclothing or bruises or bleeding in the child's external genitalia, vaginal, or anal area. If a child complains of pain or itching in the genital area or pain when walking or sitting, the caregiver should watch to see if it is a recurring problem.

Behavioral signs can include showing excessive curiosity and knowledge about sexual activities and genitalia, and fear of a specific place such as the bathroom or a bed.

Examples of signs that point to sexual abuse:

Signs of Emotional Abuse
This type of abuse is the most difficult to identify because the signs are rarely physical, and may not show up until the child is older. Sometimes children will exhibit facial tics, rocking motion, or odd reactions to adults in authority. Also, it may be difficult to discern between behaviors of emotionally abused and emotionally disturbed children, as the signs can be similar. Examples of signs of emotional abuse:

Emotional abuse may also result from family violence, that is, children witnessing physical and emotional assaults between their parents. An example follows:

Emotional maltreatment may also take place in a child care setting when an early childhood professional uses words that belittle or shame a child, gives the child dirty looks, or consistently ignores a child. An example follows:

When trying to identify emotional or other types of abuse it is important to take in consideration the cultural differences that exist in the United States. The children and families of America represent many cultures and ethnic groups and it is important to remain sensitive to the differences between cultural child-rearing practices that are different and those that are defined by law as abusive or neglectful.

Source:National ClearingHouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information,

Missing the signals
Doctors misdiagnose child-abuse injuries
By Jennifer Couzin

Doctors fail to diagnose nearly a third of child-abuse cases with head trauma, even when the youngsters are bruised, suffering seizures, or comatose. Researchers reported last week that abuse escapes notice because physicians aren't trained to recognize it and may be uncomfortable casting suspicion. "It's a lot easier to look for another cause," said John Leventhal, a pediatrician and medical director of the Child Abuse Team at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

Because symptoms such as vomiting and irritability aren't unique to head trauma, misdiagnoses are especially common in less severe injuries and among children too young to communicate. One 5-month-old who later died was at first deemed anxious about day care, while doctors diagnosed other abused children with influenza or meningitis; in some cases, physicians recognized head trauma but attributed it to accidents. The analysis, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, was drawn from 173 cases at Children's Hospital, Denver. Doctors were twice as likely to miss abuse in two-parent families, compared with single-parent families, and in white families, compared with minority families. Medical schools are expanding efforts to educate doctors on speaking with patients about family violence.


To report suspected abuse call the Statewide Incident Report Line: 1-800-797-3260

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New Mexico Statistics

In 1997 there were 13,403 cases of abuse and neglect investigated in New Mexico, that is about 27 per 1000 children that were suspected abused or neglected. Of those 4241, or about 8 per 1000 children were determined victims of abuse and neglect. This is lower than the national average of 13 per 1000 children that were victims of abuse and neglect in 1997.

Nationwide in 1997 there was 1,118 substantiated cases of fatalities caused by abuse and neglect. New Mexico reported 5 of those fatalities.

Source: 1997 National Child Abuse and Neglect Statistics, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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National Statistics

U.S. Department Of Health And Human Services Reports New Child Abuse And Neglect Statistics
HHS Secretary Donna E. Shalala today reported that 1998 national child abuse and neglect statistics reported by states continued to decline to just over 900,000 children in 1998. The incidence rate of children victimized by maltreatment also declined to 12.9 per 1,000 children, the lowest record in more than 10 years. The decrease, the fifth in a row reported by the federal government, comes as the nation marks April as National Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Month.

"Although we can be encouraged that the number of children who suffer abuse and neglect continues to decline, these numbers are still unacceptably high," said Secretary Shalala. "The Clinton administration is firmly committed not only to preventing child abuse and neglect before it occurs, but also to providing safe, permanent and loving homes for children who have been harmed. We must not tolerate this daily human tragedy in our children's lives."

Based on data reported by states, HHS estimates that child protective service agencies received about 2,806,000 referrals of possible maltreatment in 1998. Of the 66 percent of those referrals investigated, states found that there were an estimated 903,000 children who were victims of abuse and/or neglect. In a trend which began five years ago, the number of children abused and neglected has decreased approximately 11 percent from a record 1,018,692 in 1993. Parents continue to be the main perpetrators of child maltreatment. One or both parents maltreated more than 80 percent of all victims. The most common pattern of maltreatment (45 percent) was a child victimized by a female parent with no other perpetrators. Victims of physical and sexual abuse, compared to victims of neglect and medical neglect, were more likely to be maltreated by a male parent acting alone.

More than half of all victims (54 percent) suffered neglect, while almost a quarter (23 percent) suffered physical abuse. Nearly 12 percent of the victims were sexually abused. The number of child fatalities caused by maltreatment remained unchanged at about 1,100.

"Child maltreatment has a devastating effect on its victims, their families, and the community as a whole," said Olivia A. Golden, HHS assistant secretary for children and families. "But with the landmark Adoption and Safe Families Act as well as community-based child abuse prevention programs, there is more hope than ever for a stronger web of protection for children."

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000 Press Release,

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Local Resources

United Way Participating Organizations

Albuquerque Rape Crisis Center - UNM

All Faiths Receiving Home

Camp Fire USA, New Mexico Council

Outcomes, Inc.

RCI Inc.

St. Mark's in the Valley Day School

Valencia Shelter for Victims of Domestic Violence

Women's Community Association

Youth Development, Inc.

For information and referrals call United Way 211 by dialing 2-1-1

Other Resources

State of New Mexico Department of Children, Youth and Families

Albuquerque Sane Collaborative

Isleta Social Services (505) 869-2772

Namaste Inc. (505) 865-6176

New Mexico Boy's Ranch Inc. (505) 864-7381

New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs (505) 883-8020

Oak Tree Family Resource Center (505) 832-4030

Raindancer Youth Services, Inc (505) 298-4400

Valencia Counseling Services (505) 865-3359 crisis line

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National Links

Administration for Children and Families,

Children's Bureau,

Department of Health and Human Services,

National Clearing House on Child Abuse and Neglect Information,

Prevent Child Abuse America,

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