April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and the New Jersey Department of Children and Families is asking residents be extra aware and watch out for the signs of abused or exploited children.

The Department wants to let people know that if at any time they suspect a child is being abused to call their 24/7 hour hotline at 1 877-NJ ABUSE (652-2873).

Dr. Allison Blake, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families urges anyone worried about legal issues from reporting an abuse case not to worry. In New Jersey a person cannot be the target of legal or civil suits involving making a claim has nothing to worry about as long as they are operating within the best interest of the child.

“As long as they have reason to be concerned, then according to New Jersey’s law they are immune from any criminal or civil liability.” Says Blake.

Unlike many other crimes, anyone witnessing child abuse is required by law to report it. While Blake says you shouldn’t hesitate to report child abuse if you suspect it, you should also not conduct your own investigation.

“We have professionals trained to take these calls and walk folks through it to get a better understanding of what the concern is about and make an assessment I fan investigation is warranted.”

Blake says they don’t want regular citizens or even professionals who work with children regularly to have to deal with the burden of figuring out if something illegal is occurring.

The Commissioner reminds residents that abuse comes in many forms, both physical and mental, so know the signs of both.

She says indicators to look for include children cowering or being frightened of an adult figure in their lives, bruises or marks around the face especially ones that look like handprints or ones that look like they’ve been cause by implements like belt buckles.

“if a child tells you they’re afraid of someone or that someone has been in their physical personal space and makes them feel uncomfortable. Those might be reasons to feel concerned.”

Once the call is placed Blake says there is a protocol that is followed by hotline operators. Callers are taken through a series of questions and asked about the adult person’s relationship to the child, what they witnessed, what the concerns now and whether this is a pattern. She notes they will be asked also about any possible substance abuse or domestic violence that is witnessed.

“A particular concern would be if the individual has access or contact with the child currently.” Says Blake.

Once all of the information is collected, Blake says the Department checks their computer systems to see if there are any prior records of abuse for the family. The case then gets assigned to a local member of the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS).

For anyone concerned about revealing their identity making a claim, New Jersey is one of the states that accept anonymous referrals.

“We will still ask the same questions to try and get as much information and thorough understanding of the situation.”

She adds that anyone who calls can provide their identity and contact information but then ask for confidentiality if they have concerns of repercussion or didn’t want to the family to know they made the complaint. However their information would be available with the DYFS worker if they needed to get in contact.

Blake notes the importance of addressing the problem of abuse and not dismissing, especially because after bruises heal, many of the scars still remain. She says especially during the critical formative years, abuse can damage a child’s ability to function in a social, education, or work setting.

“If we’re concerned about society overall we need to be concerned with how children are treated, not just in our homes but in formal institutions as well.”

Adding “there are implications for those children as they grow into adulthood in terms of how they function as adults, how they function as parents themselves, and in relationships going forward.”