Child abuse is generally defined in two ways. One is the nonaccidental injury to a child that requires medical attention. These are acts of commission. The second part of the definition is neglect, acts of omission where parents and other adults fail to meet the basic needs of the child. Nearly all experts concur that neglect is far more likely than other forms of abuse. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that, in 2007, there were 794,000 victims of child abuse and neglect, approximately 1,500 of whom died as a result of the abuse. Sixty-two percent of the total victims experienced neglect, 18 percent were physically abused, sexual abuse harmed 10 percent, 7 percent were psychologically mistreated, and medical neglect accounted for 2 percent.
II. Causes of Child Abuse
III. Consequences of Child Abuse
A. Defining Abuse
B. Defining Abusers and Settings
As with any abuse situation, the child abuse may be physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, or some combination. Clearly, these are broad categorizations for what constitutes the complex phenomenon of abuse, and this has made the whole domain of child abuse controversial. The societal expectation that parents are nearly exclusively in charge of the care and rearing of their children has meant that interventions into the private family setting have been likely only when abuse is very serious and can be documented.
The controversies surrounding child abuse are grounded in the question, Does the child stay in the home or get removed from the home? Society has made it known that abuse of a child is horrific. The problem is in how to stop the abuse with a solution that will best benefit the child. Specifically, the concern is over whether a child should be completely removed from the home or whether attempts should be made to maintain the family unit. When considering the solutions to child abuse, among the primary controversies are questions about exactly what constitutes abuse, particularly with regard to physical discipline, and how other forms of domestic violence complicate the scene.
Causes of Child Abuse
The causes of child abuse are many, and not all are found in all cases. Child abuse is mainly perpetrated by an adult who wields physical and emotional control over a child. Many factors can relate to someone’s risk to abuse children. Some of the factors at work in child abuse are cultural, social, and personal. In very early studies of child abuse, the assumptions were that abusers must be mentally ill. While that is an easy supposition, the evidence suggests that only around 10 percent of abusers have psychoses or severe personality disorders. Reliance on mental illness as an explanation has hindered a more complete understanding of child abuse. This has led recent researchers, such as Richard Gelles, to broaden the discussion to include other factors that might make one prone to abuse a child.
Personal psychological factors in parents can play a significant role in the risk of abuse. However, these factors usually relate to the stressors that parents might experience. Stress can arise from many sources, not the least of which is the task of parenting itself. It is a permanent status that at times can seem overwhelming, particularly for persons with inadequate support networks. Some children with special needs require additional care that heightens caregiving stress. Not all babies are equally easy-going, and those that seem more prone to crying can lead parents to question their skills. Stress is increased when one is a single parent, has lower income or is unemployed, is ill, or experiences conflict with a romantic partner. Furthermore, environmental stressors such as the family ideal, work, finances, and even health issues can cause a large amount of stress.
The use of alcohol or drugs reduces inhibitions and heightens the abusers’ awareness of personal insecurities. Both alcohol and drugs can, through aggravating stress and impairing judgment, cause an abuser to verbally or physically attack a child for some perceived wrong. If an individual is a victim of prior abuse, he or she is more likely to become an abuser, too, although the individual is not destined to be abusive. Estimates are that 30 percent of abused children will grow up to be abusers, in contrast to 3 percent of persons who were not abused. Low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy have also been linked to a greater tendency to abuse when compared with persons with higher levels of self-esteem. After prolonged exposure to negative opinions, an individual may become violent as a way of venting the built-up pressure and anxiety caused by low self-esteem. Abuse is also used as a method to gain control over a child. A person who has a poor self-concept, low self-esteem, or has been a victim of prior abuse has a stronger need for control and power, because it is the ability to gain power and control that validates the abuser. This cyclical pattern is difficult to break. Often parents have very little preparation for the tasks of parenting, have unrealistic expectations about what it entails, and have little understanding of how children can be expected to behave at various stages of development. The images of babies in most parenting magazines show a smiling, cooing, cherubic face; they don’t show the child crying with a runny nose, messy diaper, or other distasteful daily occurrences of child rearing. Abuse may occur as an attempt to gain conformity from unruly children. For whatever reason, studies suggest that abusive parents tend to be much more demanding than nonabusive parents.
Society’s focus on the ideal family creates stress when an individual realizes that he or she is not living up to society’s standard of the modern family, be it by not making enough income, not living in the right neighborhood, or needing a two-income household in order to get by. Also, pressure from a boss at work may cause tension that adds to the build-up of stress. These stressors may create a volatile home life where abuse is the outlet for a massive release of pent-up stresses. And, unfortunately, children are likely to be the targets for the abusive release.
This inclusion of economic status in the likelihood of abuse is important. A number of studies suggest that child abuse is more likely in families from low socioeconomic backgrounds, although they differ on the reasons for why this is so. One explanation posits that it only appears that the rates are higher in poor families because they seek treatment in settings, such as public hospitals, in which the suspicion of abuse is likely to be reported. Wealthy families may seek care from a private physician who may be more reluctant to label a suspicious injury as abuse. So wealthier families may be better able to hide abuse. Another explanation for the link between poverty and abuse is the stress that accompanies poverty. Additionally, low-income parents have less education, inadequate support systems, higher rates of substance abuse, and are more likely to be young. Compounded, these risk factors make being a lower-class child a potentially harmful position. Low-income parents tend to be single parents. The risk of neglect among low-income children is an astounding 44 times higher than among middle- and upper-income children.
Contrary to the stereotype of women’s constant nurturing, evidence indicates that, in cases of child abuse, women are as likely as men to be the perpetrators. The majority of low-income families are mother-only families. Some of these women are no doubt forced into the mothering role by a lack of well-paying or fulfilling employment, as well as by unplanned pregnancies. Unwanted children are an added mental and economic burden, making them prone to abuse.
Consequences of Child Abuse
Because the causes of abuse are many, it follows that the consequences of abuse are just as numerous. Although statistics cannot tell the whole story of the consequences of child abuse, they can give insight into the frequency and severity of the problem. However, statistics about child abuse must be viewed with caution. Given the unacceptability of harming a child, parents are often inaccurate in their reporting of such behaviors, fearing legal reprisal and social condemnation. A lot of the statistics, then, come from the reports of teachers, physicians, social workers, and others who must make assumptions about the origin of injuries.
There are nearly 3 million reports of child abuse made each year, suggesting that awareness of the issue is resulting in some action. However, estimates are that the actual rates of child abuse are at least three times what are reported. According to Childhelp, one of the largest and oldest nonprofit organizations dedicated to the issue of child abuse, children between birth and age three are the most likely group to experience abuse. They are victimized at a rate of 16.4 per 1,000 children, compared with a rate of 12.3 per 1,000 children for all children under age 18. This means that, for every 1,000 infants and toddlers, more than 16 of them will be abused. Around four children die every day from abuse or neglect, and 79 percent of these juvenile homicide victims are children younger than four years old.
Consequences also encompass the likely future outcomes for the victims of abuse. According to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there can be many long-term consequences for children who are abused. Among them is a 25 percent greater likelihood of teen pregnancy, abused teens being three times less likely than nonabused teens to practice safe sex, increasing their risks of contracting sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS. Abused children are nearly 30 percent more likely to abuse their own children.
Victimization through child abuse is also correlated with more contact with the criminal justice system. Children who experience child abuse and neglect are 59 percent more likely to be arrested as juveniles, 28 percent more likely to be arrested as adults, and 30 percent more likely to commit violent crime than are nonabused persons. Data indicate that, among the prison population, 36.7 percent of women inmates were abused as children, and 14.4 percent of men inmates were.
Psychological and psychiatric outcomes also are linked with child abuse. Eighty percent of young adults who had been abused met the diagnostic criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder at the age of 21. Common disorders among this group included depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Sexual abuse compounds these issues. Children who are victims of sexual abuse are 2.5 times more likely to abuse alcohol and 3.8 times more likely to become addicted to drugs than their nonabused peers. In fact, nearly two-thirds of those persons in drug abuse treatment programs report having been abused as children.
Controversies have surfaced when determining healthy solutions for child abuse victims. The key controversies concerning child abuse are the definition of abuse, the presence of other risk behaviors and factors, and whether the child should remain in or be removed from the home. Solutions to child abuse are difficult to create, because each child abuse case is different and the solution that works for one child may harm another child even more. When handling child abuse cases, caseworkers must do their absolute best not to add to the child’s trauma. It is this desire to minimize an abused child’s trauma that makes finding solutions to these controversies difficult.
The definitions of child abuse have changed significantly over time. No longer do parents have rights of life and death over children, as was common in the days of the Roman Empire, when children not blessed by their fathers were left to die through neglect. Nor can parents in the United States turn their children into commodities by selling them to the highest bidder. Today the question of abuse is focused on the point where a parent crosses the fine line between acceptable use of force and unacceptable abuse, and with what frequency. At what point should a neighbor, teacher, physician, or social worker intervene? Extreme cases, such as burning, imprisoning, or beating are easy to define as child abuse. However, there is much gray area in what is acceptable behavior of a parent toward a child.
Definitions that focus only on physically hurting the child might be too broadly interpreted. The result is that any physical act, such as tightly holding a toddler during a tantrum, becomes defined as abuse by some. The legal standard recognizes that it is not always easy to distinguish between physical discipline and abuse. The former condition is the result of what is considered reasonable by the cultural context. While 90 percent of parents of three- and four-year-olds have used spankings on their child and nearly that many consider it acceptable to do so, does that mean 90 percent of parents are abusive? This question is not easily answered but is important because the definition of abuse that is applied by social workers, courts, and so on can determine whether children are permitted to remain with the parent or whether they are taken in by the state. In fact, the American Bar Association has no universally recognized definition of child abuse to use in court settings.
As difficult as defining physical abuse is in practice, defining neglect is even more difficult. While abandonment or gross failure to provide for the basic needs of a child are clear, statutes that define parental negligence in broad ways may mean that different parenting models than the community norm, or failure to instill morals, or even permitting truancy are seen as negligent. In the early days of the home school movement, some parents were considered neglectful for not sending their children for standard classroom instruction.
Defining Abusers and Settings
For many years there have been concerns over who is most likely to abuse a child. Stereotypes hold that the particularly likely culprit is a stepfather. While it seems easy to place the blame on a male, nonbiological family member because of the expectation that men are more violent than women and the supposition that biological ties are stronger than social ties, this is inaccurate. Biological parents are more likely than other persons to abuse a child, and it is the mother who is most likely to do so. This pattern is particularly true for African American families, which have a greater proportion of single-parent homes. Does this then mean that single black mothers are profiled as child abusers?
Police who are called to homes to investigate domestic disturbance calls are taught to pay attention to any children who are present for signs of abuse. Statistics indicate that when women are abused in a domestic setting, their children have a higher likelihood of being abused as well. This might be abuse from the woman’s abuser or, paradoxically, abuse from the woman herself. It is often extremely difficult to determine who in a household is abusing whom.
Since the 1950s, many private and public agencies have dedicated themselves to helping children. One of the primary tasks of the agencies involves educating the public about the issues surrounding child abuse and proposing specific solutions. It has only been recently that laws have been developed to aid children, such as the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974. The goal of this act was to encourage states to develop their own laws and strategies to protect children from maltreatment and neglect. While every state handles child abuse cases in a slightly different way and relies on slightly different administrative structures, they have been fairly successful in their assault on child abuse and neglect.
One of the most traumatic aspects of child abuse and neglect is the decision to remove the child from the home, even on a temporary basis. This is granted under the states’ rights to protect the interest of the child, but the question that is raised is what to then do with the child. Options are limited. For infants and young children, the foster care system is their destination, at least on a temporary basis while abuse claims are investigated. For adolescents and severely disabled children, the care is frequently provided in a group home, where a small number of similar children are tended by a staff of child care workers. These decisions to remove children from the care of their biological parents are controversial for several reasons.
First, the expanding definitions of child abuse mean that children can be removed with far less proof than was needed in the past. Additionally, the numbers of cases that social workers and child advocates are saddled with mean that it takes some time for the data regarding each case to be gathered, leaving the child in foster care for longer periods of time than most state regulations initially intended. Second, parents may be encouraged not to contest the child’s removal in order to avoid damaging allegations of abuse. After an assessment, the child may be sent back home, sometimes with court supervision and follow-up services, but sometimes without.
When individuals hear about a case of child abuse, they automatically want the child removed from the home. It is true that removing the child from the home is the most effective way to stop the abuse. But is tearing a child away from the only home he or she has known really helping the child? Young children are particularly prone to be victims of violence, but there is a common cultural idea that very young children need their parents (particularly their mothers) more than at any other age. Indeed, federal laws governing foster care encourage states to work vigorously to reunite children with their parents. Unfortunately, the frequent court reviews of the cases often just mean moving the child to a new foster placement.
In extreme cases of child abuse where the child’s life is at risk, removal is the only option. However, temporary removal or family counseling might be more productive in the end if the abuser is taught alternative ways of managing anger and stress instead of using abusive measures. These types of interventions require a great deal of time, effort, and energy on the part of the abuser and the state counseling agencies and are often something that cash-strapped states are unable to provide.
Critics of the foster care system suggest that the system is broken and badly needs repair. Children are moved from one foster family to another on a frequent basis. Due to an overwhelming need for foster care providers, many foster families receive little training for their role and may be caring for too many children. One of the great concerns is what happens to children who age out of the foster care system. At age 18, they are no longer under state care but may be poorly prepared to live as independent adults.
In some cases, parents must give up their rights to a child when the abuse has been determined to be too severe to attempt reuniting the family. However, it is extremely difficult for this to happen, because there is a high legal burden of proof for the court to terminate parental rights. Sometimes, the threat of criminal charges will push parents to voluntarily terminate their rights. When a child cannot be returned to the biological family and parental rights are terminated, adoption becomes available to the child. Adoption is another area of controversy. Society generally views adoption by a blood relative as the most beneficial for the child. However, abuse is a learned behavior. If a child’s parent is the abuser, the assumption is that the parent’s parent was probably abusive as well. In such a case, being adopted by a blood relative may be placing the child back in a potentially abusive situation. The underlying problem of these controversies remains, and until abuse can be prevented, no amount of intervention will be adequate.
- Childhelp USA Foundation, http://www.childhelpusa.org/
- Crosson-Tower, Cynthia, Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2007.
- Crouse, Janice Shaw, Children at Risk: The Precarious State of Children’s Well-Being in the United States. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2010.
- Dodge, Kenneth A., and Doriane Lambelet Coleman, Preventing Child Maltreatment: Community Approaches. New York: Guilford Press, 2009.
- Finklehor, David, Childhood Victimization: Violence, Crime, and Abuse in the Lives of Young People. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
- Flowers, R. Barri, Domestic Crimes, Family Violence and Child Abuse: A Study of Contemporary American Society. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000.
- Gelles, Richard J., Intimate Violence in Families. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997.
- Kurst-Swanger, Karel, and Jacqueline L. Petcosky, Violence in the Home: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
- Monteleone, James A., A Parent’s and Teacher’s Handbook on Identifying and Preventing Child Abuse. St. Louis: G. W. Medical Publishing, 1998.