What is child abuse (maltreatment)?
Child maltreatment refers to six types of victimization against children; they are:
- Physical Abuse
- Sexual Abuse
- Emotional Abuse
- Physical Neglect
- Emotional Neglect
- Educational Neglect
How common is the problem of child maltreatment?
Child maltreatment is widespread. Each year throughout the United States, over 3 million children are reported to state child protective services agencies. Nearly 1 million cases are substantiated. Child neglect is the most commonly reported form of maltreatment. The most common victims of physical and emotional abuse are infants, toddlers, preschool children and young adolescents.
What are the consequences of child abuse?
The impact of child abuse is far greater than its immediate, visible effects. Abuse and neglect are associated with short and long-term consequences that may include physical injuries, developmental delays, learning disorders, aggressive behaviors and emotional trauma.
What are some of the warning signs of child abuse and neglect?
The warning signs that a child may be a victim of abuse may vary depending on the type of abuse. Some general common signs include:
- Unexplained bruises or physical injuries
- Shaken baby syndrome
- A young child who is left alone or abandoned
- Frequent evidence of poor hygiene
- Acting-out sexually or showing interest in sex that is not appropriate for his/her age
- Nightmare and sleep disturbances
- Behavior problems and aggression toward adults, other children and pets
Which children are most vulnerable to be victims of abuse and neglect?
Boys and girls are almost equally likely to experience neglect and physical abuse.
However, girls are four times more likely to experience sexual abuse. Children of all races and ethnicities experience child abuse. Children of all ages experience abuse, but the youngest children are most vulnerable.
Why does child abuse occur?
- Parent can be overwhelmed and lack knowledge of critical issues surrounding parenting, financial or other environmental stressors.
- Parent has difficulty in relationships, depression or other mental health problems can all lead to abusive or neglectful behavior.
- Parent has lack of understanding of the child’s developmental stages and hold unreasonable expectations for child’s abilities. Parent is unaware of alternatives to corporal punishment or how to discipline children most effectively at each age.
- Parent lacks knowledge of the health, hygiene, and nutritional needs of their children
- The most common group of people found to be responsible for neglect of victims is mothers acting alone. In cases of sexual abuse, non-relatives and fathers acting alone are more likely to be responsible.
In what type of family is abuse or neglect most likely to occur?
Child abuse and neglect occur in all segments of our society, but the risk factors are greater in families where parents:
- Abuse alcohol or drugs
- Are isolated from their families or communities
- Have difficulty controlling their anger or stress
- Appear uninterested in the care, nourishment, or safety of their children
- Seem to be having serious economic, housing, or personal problems
What is child neglect?
Child neglect is the most common form of child maltreatment reported to child protective services. It is defined as a “type of maltreatment that refers to the failure to provide needed age-appropriate care,” such as shelter, food, clothing, education, supervision, medical care and other basic necessities needed for development of physical, intellectual and emotional capacities.
Neglect is usually typified by an ongoing pattern of inadequate care and is readily observed by individuals in close contact with the child.
Common types of neglect include:
- Physical neglect is 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.
- 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 needed special education training.
- 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 appropriate health care for a child although financially able to do so. In some cases, a parent or caretaker will withhold traditional medical care during the practice of 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 a child’s life or prevent life-threatening injury resulting from the lack of treatment.
What is emotional abuse?
Emotional abuse attacks a child’s psyche and self-concept, and the victim comes to see him or herself as unworthy of love and affection. Children who are constantly shamed, humiliated, terrorized or rejected suffer at least as much, if not more, than if they had been physically assaulted.
Emotional abuse is probably the least understood of all child abuse, yet it is the most prevalent, and can be the cruelest and most destructive of all types of abuse.
Common types of emotional abuse include:
- Rejecting. Parents who lack the ability to bond will often display rejecting behavior toward a child. They tell a child in a variety of ways that he or she is unwanted. They may also tell the child to leave, call him or her names and tell the child he or she is worthless. They may not talk to or hold the young child as he or she grows.
- Ignoring. Adults who have had few of their emotional needs met are often unable to respond to the needs of their children. They may not show attachment to the child or provide nurturance. They may show no interest in the child, express affection or even recognize the child’s presence.
- Terrorizing. Parents may single out one child to criticize and punish. They may ridicule him or her for displaying normal emotions and have expectations far beyond his or her normal abilities. The child may be threatened with death, mutilation or abandonment.
- Isolating. A parent who abuses a child through isolation may not allow the child to engage in appropriate activities with his or her peers; may keep a baby in his or her room, not exposed to stimulation; or may prevent teenagers from participating in extracurricular activities. Parents may require the child to stay in his or her room from the time school lets out until the next morning, or restrict eating to isolation or seclusion.
- Corrupting. Parents permit children to use drugs or alcohol; to watch cruel behavior toward animals; to watch pornographic materials and adult sex acts; or to witness or participate in criminal activities such as stealing, assault, prostitution, gambling, etc.
What is sexual abuse?
Sexual abuse is any misuse of a child for sexual pleasure or gratification. It is specifically defined as the involvement of dependent, developmentally immature children in sexual activities that they do not fully comprehend and therefore to which they are unable to give informed consent. Often, sexually victimized children experience severe emotional disturbances from their own feelings of guilt and shame, as well as the feelings which society imposes on them.
Non-touching sexual abuse offenses include:
- Indecent exposure/exhibitionism
- Exposing children to pornographic material
- Deliberately exposing a child to the act of sexual intercourse
Touching sexual offenses include:
- Making a child touch an adult’s sexual organs
- Any penetration of a child’s vagina or anus by an object that doesn’t have a medical purpose
Sexual exploitation offenses include:
- Engaging a child for the purpose of prostitution
- Using a child to film, photograph or model pornography
What is physical abuse?
Physical abuse is the most visible form of abuse and may be defined as any act that results in a non-accidental trauma or physical injury. Inflicted physical injury most often represents unreasonable, severe corporal punishment or unjustifiable punishment. This usually happens when a frustrated or angry parent strikes, shakes or throws a child.
Physical abuse injuries results 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 longer the abuse continues, the more serious the injuries to the child and the more difficult it is to eliminate the abusive behavior.
How is Child Abuse Prevented?
Prevention efforts can help parents
- Develop their parenting skills
- Understand the benefits of nonviolent discipline techniques
- Understand and meet their child’s emotional, physical and developmental needs
- Help parents identify other needs they may have and offer assistance in getting that additional support
Information adapted from the following sources:
- Department of Health and Human Services
- Administration for Children and Families
- Gateways to Prevention: What Everyone Can Do to Prevent Child Abuse. 2003 Child Abuse Prevention Community Resource Packet