Child abuse is the intentional use of physical force or intentional omission of care by a parent or caretaker that causes a child to be hurt, maimed, or killed. Child abuse covers a wide range of harmful actions, which generally vary with the age of the child. Infants and preschool children are most likely to suffer deliberately inflicted fractures, burns, and bruises.
In 1997, over 3 million children were reported for child abuse and neglect to child protective service agencies in the United States. This figure represents a 1.7% increase over the number of children reported in 1996. Child abuse reporting levels have increased 41% between 1988 and 1997. In 1997, 1,054,000 children were confirmed by Child Protective Services as victims of child maltreatment. This represents 15 out of every 1,000 U.S. citizens (Wang).
A recent survey commissioned by Prevent Child Abuse America found the following when surveying parents randomly by telephone. Thirty seven percent of American parents had reported insulting or swearing at their children within the past twelve months. Fifty percent of the parents had neglected their child’s emotional needs, with sixty percent of the respondents indicating that this neglect took place “almost every day.” Six percent had hit, or tried to hit their children with their hands or with a foreign object. One percent had kicked, bit or punched their children within the last twelve months (Wang).
It may not sound alarming to say that one percent of parents report that they have kicked, bit or punched their children, but one percent of the estimated 103 million parents of children under 17 years of age still amounts to a large number of children. If you stop and think this only accounts for the parents who admit engaging in these behaviors, who knows how many more do it and do not admit to it.
There are different forms of child abuse. Among them are physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect. According to the 1997 survey, physical abuse represented 22% of confirmed cases, sexual abuse 8%, neglect 54%, emotional maltreatment 4% and other forms of maltreatment 12%. The most eye-opening statistic is that more than three children die each day as a result of child abuse or neglect. Child abuse is a real problem that plagues our society.
Physical abuse, which constitutes twenty two percent of all substantial cases of child abuse, is the most visible form of abuse and may be defined as any act, which 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 result 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(Sedlak).
Children who have been physically abused present with a multitude of psychiatric disturbance. Some of these may include anxiety, aggressive behavior, PTSD, depressive disorder, and poor self-esteem. If not treated for the abuse these children may become abusive parents themselves.
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 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 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 experience, social isolation, frequent family crises and drug or alcohol problems. Child abuse is a symptom that parents are having difficulty coping with their situation.
One particular form of child abuse is Shaken Baby Syndrome. Shaken Baby Syndrome is when a baby is vigorously shaken, the head moves back and forth. The sudden whiplash motion can cause bleeding inside the head and increased pressure on the brain, causing the brain to pull apart and resulting in injury to the baby. This is one of the leading forms of fatal child abuse. A baby’s head and neck are susceptible to head trauma because his or her muscles are not fully developed and the brain tissue is exceptionally fragile. Head trauma is the leading cause of disability among abused infants and children(Sedlak).
Shaken Baby Syndrome occurs most frequently in infants younger than six months old, yet can occur up to the age of three. Often there are no obvious outward signs if inside injury, particularly in the head or behind the eyes. In reality, shaking a baby, even for only a few seconds, can injure the baby for life. These injuries can include brain swelling and damage, cerebral palsy, mental retardation, developmental delays, blindness, hearing loss, and death. When a child is shaken in anger and frustration, the force is multiplied five or ten times than it would be if the child had simply tripped and fallen.
Shaken Baby Syndrome often occurs because a frustrated parent or caregiver feels that shaking a baby is a harmless way to make the child stop crying. The number one reason a baby is shaken is because of inconsolable crying. Almost 25 percent of all babies with Shaken Baby Syndrome die. It is estimated that 25-50 percent of parents and caretakers are not aware of the effects of shaking a baby(Sedlak).
Emotional abuse, which is four percent of all substantiated cases of child abuse, is commonly defined as the systematic tearing down of another human being. It is considered a pattern of behavior that can seriously interfere with a child’s positive development. 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.
Emotional abuse attacks the psyche and self-concept and because of this 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.
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(Hopper).
There are different types of emotional abuse, which are as follows:
1.) 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 must 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. The child may become the family scapegoat, being blamed for all the family’s problems.
2.) 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. Many times the parent is physically there but emotionally unavailable.
3.) 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.
4.) Isolating – A parent who abuses a child through isolation may not allow the child to engage in appropriate activities with his or her peers. For example, the parents may keep a baby in his or her room, not exposed to stimulation or they 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.
5.) Corrupting – Parents permit children to use drugs or alcohol; to watch cruel behavior toward animals or to watch pornographic materials and adult sex acts. Parents may also permit children to witness or participate in criminal activities such as stealing, assault, prostitution or gambling(Hopper).
Other types of abuse are usually identifiable because marks or other physical evidence are 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. This type of abuse leaves hidden scars that manifest themselves in numerous ways. Insecurity, poor self-esteem, destructive behavior, angry acts, withdrawal, poor development of basic skills, alcohol or drug abuse, suicide and difficulty forming relationships can all be possible results of emotional 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 the United States. It is not an easy phenomenon to define, primarily because permissible childhood behavior varies in accordance with cultural, family and social tolerances.
Sexual abuse, which is eight percent of all substantiated cases of child abuse, is 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 and/or which violates the taboos of society (Wang). A more simplistic definition would be abuse that involves any minor child that is intended for the sexual gratification of an adult.
Sexual abuse is any misuse of a child for sexual pleasure or gratification. It has the potential to interfere with a child’s normal, healthy development, both emotionally and physically. 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.
Sexual abuse most commonly occurs by an individual known by the victim, parent or other family member. Rarely is the abuser a stranger. Interfamilial and incest sexual abuse is difficult to document and manage because the child needs to be protected from additional abuse and coercion to not reveal or deny the abuse, while attempts are made to preserve the family unit. Children themselves may also decide to recant their recent accusations of abuse due to fear of retaliation by the perpetrator or other family members. They may also recant out of fear of losing contact with the perpetrator who is commonly a family member or close friend tied to the family by various social means (Anderson).
At the extreme end of the spectrum, sexual abuse includes sexual intercourse or its deviations. These behaviors may be the final acts in a worsening pattern of sexual abuse. For this reason and because of their devastating effects, exhibitionism, fondling and any other sexual contact with children are also considered sexually abusive.