Throughout history children have been deliberately killed, abused, and neglected by rulers, society or parents. Child abuse is an injury or pattern of injuries to a child that is not accidental. According to the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, in 1995 about 2.9 million children in the United States were reported as abused or neglected to government agencies that investigate child abuse.
Child abuse can be hard to recognize sometimes because it is often under the name of spanking or discipline (“According to the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse”, par. 1). “Even when the state takes children away from parents because of the severity of the abuse, parents sometimes deny that they did anything wrong” (par.2).
But when does discipline become abuse? “According to Utah State law, if you spank a child too hard and he/she gets a bruise, that technically counts as an incidence of child abuse” (par. 2). Refraining from physical punishment, as practiced by parents and recommended by children psychologist today, would have shocked parents of earlier times (Murdock 7). “Before the 1960’s parental discipline often took the form of physical punishment. When spankings became beatings physical abuse prevailed” (7).
Child abuse does not only consist of physical abuse. There are several types of child abuse, and unfortunately, some children experience more than one. Physical abuse includes deliberate acts of violence that injure or even kill a child. Unexplained bruises, broken bones, or burn marks on a child may be signs of physical abuse. The average age
of victims of physical child abuse is eight years old (Wallace 33). “Twenty-seven percent of all child maltreatment cases involve physical abuse. Three percent of these cases involve life-threatening injuries such as poisoning, fractures, or brain damage. Fourteen percent involve minor injuries, including bruises, cuts or shaking. The remaining eleven percent are unspecified injuries” (33). The data is probably a low estimate of the true incidence of abuse since there is no exact method of determining unreported cases.
Sexual abuse occurs when adults use children for sexual gratification (“According to the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse”, par. 1). Sexual abuse may begin with kissing or fondling and progress to more intrusive sexual acts, such as oral sex and vaginal or anal penetration. “Experts estimate that one out of every three or four girls and one out of every seven to ten boys below the age of eighteen are violated” (Murdock 11).
Other acts that use children as sexual objects, such as, child pornography and subjecting children to view sexual acts committed by adults, are also include in the definition of child sexual abuse (Gitterman 346). The US Department of Health and Human Services categorizes sexual abuse into three groups: intrusion (evidence of actual penile penetration), molestation with genital contact (acts where some form of actual genital contact had occurred), and other or unknown sexual abuse (unspecified acts not known to have involved actual genital contact: e.g., fondling of breasts or buttocks, exposure) (11).
Mary Pipher, the author of “Reviving Ophelia”, states in her book that she had seen a bumper sticker on a young man’s car that read: “If I don’t get laid soon somebody’s gonna get hurt” (Pipher 219). This is the sick society we live in, “on any given day in America, 480 women and children will be forcibly raped, 5,760 women will be assaulted by a male intimate partner and four women and three children will be murdered by a family member” (219).
“Emotional abuse, another type of child abuse, destroys a child’s self-esteem and undermines his confidence” (Landau 36). “Such abuse commonly includes repeated verbal abuse of a child in the form of shouting, threats, and degrading or humiliating criticism” (36). Other types of emotional abuse are confinement, such as isolation or denying a child friends (39).
The most common form of child abuse is neglect. Neglect makes up almost half of the confirmed cases of child abuse in the 1990’s (“According to the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse”, par. 1). Physical neglect involves a parent’s failure to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, or medical care to a child (par. 1).
About fifty-five percent of children who are mistreated suffer from severe neglect (Morales, par. 6). These are very young children who are abandoned or left alone for more than forty-eight hours, aren’t fed, do not receive needed medical treatment, or are not sent to school for days at a time (par. 5). Emotional neglect occurs when a parent or caretaker fails to meet a child’s basic need for attention and comfort. According to a study done by the US Department of Health and Human Services, 223,000 children or 3.5 per 1,000 suffer from emotional neglect ( Murdock 103). Emotional neglect can also be in the form of overprotective restrictions that further immaturity and emotional overdependence.
Young adults who have been abused often confuse the concept of the family. To them, violence, anger, and fear are common. They may also confuse love with violence or love with sex. Because of these family distortions some victims have a hard time receiving help (Jacklitsch & Powers 24).
The consequences of child abuse are unfortunate. A child assaulted by a parent loses self-respect, hope, and trust and with no choice available, resorts to doing what they were taught, the only thing they know, abuse (Fong 27).
The psychological effects of abuse include depression, low self-esteem, loss of trust, anxiety, denial, problems with establishing intimacy, feelings of futurelessness, and family distortion (Jaklitsch & Powers 20-28). Confirmed by several studies, researchers have demonstrated that depression is one of the most commonly reported symptoms by adults who were sexually abused as children (21). Low self-esteem, as well, is a symptom among young people. “They approach situations feeling inferior and are afraid to hope” (22). A loss of trust is also common. “Experiences with their own parental figures has taught them not to count on adults for support, guidance, or protection” (22).
Maltreated teenagers are filled with anger caused by years of pain and rejection. They become afraid when under stress of minor frustrations. “Underneath the anger is pain, which makes these young people particularly vulnerable to additional disappointment and mistreatment” (23). “Denial is a natural response to painful experiences.” Some of the behaviors in which these young people hide their denial are through drugs, alcohol, constant listening to music, sexual activity and aggression (23).
Establishing intimacy is difficult for maltreated adolescents because “their feelings were often discounted.” They must realize that they are not responsible for their maltreatment (23-24). Many abused children feel hopeless. “They have little faith in the future because they have learned to expect little or nothing of what they hoped for as children” (24).
A great deal of abuse happens secretly in the privacy of people’s homes. “Too often we only hear about the most “sensationalized” cases of abuse: those that reach television, radio, and newspapers” (Landau 12). However, more subtle forms of abuse take place in households around the world on a daily basis (13). Why are so many children severely neglected and abused by those responsible for their care?
“Research has clearly revealed that child abuse is not associated with race or ethnicity in this country. The strongest correlating factor is poverty. However, abuse is found at all socioeconomic levels” (Morales, par. 8). Parents who live on less than $15,000 a year are more likely to abuse their children than those who earn more than $30,000 per year (par. 8).
Drug and alcohol abuse is also highly associated with child abuse. “As a group, the largest number of children who are abused or neglected grew up having one or more alcoholic parents” (Murdock 90). “Substance abuse undermines adults’ ability to function in many areas, including parenting, work, and personal life” (Morales, par. 9).
There is also a strong relationship between stress and violent physical outburst directed at youngsters who are at the wrong place at the wrong time. “Abusive mothers report high levels of parental-stress which they claim is brought about by their child’s poor compliance with behavior-directed instructions and their own tolerance levels towards their child’s behavior” (Busby 47). Stress that is brought on by a variety of conditions raises the risk of child abuse within a family.
These conditions include unemployment, illness, poor housing conditions, a larger-than-average-family size, the presence of a new baby, a disabled person in the home, or the death of a family member, but as always, families living in poverty make up the majority of reported child abuse cases. An important resource to help manage personal stress is the support of others – e.g., a spouse, relative, or friend (Morales, par. 10).
Sexual abuse is driven by several destructive factors. “Often, the perpetrator was sexually victimized as a child or youth and, unlike others, did not heal from the experience. The result frequently is distorted sexual drives and emotional needs. Divorce and single parenting expose children to other men who do not have a biological or long term commitment to youngsters’ well-being.” Not to mention the erotic society that we live in which includes some men who have not learned or found a way to manage their sexual needs (par. 11).
We must make an effort to prevent child abuse before it occurs. The process through which children are taken out of their homes and placed in the care of their “economically poor relatives” (usually grandparents), which occurs in almost fifty percent of cases, is a weak solution. It is costly, oftentimes leaves children in a state of emotional instability, and adds economic strain to the financially poor grandparents who are trying to raise their kin; and generally it is “too late to prevent permanent damage to the child from years of abuse” (Morales par. 15).
The only hope in preventing much of this is for society to set an expectation for prospective and new parents to prepare themselves for the role. Parenting must be taken on with the utmost responsibility (par.16). Next, private and public organizations, such as, churches, YMCA’s community colleges, and city-funded community centers, could create family resource centers where parents could find practical information on parenting, classes for parents and kids, as well as childbirth classes (par. 17).
Fortunately, some parenting programs have already been established. According to the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse (NCPCA), “child maltreatment is a complex problem with a multitude of causes, an approach to prevention must respond to a range of needs (Donnelly, par. 1). The NCPCA has devised a strategy that consists of a variety of community-based programs to prevent child abuse.
Hopefully, these programs will provide parents and children “with the education and support necessary for healthy family functioning” (par.1). Some of the prevention programs include the prenatal support program. Its purpose is to prepare individuals for the job of parenting. “Currently, home visitation is the most innovative prevention program used in approaching the difficulties of educating and supporting the at-risk-family” (par.3).
“Treatment for abused children include therapeutic day school programs as well as day hospital programs, residential programs, and home and clinical setting treatment.” These programs concentrate on improving the emotional and developmental skills of younger children and psychodynamic treatment for children in older age groups (par. 4).
Child abusers must be stopped, closely monitored or removed from society before any more young people are damaged for life. While hospitals, schools, and community agencies have a critical role in preventing child abuse, they cannot do it alone. Educational campaigns are necessary to make the public aware of how severe child abuse is and how individuals can make a difference. The effectiveness of diminishing child abuse will only be realized when there is a fully aware public committed to preventing child abuse.