What are the causes, risk factors, and symptoms of child maltreatment (abuse) and how can we prevent it, if at all? Many studies show that neglect is linked to juvenile delinquency as well as adult delinquency. Neglect and abuse of children have no religious, ethnic, or socioeconomic barriers. Child maltreatment is prevalent in all walks of life. Physical abuse, child neglect, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse are the four most common types of child maltreatment. Child neglect is the failure to provide for the child’s basic needs and can be physical, educational, or emotional (Thomas & Hughes, 2009). Child prostitution, child pornography, or involvement in any sexual act on or by the child is sexual abuse. Many believe sexual abuse is the most underreported type of abuse. Emotional abuse is an action or inaction that causes or could cause emotional, behavioral, cognitive, or mental disorders. Physical abuse is the inflicting of physical injuries by various methods, even if the abuser doesn’t intend to cause harm.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2006) states that out of the 905,000 children found to be victims of child abuse or neglect, 64.1 percent of victims experienced neglect, 16.0 percent were physically abused, and 8.8 percent were sexually abused. Further, 6.6 percent were psychologically maltreated, 2.2 percent were medically neglected and 15.1 percent of these victims experienced other types of maltreatment such as abandonment, congenital drug addiction, or threats of harm to the child. 74 percent of these incidents were reported by professionals (lawyers, teachers, police officers). 25.1 percent were reported by non-professionals such as family and neighbors (DHHS, 2006).
Studies conducted by the Children’s Bureau’s Office on Child Abuse and Neglect (OCAN) provide evidence that suggests that age and gender are predictive of maltreatment risk (Thomas & Hughes, 2009). According to a study done in 2006, 51.5 percent of victims were girls, and 48.2 percent of victims were boys. Birth to age 1 had the highest victimization rate, 24.4 percent; 1 to 3 years victimization rate was 14.2 percent. In ages 4 to 7, the victimization rate was 13.5 percent per 1,000 children. Child victims, age’s birth to 3, were neglected at a drastically higher rate than 16 years and older. For the child victim’s ages 4 to 7, 15.3 percent were physically abused and those sexually abused averaged 8.2 percent (DHHS, 2006).
Child fatalities are the most shocking and saddening happenings of child maltreatment. The research done by The US Department of Health and Human Services (2006) shows there were an estimated 1,530 child fatality victims, and more than three-quarters of these victims were under the age of 4 years of age. Most theories about child maltreatment recognize the same root causes: 1) the child, 2) the family, 3) the community, and 4) society. Children are never responsible for abuse inflicted upon them, but certain characteristics of children have been known to increase the risk for maltreatment. For example, research shows children with mental retardation are more likely to be abused. Also, younger children are more likely to suffer from neglect (Thomas & Hughes, 2009).
Characteristics of the family and environment directly affect the risk of child abuse taking place. In families where there is drug addiction or substance abuse present, children are at a higher risk for abuse. The Child Welfare League of America (2001) recently found that substance abuse is present in 40-80 percent of families in which children are abuse victims (Thomas & Hughes, 2009). Research has also found that abusive mothers reported fewer friends in their social networks, less contact with friends, and lower ratings of quality support received from friends. The US Department of Health and Human Services (2006) reports that of the victims who experienced neglect, 86.7 percent were neglected by a parent. Of the victims who were sexually abused, 26.2 percent were abused by a parent and 29.1 percent were abused by a relative other than a parent (DHHS, 2006)
The child’s community and society are linked directly with child maltreatment and resulting neglect is directly linked to poverty. The least studied and understood factors of child abuse are societal and community factors. Research has shown that when a child is a victim of physical or sexual abuse there is an increased risk that they will grow up to be abusers themselves. Can we prevent and protect these child victims from a childhood filled with abuse, carrying over to their adult life, and causing permanent damage psychologically, emotionally, sexually and physically? In the past 5-10 years policymakers, researchers, and practitioners have been thinking of protective factors for these child victims. These protective factors are focused on reducing risks, building family capacity, and fostering resilience. There are child, family, environmental, and social protective forms of protective factors. These factors, if put into action, would have a drastic impact on the lives of these children and also on their families as a whole.
There are obvious links to a child seeing violence in the home, broken relationships in the home, and experiencing neglect in the home; and then acting out in their teenage years. Can we put the blame on them, or should we ask ourselves how can we prevent such traumatizing childhoods for millions of children? What measures can we take both preventative measures as well as after the teenager has started his or her criminal behavior? Many studies suggest that it starts at home with the parents. So we should have more parental training programs that are mandatory if there is even a question of abuse or neglect in the home. There should be more after-school programs offering trade skills. One example of this is on 69th street and Blackstone in the heart of Chicago’s Southside. There is a bicycle shop called Blackstone Bicycle Works where inner-city kids can learn to fix and build bikes every day after school that has demonstrated excellent outcomes for the children they serve.
Resilience in maltreated children was found to be related to personal characteristics that include a child’s ability to: recognize danger and adapt, distance oneself from intense feelings, create relationships that are crucial for support, and project oneself into a time and place in the future in which the perpetrator is no longer present. Parent and family protective factors that may protect children include: secure attachment with children, parental reconciliation with their own childhood history of abuse, supportive family environment including those with two-parent households, household rules and monitoring of the child, extended family support, stable relationship with parents, family expectations of pro-social behavior, and high parental education (Thomas & Hughes, 2009).
So the question remains, can we prevent child abuse and Juvenile delinquency, and if so, how? Adapted from Bloom in 1996, there are different kinds of prevention services. There are primary prevention programs (universal), secondary prevention programs (individuals, families that are high-risk), and tertiary prevention programs (families in which abuse has already occurred). Some examples of primary prevention services are public announcements encouraging positive parenting, parental education programs, enhancing families’ abilities to access existing services and support interactions between family members (Thomas & Hughes, 2009).
Secondary prevention services target the individuals and families that are at greater risk, such as poverty, substance abuse, young parental age, or parental or child disabilities. Some examples of secondary prevention services are education programs focused on teens and substance abuse programs for mothers and families with young children, parental support groups that deal with their everyday stresses, home visiting programs, and referral services in low-income areas. Tertiary prevention services which focus on already abused victims offer mental health counselors, family role models, parental support groups that teach parents how to turn negative practices into positive ones (Thomas & Hughes, 2009).
Not enough importance is placed on education for parents and also for their children. Education is a major tool to help prevent child maltreatment. Also, factors such as poverty, substance abuse, and limited tools for growth and family nourishment need to be addressed in or order to prevent the child maltreatment. In a world full of perpetrators and child victims of these heinous acts of abuse, the one thing we cannot give up on is studying and putting into practice forms of prevention and not waiting until it is too late for these children. Societal conditions need to be addressed by all of us. The one thing that stands out most in our country for the improvement of the lives of our children is the lack of care, response, and defense this society is providing for them proportionate to the need. We must take better care of this current generation in order to improve our society altogether.
Author: Tabitha Trott
Department of Health and Human Services. (2006). Administration on Children, Youth, and Families. Child Maltreatment 2006. Washington, D.C.
Miller, Alice. (1986). Thou Shall Not Be Aware: Society’s Betrayal of the Child. New York: First Meridian Printing.
Thomas, L., & Hughes, M. D. (2009, Oct. 27). “Emerging Practices in the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect. Retrieved from: www.childwelfare.gov/preventing/programs/whatworks/report/emerginga.cfm