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- Consequences Of Child Abuse And Neglect
- Causes Of Child Abuse And Neglect
- Child Abuse And The Larger Community And Society
Throughout the world, literally hundreds of millions of children are victims of abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Restricting our focus to the US, over 3 million children are reported to official agencies for severe maltreatment in any given year (English 1998). While approximately 15 percent of children have been reported to agencies for maltreatment, surveys indicate that this figure grossly underestimates the true extent of the problem, as over a third of adults in the US report having experienced physical, sexual, emotional abuse and/or neglect as a child.
How child abuse is defined has enormous implications for the safety and well being of children and reflects existing cultural, political, and structural inequalities. Narrowly defining child maltreatment, as we do in the US, as only the extremes of abuse with demonstrable injuries, not only results in artificially low estimates of child maltreatment, but also limits the government’s ability to intervene on behalf of children, affords abusing parents the greatest protection, and places children in the greatest danger.
As summarized by the World Health Organization (2002: 59), ”Child abuse or maltreatment constitutes all forms of physical and/or emotional ill treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development, or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust, or power.”
Child physical abuse involves a parent or caretaker intentionally inflicting physical pain on the child and can range, for example, from shaking, dragging, or spanking a child to the extremes of kicking, punching, or beating. Child sexual abuse involves a caretaker using a child for sexual gratification and can range from noncontact abuse (proposition, exhibition) to the extremes of actual penetration, to commercial sexual exploitation. Child emotional abuse involves inflicting psychological pain on the child. This includes, for example, yelling at, ridiculing, degrading, or humiliating a child; communicating that the child is flawed or unlovable; threatening a child or a child’s loved one; exposure to domestic violence.
Child neglect involves a caretaker’s failure to provide for the child’s basic needs. This includes physical neglect (adequate shelter, food, clothing), medical neglect (adequate health care), cognitive or educational neglect (intellectual stimulation, involvement in child’s schooling), supervision neglect (monitoring the child’s whereabouts, involvement in child’s activities), and emotional neglect (providing emotional responsiveness, support, and affection). Prenatal neglect and abuse (failure to obtain proper care and/or substance abuse during pregnancy) constitutes yet another category of maltreatment.
Consequences Of Child Abuse And Neglect
The consequences of child maltreatment are considerable, not only for the child, but also for society. Some consequences for the child are greater for one type of maltreatment than another. For example, child neglect is most strongly associated with the child having a lower IQ and lower educational achievement; child physical abuse with the child engaging in violence as a teen and adult; and, child emotional abuse with subsequent psycho pathology. However, all forms of maltreatment are associated with adverse effects for children and the adults they become. Child physical and emotional abuse and neglect all increase the likelihood that the child will subsequently:
- Be cognitively impaired (e.g., lower IQ and cognitive development; lower grades and educational achievement).
- Have impaired moral reasoning (e.g., less empathy, less compliance, and less developed conscience).
- Engage in violence and crime (e.g., more likely to engage in juvenile delinquency, nonviolent crime, and violent criminal behavior as a teenager and adult).
- Be violent in relationships (e.g., more likely to assault their siblings and other children, and later to abuse their spouse, child, and elderly parents).
In addition, all types of child maltreatment, physical and emotional abuse and neglect, and sexual abuse increase the likelihood that the child will subsequently:
- Have mental health problems as a child, teenager, and adult (e.g., higher rates of depression, anxiety, anger, anti social personality disorder, eating disorder, etc.).
- Become a substance abuser of both legal and illegal substances as a teenager and adult.
- Become pregnant as a teenager and engage in risky sexual behavior (e.g., engage in earlier first intercourse, higher rates of STDs, more partners, and teenage pregnancy).
- Have poor health when older (e.g., higher rates of cancer, heart disease, chronic lung disease, irritable bowel syndrome, liver diseases, etc.).
Aside from the obvious, reasons why the effects of child abuse and neglect are so profound and long lasting include the neurological changes in the child’s brain that result from maltreatment; the modeling effects of seriously inadequate parenting; the adoption of a belief system about self, others, and the world as malevolent; and the defense mechanisms that maltreated children must develop to cope with their terror, despair, and hopelessness.
Causes Of Child Abuse And Neglect
Many of the parents who abuse and neglect their children were themselves maltreated as children. In addition, having been maltreated as a child also increases the likelihood that one will suffer other outcomes such as lower IQ and educational attainment, more mental health problems, substance abuse, and teen pregnancy – each of which, in turn, independently increases the risk of maltreating one’s child. In other words, many of the consequences of having been abused and neglected as a child are also the causes of growing up to maltreat one’s own child, laying the foundation for a cycle of abuse and neglect across generations. For example, parents who abuse or neglect their children are more likely to:
- Have been maltreated as a child.
- Have mental health problems, including parent depression.
- Have a violent marriage.
- Be a substance abuser.
- Be a teenage mother.
- Have lower levels of education and to be chronically poor.
In addition to the above, parents who abuse or neglect their children are also more likely to:
- Have serious parenting deficits (e.g., have unrealistic expectations for their children).
- Use harsh and aggressive parenting with their children (i.e., high levels of emotional abuse).
- Have low levels of parental involvement and supervision, give their children low levels of attention and affection (i.e., high levels of physical and emotional neglect).
- Frequently use corporal punishment on their children (i.e., high levels of physical abuse).
- Have less play materials or any cognitively stimulating materials in the home for their children (i.e., high levels of neglect).
The first set of factors points to the cycle of child abuse and neglect. The second set of factors indicates that engaging in low or ”culturally acceptable” levels of harsh parenting, corporal punishment, and neglect significantly increases the likelihood that parents will proceed to more severely abuse and/or neglect their children. Moreover, at least in the area of physical violence, more frequent corporal punishment has the same adverse consequences as physical abuse, from lower IQ to more violent behavior, mental health problems, and risky sexual behavior, except to lesser degrees.
Child Abuse And The Larger Community And Society
Child maltreatment is associated with substantial costs to society. The World Health Organization (2002: 70) estimated that the total financial cost of child maltreatment in the US was $12.4 billion, which includes, for example, the costs of services to families of maltreated children, the loss of the contributions of victims, and related costs of the criminal justice and health care system. In addition, it is important to acknowledge the ways in which the larger community and society fail children, neglecting them (e.g., high levels of child poverty, poor quality schools, lack of neighborhood monitoring of children) and abusing them (exposure to high levels of violence and crime, legal support for children as property).
Intervention and prevention must address the larger context of child abuse, including for example:
- The degree to which the government and corporations support policies that benefit children (e.g., providing quality childcare for every child).
- The degree to which children are economically provided for by encouraging gender equality in the labor force, enforcing fathers’ child support payments, and having a strong social welfare system which provides for all children.
- The provision of sex education, on site avail ability of contraceptives, and parenting classes in high school designed to help teens, and ultimately all parents, postpone childbearing until they are mentally and financially able to raise a child without maltreatment.
- The level of help provided to maltreated children and survivors.
- The extent of protection for children provided by the law, agencies, and the criminal justice system.
- The degree to which children are viewed as the property of parents as opposed to the responsibility of the entire community.
- The level of support for extending human rights to children.
In these and other ways, a society can move toward protecting rather than forsaking its children.
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