What is Child Abuse?
Child abuse in its simplest terms is the mistreatment of a child, generally by a parent or guardian. However, this term can then branch out into four more specific forms of abuse: physical abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect. The first of these, physical abuse, refers to the deliberate use of physical force against a child. Physical abuse can occur in several forms, including but not limited to hitting, punching, strangling, forced ingestion, and burning.
The second type is sexual abuse. Sexual abuse pertains to forcing or using a child as a means of sexual gratification. Sexual activities and using a child for pornography are examples of sexual abuse.
The third form is psychological abuse, which involves purposely targeting the emotions of a child in a negative way. Psychological abuse could take place through ignoring, humiliation, or induction of fear.
Finally, there is child neglect. Like psychological abuse, neglect also targets the child’s emotions and feelings. It involves leaving the child in a state where their most basic needs of survival are not fulfilled. These basic needs include shelter, food, and health services.
History of Child Protection
While child abuse existed long before, the first organization created to prevent it was founded in the 19th century. One reason for such a late emergence of societal activism against child abuse was due to the fact that social work (which the job of child protection falls under) had not yet become established as a profession. However, that is not to say that in the years preceding the late 19th century, there were no preventive measures taken. For instance, prosecution was often used to punish perpetrators of child abuse-related crimes.
The organization that came to be in 1875 was the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC). Under the guidance of president John D. Wright and vice-presidents Elbridge Gerry and Henry Bergh, the NYSPCC sought to protect abused and neglected children, as well as advocate for more legislature regarding child protection. It is important to note that there was a lack of government action in preventing child abuse at this point in time.
Initiative from the federal government finally emerged in 1912 with the creation of the federal Children’s Bureau, an agency dedicated to focusing on the well-being of mothers and their children. A couple of decades later, due to pressures from the Great Depression, Congress passed Social Security Act of 1935 to improve the general welfare of the people, including that of children. However, after 1935, the government remained relatively idle in child protection work. It was not until the 1970s, with the passing of CAPTA, that the government was yet to take initiative again.
A major catalyst in bringing child abuse into the light was medical research on the topic during the 1960s. Doctors began to examine injuries in children that seemed to originate from abuse, and eventually a paper called “The Battered-Child Syndrome” by Henry Kempe et al. was published. Kempe’s paper quickly sparked national interest; major news publications began reporting more about child abuse, referencing Kempe’s paper. Thanks to this team of medical doctors, the issue of child abuse became more prevalent in society, and the role of doctors in treating such cases amplified.
About a decade later, in 1974, Congress took an important step in passing the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). The Act’s aim was to identify, prevent, and treat cases of child abuse and neglect nationwide. CAPTA encouraged the giving of grants to the States and NGOs to fund their child protection projects. The Act also authorized funding child abuse-related research. To this day, CAPTA still remains one of the most important parts of child protection legislation.
Child Protection in Present-Day America
With the improvements in technology and the faster means of sharing news and information that come with such advancements, child protection has come a long way. There are now many non-governmental organizations that strive to end child abuse. Important international bodies and organizations such as the United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in particular play a very important role in improving child protection services on a larger scale. The issue of child abuse has also been brought into pop culture more than ever before. For example, in this century compared to the ones before it, there have been more books published – both fiction and non-fiction – addressing the issue. Media coverage of child abuse is not limited to literature however; both documentaries and movies have been created addressing the topic, among them the movies Mysterious Skin (2004) and Sybil (2007). In addition, celebrities such as Oprah and Christina Aguilera who have been victims of child abuse have taken the time to talk about it to the public and advocate for child protection. This recent eminence of child abuse in pop culture has helped to raise awareness and educate people more about the subject.
However, improvements in child protection services and overall awareness unfortunately do not correlate with lower rates of child abuse. National Children’s Alliance, an organization which owns multiple centers seeking to uncover and heal cases of child abuse, documented that it served 311,688 children during 2015. Of the cases that year, a shocking 109,000 of the children were between the ages of 0 and 6. Even worse was that among children between the ages of 7 and 12, there were 118,223 cases. The fact that added together these two age groups made up more than half of the total cases of that year implies a higher susceptibility towards child abuse at a younger age.
Sexual abuse was also the most prevalent type of abuse, with approximately 59,000 cases of it being reported. Physical abuse and neglect cases were tied for second most recurring, with 22,280 cases of physical abuse and 21,020 cases of neglect. Added together however, both were still less than sexual abuse.
Another noteworthy fact was that from the approximately 247,000 alleged offenders identified in the cases, 82,881 were parents of the victim, and 51,231 were another relative. While parents and relatives alone made up the highest percentage of offenders, they were not alone, with other offenders including stepparents, a parent’s boyfriend or girlfriend, or another known person.
Among all these statistics however, there are many cases of child abuse that go unreported. According to a study done by TIME magazine in 2008, 1 in 10 of all child abuse cases in high-income nations go unreported. Looking back at the astonishing number of children twelve and under who face child abuse, it is important to realize that at this pre-pubescent period, children often have not yet developed the confidence or social skills to speak up about abuse. Furthermore, child abuse causes extreme emotional damage to the victim. Even if the child would be capable of speaking up, they would sometimes choose not to due to the emotional trauma. This entails that child protection services have yet to improve, particularly in detecting cases where the victim does not have the power to reach out. As members of a nation where fundamental human rights are advocated for, we have the responsibility of being on the lookout for signs of child abuse, and of reporting them when they are detected.
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