The Rediscovery of Child Abuse

The Rediscovery of Child Abuse

The Rediscovery of Child Abuse
The Rediscovery of Child Abuse

Beliefs about what constitutes child abuse— physical, sexual, and emotional—remain the sub- ject of much debate. Legal definitions of child maltreatment and neglect clearly are socially con- structed: They evolve as time passes, and they dif- fer from country to country and even between subcultures within a society. For centuries, parents were permitted to beat their children as they saw fit in the name of imposing discipline. Legal notions of progeny as the property of their parents as well as religious traditions (such as “honor thy father and mother” and “spare the rod and spoil the child”) legitimized corporal punishment of youngsters as a necessary, even essential, technique of child rearing. Only if permanent injury or death resulted were adults in danger of being held responsible for going too far, a problem labeled cruelty to children.

The House of Refuge movement arose in the early 1800s to intervene on behalf of beaten

and neglected children. Its priority was to prevent abused youth from growing up to be delinquents. The movement removed youngsters from their dysfunctional homes, but unfortunately, these vic- tims often were thrown into environments where they mingled with young vagrants and law- breakers. During the late 1800s, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals expanded its mission and began to take responsibility for res- cuing children from uncaring foster parents and heartless employers. Cases like this one were brought to its attention:

A 10-year-old girl testifies, “Mamma has been in the habit of whipping me and beating me almost every day … I never dared speak to anybody, because if I did I would get whipped.” This orphan’s plight, recounted in a 1874 newspaper article entitled “Inhuman treatment of a little waif” puts a human face on child abuse and inspires reformers to launch a crusade. (Markel, 2009)

As a result of this case, the first child protective agency in the world, the Society for the Preven- tion of Cruelty to Children, was organized in New York City in 1874. It used its police powers to place abused youngsters from big-city slums into foster homes in rural settings, but the children sometimes wound up in juvenile institutions in a misguided attempt to head off delinquency. Dur- ing the early 1900s, the “child savers” movement was motivated by the same fear: that neglect and abuse caused lawbreaking later in life. It designed a special court system and developed reform schools strictly for troubled juveniles (see Platt, 1968; and Pfohl, 1984).

The problem festered until the early 1960s, when pediatric radiologists (doctors who study X-rays of children’s injuries) sparked the rediscov- ery of physical abuse. Apparently, the pledge of confidentiality inhibited physicians such as pedia- tricians and emergency room doctors from expos- ing the consequences of severe beatings, as did their reluctance to get embroiled in the criminal justice process. Pediatric radiologists, on the other hand, had little direct contact with parents and desired greater recognition within the medical

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profession. Therefore, they were willing to set the rediscovery process into motion, exposing brutal- ity, labeling it as deviant behavior, and encourag- ing legislation against it by alerting colleagues and the public to the battered child syndrome in 1962. This syndrome was identified as a clinical condition of nonaccidental injuries repeatedly inflicted by parents or guardians, reflecting a cycle pattern of inflicting excessive punishments. In the typical case, the youngster was less than three years of age and suffered traumatic injuries to the head and limbs, and the caretakers claimed that the wounds were caused by accidents and not beatings (see Pfohl, 1984; and Kethineni, 2009).

Social workers, women’s organizations, public health associations, and law enforcement groups joined doctors to help raise public consciousness about the suspected dimensions of the problem. Between 1962 and 1966, legislatures in all 50 states passed laws forbidding parents from abusing their children (Pfohl, 1984). Because the victims usually were too young or too frightened to complain, requirements for reporting cases of apparent abuse to child welfare and protection agencies were imposed on doctors, teachers, and others who rou- tinely came into contact with youngsters.

In 1974, Congress passed the Child Abuse Pre- vention and Treatment Act, amending it in 1978. The law prohibited maltreatment in all its guises (acts of omission as well as commission), including neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. Neglect ranged from abandonment to failure to meet a child’s basic requirements in three areas: physical needs (including inadequate supervision and medical care), emotional needs (denial of nur- turing and affection, tolerance of a child’s drug or alcohol abuse, or fierce fighting in the child’s pres- ence), and educational needs (tolerance of chronic truancy). Physical abuse involved assaults (punch- ing, kicking, scalding, suffocating, shaking, and extended confinement, even if unintended as the consequence of excessive punishment). Sexual abuse was recognized as incest, fondling, sodomy, intercourse, rape, and commercial exploitation (impairment of morals, involvement in pornogra- phy, or prostitution). In addition, maltreatment

could take the form of emotional abuse (leading to serious behavioral or mental disorders) (see Irwin, 1980; and National Clearinghouse, 1997). During the 1980s, the focus of researchers, practi- tioners, and an indignant public shifted from physi- cal maltreatment to sexual abuse (Milner, 1991).

When Congress passed the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003, it broadened the definition of child maltreatment to encompass any act—or failure to act—on the part of a parent or another caretaker that results in death, serious phys- ical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploita- tion, plus any act or failure to act that poses an imminent risk of serious harm. Child neglect (fail- ure to provide adequate supervision, medical care, food, or clothing) turns out to be the most preva- lent form of maltreatment but also the most difficult type to recognize and to respond to by social ser- vice and criminal justice agencies.

News media coverage of horror stories that described particularly vicious punishments, severe injuries, and disturbing circumstances evoked strong condemnations and helped galvanize a social move- ment. Initially, journalists focused on battering, but they soon broadened their inquiries to include cases of sexual exploitation and incest as well as of gross neglect and emotional cruelty. There is never a shortage of highly upsetting tragedies that can keep the public focused on the need to adequately fund effective child protective services (CPS), as this case shows:

A baby is born prematurely and must stay in a hospital getting special care. When she is finally able to go home, she is severely neglected by her drug- addicted mother. The local child welfare agency arranges for a private company to monitor the little girl’s plight because her mother clearly is unable to attend to her daughter’s serious medical problems. But the child is routinely beaten and tied to her bed at night to keep her from taking food from the refriger- ator and “making a mess.” One day, a caseworker inspects the home and discovers the bruised and emaciated corpse of the four-year-old (who weighed just 18 pounds when she died). The 30-year-old mother is arrested for second-degree assault, and the

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front page story shines a spotlight on the many inadequacies of the city’s protective services agency, which concedes that a lapse in supervision and investigation occurred. (Rivera, 2010a)

Coverage of these human interest stories fit the organizational needs not only of the news media to attract readers and viewers but also of professional and occupational groups and private and nonprofit agencies seeking increased funding and more recog- nition for their missions (Johnson, 1989).

From 2008 through 2013, over 785 children died of abuse or neglect while their cases were being monitored by child protection agencies across the country. The authorities knew they were in danger and kept their cases open while investigating their families or guardians in their troubled homes. And yet, these children, mostly under the age of four, were beaten to death, starved, or left unat- tended and drowned. Many factors probably contributed to these preventable deaths: huge workloads, tight budgets, and shortages of trained caseworkers to follow-up complaints about abuse and neglect to hotlines that consequently were screened out and never investigated, or misclassi- fied. Also, some deaths can be attributed to abusers avoiding detection by moving from state to state, and to a policy that emphasizes keeping families intact, according to a study carried out by the Associated Press (2014b).

The persistence of child abuse always has been of great concern to victimologists. They ask, “Exactly what behaviors by adults toward children can be considered forms of maltreatment?” Is the true scope of the problem adequately recognized and accurately measured? What are the short-term and long-term consequences of suffering maltreat- ment? What percentages of cases go unreported and unattended? Are existing mandatory reporting requirements sufficient? How are abused youngsters handled by the authorities in family courts and in the criminal justice system? Are treatment, protec- tion, and support services by government agencies as well as private, nonprofit, and religious organiza- tions effective? To anticipate and thereby prevent future cases of abuse, victimologists want to

discover what the risk factors are that might predict which children will face the gravest dangers (see Finkelhor, 2008).

How Children Suffer

A biography of one of the most famous outfielders in the history of major league baseball reveals that he was molested as a child by his teenage half-sister and an older boy. These sexually exploitive incidents severely impacted his life, especially by poisoning his relation- ship with women, but also by possibly contributing to his heavy drinking and lewd public behavior, the ballplayer’s widow suspects. (Madden, 2010)

A 29-year-old man accuses an assistant football coach of molesting him over 100 times during a period of four years, starting when he was 10 years old. He claims the middle-aged man lavished gifts on him, took him to see football games, and arranged for him to enjoy special privileges at campus facilities. The abuse took place in the coach’s basement and in the university’s locker room, among other places. When the boy turned 14, he resisted further advances, saying “I’m going to tell …,” but the predator reportedly scoffed, “No one will believe you” and then threatened him and his family. But when eight other young men come forward and testify about molestations and sexual assaults, he is charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse of young boys over a span of 15 years. A jury convicts him, and at the sen- tencing hearing, one young man tells him to his face that his life was ruined and his childhood stolen: “I am troubled with flashbacks of his naked body, something that will never be erased from my memory.” Another victim says, “I want you to know I don’t forgive you.” and a third observes, “There is no remorse, only evil.” The judge sentences him to between 30 and 60 years in prison. His downfall leads to the worst scandal in the history of college athletics. When stories surface about a cover-up years earlier of a credible charge against this assistant coach of raping a boy in a campus shower room, the board of trustees fires the university president, along with the revered head coach; students hold a raucous

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protest against the firings; and critics question the administration’s undue emphasis on big-time college athletics. (Berube, 2011; Pennington, 2011; and Peyser, 2012)

A famous actress reveals that at one point she “wanted to die” after a childhood marred by sexual abuse. At age six, she was molested by a female babysitter. When she was 12, her first heterosexual experience took place when a 25-year-old male acquaintance raped her. After that, she was gang- raped by a boyfriend from school and six of his buddies. As a result, she confides, she always has had a difficult time trusting people. She sets up a foun- dation that uses her fame, access to world leaders, and fortune to campaign for animal rights and to protect the environment. (Li, 2014)

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) deems child abuse and neglect to be a high-priority health problem. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) considers violence against children to be a public health crisis. One researcher summed up the current situation this way, “If 20 mil- lion people were infected by a virus that caused anxiety, impulsivity, aggression, sleep problems, depression, respiratory and heart problems, vulnera- bility to substance abuse, antisocial and criminal behavior, retardation and school failure, we would consider it an urgent public health crisis. Yet, in the United States alone, there are more than 20 million abused, neglected and traumatized children vulnera- ble to these problems. Our society has yet to recognize this epidemic, let alone develop an immunization strategy” (Perry, 2011, cited in TexProtects).

Physically and sexually abused youngsters might suffer terribly in a myriad of ways. The fear, stress, and trauma they endure can lead to pro- blems that can plague the rest of their lives. Afflicted pupils can fall behind developmentally and consequently may perform poorly in school. They may behave inappropriately with other youngsters and can become enmeshed in troubled relationships when they grow up. Abused children are much more likely than their peers to regress to

infantile behaviors like thumbsucking or bed- wetting, mimic sexual behavior when playing with toys, refuse to get undressed, run away from home, become sexually promiscuous, commit crimes, get arrested as teenagers and adults, become depressed or anxious, turn to drinking and drugs for solace, cut or burn themselves, and ultimately com- mit suicide to end their torment (TexProtects, 2011; and Fernandez, 2011).

Sexually exploited youngsters can suffer com- plicated, far-reaching, and long-lasting problems. The aftershocks of childhood incest can be devas- tating. Youngsters reportedly suffer from clinginess, loss of appetite, nightmares, bed-wetting, sexual preoccupations, inappropriate knowledge of sexual matters, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As they grow older, they are more prone than others to experience reckless promiscuity, sexual dysfunctions, eating disorders, depression, guilt, self-hatred, self-mutilation, alcoholism, and sub- stance abuse. A review of the literature written by therapists turned up seven groupings of adverse effects. Affective problems were evidenced by guilt, shame, anxiety, fear, depression, anger, low self-esteem, concerns about secrecy, feelings of helplessness, and an inordinate need to please others. Physical repercussions included genital inju- ries, unwanted pregnancies, venereal diseases, loss of appetite, sleep disruptions, and bed-wetting. Cog- nitive effects took the form of shortened attention spans and trouble concentrating. Behavioral symp- toms materialized as hostile-aggressive acting out, tantrums, drug taking, delinquency, withdrawal, and repetitions of the abusive relationship. Self- destructive impulses were manifested as suicidal thoughts, high-risk behavior, and self-mutilations. Psychopathological repercussions showed up as neuroses, character disorders, psychotic thought patterns, and multiple personalities. Finally, sexual disorders took the form of age-inappropriate sexual knowledge, talk, and involvements. Because sexual abuse can range from a single molestation to an ongoing incestuous relationship, each youngster might exhibit a different mix of symptoms. Although these symptoms are consistent with abuse, they don’t constitute legal proof that incest

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definitely occurred; other problems can bring about these same disorders. There is no specific problem or repertoire of behaviors that definitively and con- clusively indicates that a child has been abused (Yapko and Powell, 1988; Whitcomb, 1992; and Kendall-Tackett, Williams, and Finkelhor, 1993).

The problem of child abuse exacts an enor- mous toll not only on the youngsters who are preyed upon but on the entire society. The direct and indirect social and economic costs show up as expenses for foster homes, medical care, alcohol and drug treatment, and outlays for police protection, court proceedings, and incarceration. For example, many women who receive public assistance because of multiple problems—addiction to alcohol or drugs, disabling bouts of anxiety and depression, and injuries from violent mates—were sexually abused when they were girls (de Parle, 1999).

An intergenerational transmission of poor parent- ing skills takes place when abused children grow up and harm their own children in the same ways that they were mistreated. Children socialized into a sub- culture of violence that is very much on display in their homes are taught to use force to settle disagreements in the same imitative manner that they learn other beha- viors. Worse yet, experiencing neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse as a youngster becomes a serious risk factor for perpetuating a vicious cycle that leads to delinquency, crime, and violence later in life. Those who were physically abused face the gravest risks of becoming lawbreakers, more so than those who were abused sexually or grossly neglected. Of course, suffer- ing during childhood does not inevitably lead to crim- inal behavior as a grown-up: Most adults who were abused as children don’t have arrest records. But the search for risk versus resiliency factors continues to inspire a great deal of theorizing and research (see for example, Gray, 1986; Wyatt and Powell, 1988; Barringer, 1989; Widom, 1989, 1995; Turman, 1999; and Widom and Maxfield, 2001).

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