What is Child Abuse?

What is child abuse?
Child abuse can include any behavior, action, or omission by an adult that causes or allows harm to come to a child. Abuse can include physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and/or neglect. Individual states and other government agencies have specific legal definitions that are used to substantiate reports of alleged maltreatment.

What does it mean to “substantiate” an allegation of abuse?
The term “substantiated” means that an allegation of maltreatment was confirmed according to the level of evidence required by the state law or state policy. The term “indicated” is sometimes used by investigators when there is insufficient evidence to substantiate a case under state law or policy, but there is reason to suspect that maltreatment occurred or that there is risk of future maltreatment.

What are the most common types of maltreatment?
The majority (59%) of victims suffered from neglect. Child Protective Services investigations determine that 10.8 % of victims suffered from physical abuse, 7.6% suffered from sexual abuse,4.2% suffered from emotional maltreatment, less than 1% experienced medical neglect, and 13.1% suffered multiple forms of maltreatment. In addition, 4.1 percent of victims experienced such “other” types of maltreatment as “abandonment,” “threats of harm to the child,” or “congenital drug addiction.” States may consider any condition that does not fall into one of the main categories — e.g. physical abuse, neglect, or emotional maltreatment — as “other.” These maltreatment type percentages total more than 100 percent because children who were victims of more than one type of maltreatment were counted for each incident. Although the percentage of emotional maltreatment appears low, this statistic may be misleading. The Child Welfare Information Gateway states, “Emotional abuse is often difficult to prove and, therefore, CPS may not be able to intervene without evidence of harm to the child. Emotional abuse is almost always present when other forms [of abuse] are identified”.

How many children die each year from child abuse?
During 2011, an estimated 1570 children died from abuse or neglect. Of those, 75.7% were younger than four years old. This number may not accurately reflect the actual number of fatalities due to abuse and neglect. Many researchers and practitioners believe child fatalities due to abuse and neglect are still underreported. Studies in Colorado and North Carolina have estimated that as many as 50 to 60 percent of child deaths resulting from abuse or neglect are not recorded as such (Crume, DiGuiseppi, Byers, Sirotnak, Garrett, 2002; Herman-Giddens, Brown, Verbiest, Carlson, Hooten, et al., 1999).

Who abuses and neglects children?
In 2011, exactly 81.2 percent of perpetrators of child maltreatment were parents, and another 12.8% were relatives or caregivers of the child. Caregivers includes foster parents, child daycare providers, and legal guardians.

Mothers comprised a larger percentage of perpetrators, 36.8% compared to fathers, 19%, however 18.9% of cases indicated both parents were involved. Nearly one-half of all victims were White (43.9%), 21.5% were African-American, and 22.1% were Hispanic.

Child maltreatment occurs across socio-economic, religious, cultural, racial, and ethnic groups.

What makes people abuse children?
It is difficult to imagine that any person would intentionally inflict harm on a child. Many times, physical abuse can result when the physical punishment is inappropriate for the child’s age, and parents have an unrealistic expectation of their child’s behavior. A parent feeling undue stress may also react inappropriately. Most parents want to be good parents but sometimes lose control. Child abuse can be a symptom that parents are having difficulty coping with other situations, such as those involving finances, work, or housing.

A significant factor in many situations relates to a parent’s inexperience with or lack of understanding of typical child development. Many childhood behaviors can be frustrating but are normal. Lack of understanding about normal behaviors may lead a parent to react in a punitive manner. Parents with their own negative childhood experiences may not have healthy role models to follow.

Other stress factors in the home may increase the risk of abuse or neglect, also. These can include drug or alcohol abuse, family crises, marital difficulties, domestic violence, depression, and/or mental illness.

Are victims of child abuse more likely to engage in criminality later in life?
Victims of child abuse are likely to experience a wide variety of negative outcomes throughout their lives. Involvement in criminal activity is one. For children, the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being found that children placed in out-of-home care due to abuse or neglect tended to score lower than the general population on measures of cognitive capacity, language development, and academic achievement (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2003).

Other studies have found abuse and neglected children to be at least 25% more likely to experience problems such as delinquency, teen pregnancy, low academic achievement, drug use, and mental health problems.

In one long-term study of young adults who had been abused, as many as 80% met the diagnostic criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder at age 21. These young adults exhibited many problems, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicide attempts (Silverman, Reinherz, & Giaconia, 1996). Other psychological and emotional conditions associated with abuse and neglect include panic disorder, dissociative disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and reactive attachment disorder (Teicher, 2000).