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Overview of Child Abuse and Neglect
Whether caregivers* work with children from low-, middle-, or upper-income homes, at some time they are likely to encounter child maltreatment. Relatives (parents, grandparents, etc.) and nonrelatives (child care providers, teachers, etc.) who abuse and neglect children live in cities, suburbs, and rural areas; come from all ethnic backgrounds; can be male or female; and may be any age. Child abuse and neglect may be a single incident, such as a child care provider shaking an infant to make him/her stop crying; it may be a pattern of behavior, such as incest between parent and child that takes place over several months or years; or it may be parental failure to provide adequate supervision of a toddler on an ongoing basis.
Child maltreatment is often difficult to recognize, particularly in young children who are not seen regularly by anyone other than their parents and child care providers. The caregivers' frequent contacts with children put them in an excellent position to recognize and report suspected child maltreatment. In addition, by providing support to children, families, and colleagues under stress and building on family strengths, caregivers may help them learn ways to cope with their problems, thus preventing maltreatment from occurring. When maltreated children are enrolled in a high-quality child care program, the caregivers' sensitivity to their feelings and needs will contribute to their recovery from abuse or neglect.
What is Child Abuse and Neglect?
Child abuse and neglect is a growing national problem. Each year hundreds of thousands of children are abused by adults responsible for their care. But just what is meant by the term child abuse and neglect? While exact definitions differ from State to State and between military and civilian regulations and laws, most definitions describe an abused or neglected child as:
a child whose physical or mental health or welfare is harmed or threatened with harm by the acts or omissions of his/her parent or other person responsible for his/her welfare.
How Extensive is the Problem?
The most recent national incidence study reported that over a million children throughout the country had suffered from some form of maltreatment in 1986.1
Findings further suggest that not all cases suspected by community professionals were reported. The study projected that of the 1,424,400 children who were known by professionals to have suffered demonstrable harm as a result of maltreatment or whose health or safety was endangered by maltreatment, only 732,300 were actually reported to Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies (the agencies designed to accept and investigate reports).2
What are the Causes of Child Abuse and Neglect?
There are numerous variables involved in every case of child abuse and neglect; no one factor accounts for child maltreatment. Some causes have their roots in the basic fabric of society, while others seem more related to the individual's personality and view of the world. Some generally accepted causes of child maltreatment within a family include a history of family violence, the burdens resulting from poverty, and severe emotional pressures or psychopathologies. Rather than one factor that leads to abuse or neglect, there are multiple forces on families that reinforce each other and cause abuse and neglect. A caregiver who abuses or neglects a child may have been abused as a child, may believe that children should receive harsh punishment, or may have many stresses in his/her life and no coping skills. Various models for explaining child maltreatment have been proposed, but there seems to be a consensus that an ecological or systems approach is needed to address the complexity of the problem.
There are specific factors that can set the stage for child abuse and neglect. It is important to remember, however, that individuals can respond differently to the same environment. When two families or individuals both face the same difficult situation, one might become abusive while the other does not. The reasons for this are unclear. Several societal trends frequently have been cited as possible causes of child maltreatment.
- Economic stresses present pressures with which some individuals/families cannot cope. In many families, both parents work one or more jobs. Whether they are working to pay for the basics, such as housing, food, and clothing, or to pay for extras, such as summer camps or private schools, these parents may have difficulty coping with family responsibilities and the pressures of the workplace. Other families are less fortunate; parents are unemployed and perhaps the family is homeless. Children who spend their lives in overcrowded and substandard shelters or on the streets are potential victims of maltreatment.
- The acceptance of violence in our society, as evidenced by crime statistics and content analysis of television programs, movies, and print media, contributes to the belief and attitude that it is acceptable to physically punish and, in some cases, physically abuse children.
- The lack of social support in our society contributes to the isolation and stress often associated with child abuse and neglect. Children tend to grow up in smaller, more mobile family units, often living far away from grandparents and other relatives. The high incidence of divorce and unwed mothers results in many single-parent families and complex child custody and visitation arrangements. These situations can increase the overall pressure of raising children. Isolated from families, parents find little in the way of societal support. Adequate child care, for example, is difficult to find in the United States.
- The lack of support for women and children, many experts feel, reflects a negative attitude toward these two segments of society. While the United States is slowly emerging from the attitudes of the past that women and children were property, there is still a prevailing presumption that society does not need to assist families in raising their children.
- Another contributing factor to the incidence of child maltreatment is the problem of substance abuse. A recent study reported that 36 percent of the children placed in foster care in 1986 were taken from substance-abusing parents. A significant number of these children were also maltreated.3 Since 1986, CPS agencies nationally have reported an epidemic of drug use among their caseloads. This situation is having a major impact on the ability of CPS agencies to intervene effectively on behalf of children and families.4
While societal stresses contribute to the incidence of abuse, the individual makeup of the parent, the child, and indeed, the entire family can also play a part. Parents suffering from low self-esteem, loneliness, low frustration tolerance, or depression may be unable to cope with their children. Some couples may be hampered by poor communication, blurred generational boundaries, or a lack of knowledge of child development and appropriate discipline techniques.5 In particular, five areas of parental skill deficit increase risk for abuse: "parenting skills (e.g., too narrow a repertoire), cognitive dysfunctions (e.g., unrealistic expectations regarding children), and impulse control, stress management, and social skills problems." 6
Intentional abuse and neglect can take place in early childhood settings, as can abuse and neglect that results from inadequate training and supervision. When caregivers or providers don't have sufficient knowledge of child development, they may have unrealistic expectations of children. In addition, they may lack the skills needed to guide children's behavior in appropriate ways. Lack of skills and knowledge can lead caregivers to respond to children's normal, age-appropriate behavior in angry, punitive ways. These caregivers may not mean to hurt a child, but they don't know what else to do to stop the unwanted behavior.
Some children are at higher risk for abuse than others. For example, there may be a higher likelihood of maltreatment for children who were born prematurely or with a handicap or were conceived in a time of parental stress or depression. In addition, the behavior of some children appears to stimulate abuse at the hands of parents and other adults. Gold suggested that children who have health problems as infants, severe allergies, severe mood swings, or hyperactivity with learning disabilities and other psychological problems may tax the resources of their parents and caregivers, perhaps resulting in abuse.7
What are the Effects of Child Abuse and Neglect?
Child abuse and neglect can result in permanent and serious damage to children's physical, emotional, and cognitive development. At its most serious, of course, child abuse and neglect can result in death.
While much of the work to determine the impact of abuse and neglect is based on the testimonies of survivors, more recent studies have focused specifically on the effect of maltreatment by studying children. Research on neurological impairment uncovered a significant incidence of neurological damage as a result of head injuries associated with abuse.8 A Cornell study designed to explore the academic and social adjustment of school-aged children found significant differences in school performance between maltreated children and a control group of children who had not been abused or neglected. In 1987, this Family Life Development Center study of 530 maltreated children found that "...child maltreatment has a strong and pervasive effect on academic outcomes such as children's test scores, especially in reading."9
While there is no single group of behaviors that is characteristic of abused children, the presence of socioemotional problems in many maltreated children is well documented. The consequences of the abuse will vary with the developmental level of the child, the duration and intensity of abuse, and the quality of the subsequent home environment and community support.10 Some studies report behavior that is either passive and withdrawn or very active and aggressive.11 Other consequences may include psychiatric symptoms (such as enuresis, tantrums, hyperactivity, and bizarre behavior), low self-esteem, school learning problems, social withdrawal, oppositional behavior, hypervigilance to adult cues, compulsivity, and pseudoadult behavior.12 Physically abused children have also been found to be significantly more self-destructive, evidencing more suicide attempts and self-mutilation.13
In their review of studies focusing on the impact of child abuse, Browne and Finkelhor report the following effects: fear, anxiety, depression, self-destructive behavior, anger, aggression, guilt and shame, impaired ability to trust, revictimization, sexually inappropriate behavior, school problems, truancy, running away, and delinquency.14 Their review further suggests that many of the effects of sexual abuse continue into adulthood.15
Caregiving professionals play a major role in nurturing young children's development and in ensuring their future school success. Clearly, it is important that they recognize the potential short- and long-term effects that child abuse and neglect can have on children's growth and development and their performance in school.
* Throughout this manual the terms "caregivers," "early childhood education professionals," and "early childhood professionals," will be used synonymously with respect to their roles in preventing, identifying, and responding to child maltreatment, even though their other professional roles may differ.
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