It seems as though reports of child abuse pop up in our news feed almost daily. We read about parents and caregivers imposing physical and emotional abuse on children of all ages. It makes you cringe when you read about a mother who posts a video of herself pouring water on her baby’s face while she peacefully sleeps. with the caption, “payback for waking me up all kinda times of da night…😂😂😂”.
It’s disturbing to read the circumstances of the video clip posted to social media stating, “a woman can be heard laughing as she holds a bottle of Aquafina water over the baby’s cheek as she sleeps in her crib. The woman tips some water on her face and the little girl pops up and starts to cough and gasp, causing the woman to laugh harder. The infant, still asleep, turns back on her side and coughs again. A few seconds later, the hand spills more water directly onto the baby’s nose, startling her and causing her to jump up and cry.”
How Can This Happen?
What is it that drives people to this kind of behavior, using these kinds of tactics? It may have you wondering if it is mental illness, anger issues, genetics, alcohol and/or drug abuse or even sleep deprivation. Whatever the cause, its an epidemic not only in the United States but in other countries as well. Cases of child abuse are rising and the number of deaths as a result of child abuse and neglect continue to rise as well. According to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), 49 States reported a total of 1,700 fatalities in 2016. Based on this data, a nationally estimated 1,750 children died from abuse or neglect, which is 7.4 percent more than in 2012. These are the most current statistics, as it takes up to 2 years to calculate data and publish it. In reality, these statistics may not even be the most accurate. In a report from the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, “Some researchers estimate that the actual number is more than double the NCANDS total, but at least 3,000 children per year.” This is because many deaths that occur due to child abuse and neglect are never reported.
Who is at Risk?
Children three years and younger are the most vulnerable to child abuse. This age group accounted for almost 77% of reported deaths from child abuse in 2016. Young children are vulnerable for many reasons, these include their dependency on adults for care, small size, and inability to defend themselves. Deaths from child abuse are typically not an isolated incident. Unfortunately, they are from repeated abuse occurring over a period of time. This abuse could involve an impulsive episode such as drowning, suffocating and being shaken (commonly known as ‘shaken baby’). However, fatal neglect can also be the cause of death where the child is not suffering from a single act of abuse. This can take the form of a caregiver who does not react (child drowning in a tub while left alone) or provide them with basic essentials (malnourishment).
Who is Responsible?
According to research, parents are most frequently responsible for abusing children. It can be both parents, or one parent acting alone or with the support of another individual. Mothers claim the highest statistics of child maltreatment at 41% as reported by the Children’s Bureau in 2017. Fathers come in second at 21% and in cases reported where both parents were acting together in the abuse is at 20%. The statistics for non-parent or caretaker abuse are significantly lower.
What Defines Child Abuse?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines child abuse and maltreatment as “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.” This definition encompasses all forms of abuse and neglect to provide a broad perspective on what constitutes child abuse.
For the purposes of federal legislation, a guideline is provided to states that identify minimum acts or behaviors defined as child abuse. According to The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (1) child abuse and neglect at their minimum are:
- Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation.
- An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.
This refers specifically to parents or caregivers who have direct or caregiving responsibility to a child who is younger than age 18 or who is not an emancipated minor.
Types of Child Abuse
There are several types of child abuse and neglect. Let’s look at the different types more in-depth as defined by Child Welfare (2):
- Physical Abuse: Any non-accidental physical injury to a child, including striking, kicking, burning, or biting the child, and any action that results in physical impairment of the child. This includes acts or circumstances that threaten the child with harm or create a substantial risk of harm to the child’s health or welfare. This also includes (in 7 states) human trafficking, labor trafficking, involuntary servitude, and trafficking of minors.
- Neglect: Failure of a parent or person with responsibility to care for the child, to provide needed food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision to the degree that the child’s health, safety, and well-being are threatened with harm. Medical neglect is failing to provide any special medical treatment or mental health care needed by the child.
- Sexual Abuse/Exploitation: Allowing a child to engage in prostitution or production of child pornography. In some states, this includes human trafficking and sex trafficking of children for sexual purposes.
- Emotional Abuse: Any injury to the psychological capacity or emotional stability of a child as evidenced by an observable or substantial change in behavior, emotional response, an injury as evidenced by anxiety, depression, withdrawal, or aggressive behavior.
- Parental Substance Abuse: Prenatal exposure through mother’s use of an illegal drug or other substance. Manufacture of a controlled substance in the presence of a child or on the premises occupied by a child. Allowing a child to be present where chemicals or equipment for the manufacture of controlled substances are used or stored. Selling, distributing or giving drugs or alcohol to a child. Use of controlled substance by a caregiver that impairs the caregiver to adequately care for a child.
- Abandonment: When the parent’s identity or whereabouts are unknown, the child is left by the parent in circumstances in which the child suffers serious harm, the parent has failed to maintain contact with the child or provide reasonable support for a specified
period of time.
No matter what the form of child abuse is, lasting scars will be left because children who have been affected by abuse or neglect grow up in a state of fear. They are unsure of the boundaries they need for healthy psychosocial development. Often times child abuse occurs when parents lack the ability to cope with the stresses in their lives. This is why there are no boundaries to where child abuse and neglect occur, it is present in all social, economic and ethnic areas.
How to Recognize the Signs
Knowing what to look for and when to report signs of child abuse and neglect are not always easy. Even a trained professional can have difficulty with this process. There are certain professions that are required to report signs of child abuse including physicians, nurses, teachers, and daycare providers. This is known as Mandatory Reporting. (3) It requires these types of professionals to make a report of any suspected or observed maltreatment or neglect.
There Could be Neglect or Abuse When You See This in a Child
It can still be difficult to know when abuse or neglect is happening. Let’s take a look at some possible signs.
- Shows sudden changes in behavior or school performance
- Has not received help for physical or medical problems the parents are aware of
- Learning problems, difficulty concentrating that can’t be attributed to specific physical or psychological issues
- Always watchful, seems to be preparing for something bad to happen
- Lacks adult supervision
- Physical Abuse signs – unexplained burns, bites, bruises, broken bones or black eyes,
especially after an absence from school, frightened of the parents and protests or cries when it is time to go home, shrinks at the approach of adults, reports injury by a parent or another adult caregiver, abuses animals or pets
- Signs of Neglect – frequently absent from school, begs or steals food or money, lacks medical or dental care, immunizations, or glasses, consistently dirty with severe body odor, insufficient clothing for the weather, abuses alcohol or other drugs, states no one at home to provide care
Being equipped with tools on what to look for when you suspect neglect or abuse with a child is key to providing intervention for that child. For information on where and how to file
a report, contact your local child protective services agency or police department.
What Pushes People to Neglect and Abuse?
One of the most challenging things to comprehend is how some parents seem to intentionally inflict abuse, physically and/or sexually, on their own children. There are isolated incidents of parents who are unstable and over-react to their children’s behavior. However, on the other end of the spectrum are those parents who make conscious decisions to continually and methodically hurt their children. Whether it’s an isolated event or chronic, there are still repercussions to the innocent victims.
It seems there are cases where people enter parenthood with unrealistic expectations. When the excitement wears off, they realize just how much care and attention their child requires. Normal, healthy children require tremendous amounts of care when they are in their early years. In the case of a child born with medical care needs, they will require even more care and attention that some parents may not be prepared for or be able to handle. This is when support through counseling and parenting groups can help keep parents calm and children safe.
Can Poor Coping Skills Lead to Abuse?
Stressful parenting situations can lead to alcohol and drug abuse. That one drink to calm your nerves or medications to take the edge off can lead to child abuse, as these substances can cause people to lose self-control. When parents partake in substance abuse, they are three times more likely to abuse their children and four times more likely to neglect them. Children in single-parent homes where alcohol and/or drug use are prevalent are at risk. There isn’t a parenting partner to diffuse a potentially abusive situation and protect the child.
When a parent struggles with an anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar disorder or other mental illness, they may not be able to cope with the stresses of parenting. People diagnosed with mental illness may already have difficulty caring for themselves, making caring for a child even more stressful. This can cause physical and emotional withdrawal, creating situations where the parent may be more prone to anger or physical violence. Treatment of the mental condition will support with coping strategies and decrease the chances of child abuse.
It’s Not Necessarily a Cycle
“The wounded recognized the wounded.”
― Nora Roberts, Rising Tides
If you are not familiar with child abuse and did not experience anything like this in your upbringing, consider yourself fortunate. But also don’t assume it is a recurrent cycle that is passed down from generation to generation. The majority of abused children do not grow up to abuse their own children. Yes, some victims of childhood abuse may decide never to have children, as they carry the fear that they may abuse their own children as their parents did them. Others move to the opposite extreme, becoming overprotective of their children and snuffing out their own child’s ability to grow up well-balanced. There are also those who simply become model parents.
The key factor to remember is that if you suspect a child is being abused, report it immediately. Less than half of child abuse cases are never reported. Neighbors, friends, and relatives are often too nervous or afraid to contact social services and stop the abuse. You cannot break the family apart if you are mistaken. Child abuse reports are anonymous, so there is no reason to fear retaliation. Social Services will not take action against someone you report if they find no evidence of abuse or neglect. The child is not removed from the home unless there is proof of abuse or neglect. However, if you are correct, you could be the person who saves the life of a child.