Every child has the right to be nurtured and to be safe. According to the 2003 Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect (CIS), an estimated 235,315 child maltreatment investigations were conducted by child welfare services across Canada. Almost half of these investigations were substantiated, representing a rate of nearly 19 substantiated investigations per 1,000 children. ( Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile 2006 ) Most of the damage comes at the hands of a parent or other relative, and the damage can last a lifetime. An abused child is more likely to end up in violent or abusive relationships as an adult, and the destructive cycle continues.
We all need to care about children. Today, we are taking more responsibility for intervening in domestic violence and preventing child abuse — because it has got to stop.
What is Child Abuse?
Child abuse is the physical, psychological, social, emotional or sexual maltreatment of a child. It harms or endangers the survival, safety, self esteem, growth and/or development of the child. It can involve a single act or a pattern of incidents.
Physical abuse is the deliberate use of force against a child which results or may result in bodily harm. It includes behaviours such as shaking, choking, biting, kicking, burning, poisoning, holding a child under water, or any harmful or dangerous use of restraint. According to the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence, physical abuse is usually connected to punishment or confused with discipline.
Emotional abuse refers to acts or omissions that harm a child’s sense of self in a way that causes or could cause behavioural, cognitive and emotional disorders. This includes making verbal threats and put-downs; forcing a child into social isolation; intimidating, exploiting, terrorizing or routinely making unreasonable demands of a child.
Sexual abuse ranges from sexual harassment to sexual activity. It includes attempted or completed sexual relations; touching or fondling genitals; exposing adult genitals; sexual exploitation; sexual harassment; and voyeurism.
Neglect occurs when the child’s basic needs aren’t being met. Physical neglect may involve inadequate food, clothing, shelter, cleanliness, medical care and protection from harm. Emotional neglect occurs when a child’s need to feel loved, wanted, safe and worthy is not met.
The Facts about Child Abuse
Canada’s first national study of child abuse and neglect has shed much needed light on the scope and circumstances of family violence and children 1 . Reporting suspected child maltreatment is important because almost half of the investigations are substantiated, and another 22% remain suspect. Neglect is the most common reason for investigation, followed by physical abuse, emotional maltreatment and sexual abuse. Girls and boys are equally likely to be abused, but boys are more likely to be physically abused and girls sexually abused.
One important fact about child abuse: children rarely mistake it or lie about it.
Most cases of physical abuse involve inappropriate punishment, but one third are more severe. The most common form of sexual abuse is fondling or touching the child’s genitals, but one in three cases involves attempted or completed sexual intercourse. Fully half of adult women in Canada and one in three men say they were sexually abused as children 2 .
In 9 out of 10 cases of the substantiated maltreatment cases, the alleged perpetrators are family members or other relatives. Most physical abuse is committed by fathers and mothers, but sexual abuse is usually committed by other relatives or non-relatives.
Parents who maltreat their children often come from harsh backgrounds themselves, including child abuse. They often have few supports and little idea of positive parenting. The family often functions poorly in terms of problem-solving, communication and behaviour control. Almost half of child maltreatment investigations occur in loneparent families, most headed by women, and ( Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile 2006) in a bit less than half of investigations (43%) there is no full-time employment in the household.
Where there is spousal violence, there is also child abuse in 30% to 60% of cases. Exposure to family violence is the most common form of emotional maltreatment of children.
Impact of Family Violence on Children
Children who live in situations of family violence can suffer immediate and permanent physical harm, even death. They can also experience shortand long-term emotional, behavioural and developmental problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
In 6 out of 10 cases of physical and sexual abuse, the victims have considerable problems with behaviour, negative peer involvement, depression and anxiety, violence to others, developmental delays, irregular school attendance, and inappropriate sexual behaviour. It is now known that witnessing family violence is as harmful as experiencing it directly. Often parents believe that they have shielded their children from spousal violence, but research shows that children see or hear some 40% to 80% of it. Children who witness family violence suffer the same consequences as those who are directly abused. In other words, a child who witnesses spousal violence is experiencing a form of child abuse.
Signs of Abuse and Family Violence
The effects of child abuse and family violence show up in many ways. These are just some of the signs — especially when they appear in clusters or represent a change in behaviour:
· self-blame, feelings of guilt and shame, clinging, extreme shyness, extreme and repetitive nightmares, loneliness, long bouts of sadness, social withdrawal, separation anxiety, fear of strangers, fear of others of same gender as abuser, general fearfulness, anxiety and phobias;
· feelings of being out of control, intrusive thoughts, feelings of stigmatization, insecure attachment to parents and caregivers, loss of faith, truancy, running away, fighting with peers, criminal offending, early use of drugs and alcohol, substance abuse;
· developmental delay, headaches, stomach aches, bed wetting and soiling, eating disorders, self-mutilation or burning, thoughts of suicide, dissociation, inappropriate sexual behaviour;
· extremely low self-esteem, difficulty trusting others, difficulty in problem-solving, relationship problems, high levels of anger and aggression, violent when angry, a victim or perpetrator of violence in dating.
Act to Help
It is usually very difficult for children who are abused or neglected to report the problem to anyone. That is why it is important to be aware of the signs of child maltreatment and know what to do about it. Everyone has a duty to report child abuse, whether a child tells you about it or you have reasonable suspicion. It’s the law.
If a child tells you about abuse, believe him or her. Listen openly and calmly. Reassure the child and be supportive. Tell the child that what happened is not her or his fault. Write down what the child tells you, using the child’s exact words, and contact your local police or child welfare agency.
There are also ways to help abused children heal: allow them to break the silence on the violence in their lives, increase their ability to protect themselves physically and psychologically, strengthen their self-esteem, and provide a safe and fun environment where they can have positive experiences. If you are a parent, family member or caregiver who abuses, you can get help for yourself and for the children. It’s never too late to stop family violence. Start today.