Child Abuse: An Overview


Child abuse is like a virus – it attacks the host organism and alters it physically. It self-replicates. “Infection” creates a downward spiral through generations, each victim more likely to infect more and more victims. Children who survive abuse to adulthood in turn are more likely to abuse their own children who, if they survive, grow up more likely to abuse their own children, who…

Child abuse is not just an individual or familial problem. Unless you avoid people entirely, it is nearly impossible to go a day without encountering a survivor of childhood abuse. Children who survive abuse grow up more likely to negatively impact our society in many ways, not just by handing down the legacy of abuse to their own children. Child abuse bursts out of the family and infects our society with callousness and cynicism, anger and violence, and crime, drugs and disease.

The effects of child abuse on victims are devastating and life-long, and its effects on our society are pervasive. Still, it is difficult to measure the prevalence of abuse in our society, and no attempts to measure so far have overcome the basic difficulties of underreporting. This is frustrating because we seem to be able to measure everything else from the number of thumbtacks produced annually to the number of times the average person thinks about sex every week. It reflects an attitude in our nation and in our government – our priorities are skewed. Also frustrating is the fact that there are many simple, cost-effective solutions to the problem of child abuse and neglect. Still, they are not funded. On the hopeful side, the private sector and volunteer organizations have taken the leadership role in healing our society of the effects of abuse. There are many organizations, staffed by volunteers and funded through donations, which are doing good work to prevent and fix the problem. You should get involved.

How Are Child Abuse and Neglect Defined By Law?

The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) (42 U.S.C.A §5106g), provides the following definitions:

Child is:

A person who has not attained the age of 18, except in cases of sexual abuse, or the age specified by the child protection law of the State in which the child resides.

Child abuse and neglect is, at a minimum:
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.

Sexual abuse is:

The employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of any child to engage in, or assist any other person to engage in, any sexually explicit conduct or simulation of such conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct.
The rape, and in cases of caretaker or inter-familial relationships, statutory rape, molestation, prostitution, or other form of sexual exploitation of children, or incest with children.23

Each State is responsible for providing its own definitions of child abuse and neglect within the civil and criminal context.20

Definitions propose four main types of child abuse (physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and child neglect), but rarely if ever does one form of abuse occur alone. The idea in itself is absurd. Physical abuse and sexual abuse never occur in the absence of emotional abuse. Children who are sexually abused often suffer physical injuries. When one form of abuse does exist in absence of others, it is likely to be emotional abuse.10

Abuse is divided into four categories for policy, research and treatment purposes – the different types of abuse have different effects, different types of perpetrators and different types of interventions. Sexual abusers are mostly males. Men and women inflict physical and emotional abuse, and women make up most of the cases of neglect. (Of course, most of the women prosecuted for neglect are single mothers – the men who abandoned their families and their responsibilities are almost never prosecuted for neglect. You’ll find that many things make absolutely no sense when it comes to child abuse).

Many abuse survivors are highly competent in their professional and personal lives, compensating for the adverse effects of an abusive childhood until some added stress is introduced, perhaps a physical illness, birth of a child, or the death of a family member.11

Beyond the obvious effects of child abuse (physical injury and stress-related physical ailments) victims of emotional, physical, sexual, and verbal abuse experience psychological damage that can last a lifetime. The results of abuse may include chronic depression, anxiety, behavior problems, problems in school – the list goes on and on.

The links below offer answers to questions about child abuse and resources for children and families. Hopefully, this will guide you to a better understanding of the problem and maybe inspire you to get involved by contacting your senator or congress person (tell them to spend your tax cut on fixing this situation!), volunteering your time or donating your money toward prevention or treatment organizations.

Child Abuse Introduction   |   Signs of Child Abuse
Child Abuse Statistics   |   It’s Under Reported
Effects of Child Abuse on Children: Abuse General
Effects of Child Abuse on Children: Child Sexual Abuse
Injuries to Children: Physical and Sexual Abuse
Effects of Child Abuse on Adults: Childhood Abuse
Effects of Child Abuse on Adults: Childhood Sexual Abuse
Definition of Physical Abuse   |   Signs of Physical Abuse
Definition of Sexual Abuse   |   Signs of Sexual Abuse
Definition of Child Neglect   |   Signs of Child Neglect
Definition of Emotional Abuse   |   Signs of Emotional Abuse
Abusers   |   Pedophiles
Child Physical Abuse and Corporal Punishment
Treatment for Child Abuse
Costs to Society
State Child Abuse Laws
Nationwide Crisis Line and Hotline Directory

Referring to this article:
“Child Abuse: An Overview” was written by C. J. Newton, MA, Learning Specialist and published in the Find (formerly Mental Health Journal in April, 2001.

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