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Child Abuse


The National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse estimated 3,126,000 reported child abuse victims in 1996, as compared to 1,919,000 in 1985. This does not include cases of abuse that were not reported. (Wang & Daro, 1997).


In 1996, an estimated 1,046 children died from abuse and neglect. In other words, almost three children died daily in the U.S. as a result of maltreatment. This signifies a 20% increase from 1985. (IBID.).


Most sexual abuse offenders are not strangers, but persons that the abused child knows and trusts. (PACER Center Inc., 1990.)


In 1874, the abuse of a child by her parents was brought to the attention of Henry Bergh, the founder and president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (S.P.C.A.). Without any statutes pertaining to child abuse, Mr. Bergh could only acquire a lawyer an pursue the case on the grounds that "children ought to be deemed just as worthy of protection from abuse as dogs and cats" (Weller, P. 57). The case, named after the abused child, became known as the "Little Mary Ellen Case" and went to court on April 10, 1874, providing for the establishment of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (S.P.C.C.) in 1875. A year later, the S.P.C.A. and the S.P.C.C. merged, forming the American Humane Association (A.H.A.) which has pioneered standards for the protection of children and animals since its formation.

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 has further served the needs of abused children throughout the U.S. in many ways including: providing financial assistance to child abuse prevention and treatment programs; establishing a National Center on Child Abuse; and providing resources for research to prevent child abuse.


Child abuse does not discriminate. It spans all racial, gender, socio-economic and demographic boundaries. While it may be more likely to be reported and thus reflected in greater numbers of cases involving lower income families, it is by no means a problem limited to members of one economic or racial group.

In recent years, public awareness of child abuse has been heightened by highly publicized cases such as the brutal beating death of Lisa Steinberg in New York City by her adoptive father, attorney Joel Steinberg. Yet many cases of child abuse continue to go unreported and many signs of abuse remain undetected.

Child abuse rarely occurs as a single incidence. Abuse usually manifests itself as a pattern of events which can start as early as infancy and as late as adolescence. Often abused children don’t realize that there is anything abnormal or wrong in their family. As they are brought up not knowing anything different, what they experience they assume to be what everyone else experiences (Ackerman and Graham, 1990).

Abuse can produce low self-esteem, aggressive behavior, acting out, suicidal tendencies, running away, wariness of adults, withdrawal, inhibition, and school and social adjustment problems. As symptoms combine, they can develop into codependancy. Abused teens learn to cope. Coping mechanisms include caretaking — growing up quickly and taking care of the house, keeping it running smoothly and trying to be "good." They can also withdraw and isolate themselves, trying not to be noticed. Sometimes teens will equate their abuse with love, when the only attention they receive is abuse, some teens will provoke it, searching for the attention they receive as a result (Ackerman and Graham, 1990).

Very often children and teens will not talk about their abuse. They will protect their abuser, making excuses for their injuries. For this reason, it is often hard to uncover abuse. Detection of abuse takes careful observation over a period of time. Just as unreported and undisclosed abuse is unjust, so is the unfounded an inaccurate reporting. A false report is devastating and lasting, the stigma stays long after the report has been cleared. Therefore it is important that careful investigation is done before accusations are made.

There is, sometimes, a fine line between what distinguishes between abuse and harsh, if appropriate, punishment. This confusion about what constitutes abuse may influence the high level of under-reporting. Abuse of children can be divided into four categories:

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is often the most recognizable form of abuse, as visible physical indications may be evident. It can be defined as "an injury or a pattern of injuries to a child that is non-accidental." Included in this definition may be the following physical signs:










broken bones;


internal injuries;


cigarette burns;


immersion burns;


and/ or dry burns (Pacer, 1990).

Physical abuse can be as emotionally traumatizing as it is physically traumatizing. The betrayal that the child will associate with a trusted parental figure hurting them can be devastating. It is also usually accompanied by emotional abuse, the physical assaults being interspersed with verbal insults and unreasonable expectations. Physical abuse can lead to delayed development, learning disorders, motor disorders, mental retardation, hearing loss or poor physical growth.

Emotional Abuse

Perhaps one of the more difficult forms of abuse to identify, emotional abuse can be described as the "willful destruction of significant impairment of a child’s competence" (Pacer, 1990). Emotional abuse can include: name-calling, ridicule, degradation, exacerbating a fear, destroying personal possessions, torture or destruction of a pet, excessive criticism, inappropriate, excessive demands, withholding of communications, or routine labeling or humiliation.

The victim may react by separating him or herself from the abuser, or internalizing the abusive message. In the case of sibling emotional abuse, the child may also redirect the abuse and abuse another sibling, or fight back by insulting and degrading the abuser (Wiehe, 1990). Since emotional abuse involves a failure to meet the emotional needs of the child, most of the consequences are due to the psychological component of abuse. Emotional abuse often results in abnormal or disrupted attachment development and a tendency for the victim to blame him or herself for the abuse, leading to a learned helplessness, emotional numbing and overly passive behavior. Psychological abuse is often combined with other forms of abuse (Starr, MacLean, and Keating, 1991).

Physical/Emotional Neglect

Physical and emotional neglect may accompany other forms of abuse, and may result in long-term devastating consequences. Physical neglect includes a "pervasive" situation where parents or guardians do not or can not provide the necessary food, shelter, medical care, supervision, and education for children under 18 years old (Pacer, 1990). Emotional neglect may also include deprivation of love, stimulation and security.

Although it is often forgotten or overlooked, the majority of fatalities due to child maltreatment are attributed to neglect. However, there are other factors involved. Often neglect is correlated with poverty and it is difficult to distinguish between what is immediately due to the neglect and what is a result of the poverty. For example, undernourishment may simply be an inability to afford the proper food, or it may be a lack of effort on the part of the parent. Medical neglect is also difficult to study since more than one factor affects medical compliance. It is sometimes unclear if it is the parent who is not attentive to the child’s needs, or if it is the child’s unwillingness to cooperate that is the cause of the medical neglect (Dubowitz, 1991).

Sexual Abuse

Exploitation of a child for the sexual gratification of an adult encompasses the terms child sexual abuse, assault and exploitation (Pacer, 1990). This definition also applies to the abuse of a child by those not legally considered adults. It may include one or more of the following:


obscene language;










oral sex;


intercourse; and



Contrary to popular belief, the perpetrator of sexual abuse is not the stranger and "dirty old man" of myths; he is usually someone that is known to the child. All too common, it’s occurrence has been estimated between 6% and 45%. Effects are numerous and can be long-term. They range from depression and low self-esteem to posttraumatic stress disorder, and multiple personality and borderline syndromes.

Frequency and duration have been identified to mediate the effects of the abuse; longer duration and higher frequency have been correlated with greater trauma (Wyatt, Newcomb and Riederle, 1993).

All Abuse

Some important signs to look for in identifying all types of child abuse are:


unexplained injuries;


poor hygiene;


inadequate nutrition;


failure to thrive;


lack of supervision or abandonment;


destructive behavior;


sleep or speech disorders;


difficulty walking or sitting;


pain or bleeding in the genital area;


and venereal disease.

It has been found that the vast majority of maltreated infants form insecure attachment relationships with their caregivers which, through development, tend to become anxious avoidant patterns of attachment. The style of attachment has been linked to later adaptation and development. Likewise, the development of an autonomous self esteem to be low or unresolved, and children in abusive environments are more "aggressive, frustrated, and noncompliant" than normal. They are also slow in developing external awareness and differentiation of inanimate and animate objects, and their social skills are immature or dysfunctional (Wolfe and McGee, 1991). This indicates that beyond the immediate abuse, there are short and long term effects of the abuse that affect the general development and emotional health of the abused child.

The Cycle of Abuse

It is important to note that a parent or guardian is at a substantially greater risk of abusing a child if he or she was abused. Increased substance abuse has also been attributed to the incessant rise in cases of child abuse.

Identification and reporting to proper officials — such as the police and local social services — are among the components essential to breaking the cycle of abuse that continues to plague America’s children.


Ackerman, Robert J. And Dee Graham. (1990). Too Old to Cry: Abused Teens in Today’s America. Blue Ridge Summit, PA: HIS and TAB Books.

Dubowitz, Howard. (1991). "The Impact of Child Maltreatment on Health." The Effects of Child Abuse and Neglect. Starr, Raymond H. Jr., and David A. Wolfe, ed. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Starr, Raymond H., Darla J. MacLean, and Daniel P. Keating. (1991). "Life-Span Development of Child Maltreatment." The Effects of Child Abuse and Neglect, Starr, Raymond H. Jr., and David A. Wolfe, ed. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Wang, Ching-Tun & Deborah Daro. (1997) Current Trends in Child Abuse Reporting and Fatalities: The Results of the 1996 Annual Fifty State Survey. Chicago, IL: National Center on Child Abuse prevention Research, National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse.

Wiehe, Vernon R. (1990). Sibling Abuse: Hidden Physical, Emotional and Sexual Trauma. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Wolfe, David A. and Robin McGree. (1991) "Assessment of Emotional Status Among Maltreated Children." The Effects of Child Abuse and Neglect. Starr, Raymond H. Jr., and David A. Wolfe, ed. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Wyatt, Gail Elizabeth, Michael D. Newcomb, and Monika H. Riederle. (1990). Sexual Abuse and Consensual Sex. Newberry Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

For additional information please contact:

Children’s Defense Fund
25 E Street, NW
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 628-8787
(800) 233-1200

National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse & Neglect
P.O. Box 1182
Washington, DC 20013
(703) 385-7565
(800) 394-3366

National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse
332 S. Michigan Avenue
Suite 1600
Chicago, IL 60604
(312) 663-3520

FYI: A Program of the National Center for Victims of Crime.

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Copyright © 1997 by the National Center for Victims of Crime.  This information may be freely distributed, provided that it is distributed free of charge, in its entirety and includes this copyright notice.


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