Child abuse is defined in a variety of ways. Some definitions
characterize it as "non-accidental harm" to children by their parents
or other caretakers. Others describe child abuse as any "intentional
act of commission or omission that prevents or impedes a child's
growth and normal development."
Child abuse or child maltreatment consists of different types
of harmful acts. In physical abuse children are slapped, hit,
kicked, shoved, or have objects thrown at them. Bruises, wounds,
broken bones, or other injuries are common. Severe abuse may
result in major injury, permanent physical or developmental
impairment, even death. Neglect involves the failure to feed or
care for a child's basic needs or to adequately supervise the
child. Neglected children may be irregularly fed or kept in dirty
clothes for long periods of time. Emotional abuse involves
humiliation, berating, or other acts carried out over time that
terrorize or frighten the child. Sexual abuse consists of a wide
range of sexual behavior including fondling, masturbation, and
intercourse. Sexual abuse can also involve children in
Estimates about the extent of child maltreatment vary greatly.
It is believed that much child abuse goes unreported, although the
magnitude of unreported cases is not known. Estimates run from a
low of several hundred thousand to 2-3 million children abused
each year in the United States. Estimates for sexual abuse also
vary. One estimate suggests that one in five girls and one in
eleven boys falls victim to sexual abuse before turning 18.
Although statistics are important in understanding the magnitude
of the problem, they can also impede understanding. Large
estimates, even those developed in well designed research studies,
tend to create a sense of disbelief about the magnitude of child
abuse. It is difficult to imagine that so many children are
intentionally hurt by adults.
Children are abused by adults they know and in many cases by
members of their own families. Physical abuse of children is
often committed by a child's parent or parent substitute (for
example, a boyfriend or girlfriend of the child's parent). In
physical abuse cases, females are more often the perpetrators.
This is thought to result from the fact that women spend more time
around children, not that females are more inclined to abuse
children. Abuse of a child by a male more often results in
serious or lethal abuse of a child. Sexual abuse of children is
committed by males in 90% of the cases.
Theories about the causes of child maltreatment vary. Until
recently many people believed that abuse of children was the
result of defects in the individual adult's personality.
Increasing evidence suggests that many types of abuse are related
to social and economic conditions. Poverty, unemployment,
dilapidated housing, urban crime, drug use, and other stresses are
associated with physical abuse and neglect of children. Many
abusive parents were themselves raised in abusive, discordant,
environments, and violence was common. These conditions help
produce adults who are unable to empathize with other human beings
and who are inclined to use violence in interpersonal
In 1974 the U.S. government established the National Center on
Child Abuse and Neglect (NCCAN), now part of the Department of
Health and Human Services. NCCAN funds demonstration and research
projects in states across the nation to treat and prevent child
Child maltreatment has many dimensions. It is against the law
in every state. Most abused children require medical examinations
to detect the presence of injury or disease. Many abused children
will suffer short- or long-term psychological or emotional trauma.
Abusive adults require a range of mental-health and social
services to help them remedy the conditions associated with their
behavior. Thus, professional response to child abuse comes from
law enforcement, medical, mental-health, and social agencies.
Bibliography: Breiner, S., Slaughter of the Innocents (1990);
deMause, L., The History of Childhood (1988); Kempe, H., and
Helfer, R., The Battered Child, 4th ed. (1987); Kempe, Ruth S.
and C. Henry, Sexual Abuse of Children and Adolescents (1984);
Moorehead, C., ed., Betrayal (1990); Wexler, R., Wounded