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

Innocents (1990).