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Child Abuse and Neglect

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What Is Child Abuse?

Child abuse occurs when a parent, guardian or caregiver mistreats or neglects a child, resulting in

* injury, or

* significant emotional or psychological harm, or

* serious risk of harm to the child.

Child abuse entails the betrayal of a caregiver's position of trust and authority over a child. It can take many different forms.

Physical abuse is the deliberate application of force to any part of a child's body, which results or may result in a non-accidental injury. It may involve hitting a child a single time, or it may involve a pattern of incidents. Physical abuse also includes behaviour such as shaking, choking, biting, kicking, burning or poisoning a child, holding a child under water, or any other harmful or dangerous use of force or restraint. Child physical abuse is usually connected to physical punishment or is confused with child discipline.

Child sexual abuse occurs when a child is used for sexual purposes by an adult or adolescent. It involves exposing a child to any sexual activity or behaviour. Sexual abuse most often involves fondling and may include inviting a child to touch or be touched sexually. Other forms of sexual abuse include sexual intercourse, juvenile prostitution and sexual exploitation through pornography. Sexual abuse is inherently abusive emotionally and is often accompanied by separate and more direct forms of psychological abuse or other forms of mistreatment. Child sexual abuse is not further addressed in this fact sheet. A separate fact sheet dealing exclusively with child sexual abuse is available from the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence.

Neglect occurs when a child's parents or other caregivers are not providing essential requisites to a child's emotional, psychological and physical development. Physical neglect occurs when a child's needs for food, clothing, shelter, cleanliness, medical care and protection from harm are not adequately met. Emotional neglect occurs when a child's need to feel loved, wanted, safe and worthy is not met. Emotional neglect can range from the context of the abuser simply being unavailable to that in which the abuser openly rejects the child. While a case of physical assault is more likely to come to the attention of public authorities, neglect can represent an equally serious risk to a child.

Emotional abuse involves an attack on a child's sense of self. Emotional abuse is usually found in the context of a long-term problem in a parent's treatment of a child. It is often part of a pattern of family stress and dysfunctional parenting.1 Emotional abuse frequently co-exists with other types of abuse. Constantly insulting, humiliating or rejecting a child, or saying that a child is ``stupid'' or ``bad'', can harm a child's sense of worth and self-confidence.

Other forms of emotionally abusive treatment include forcing a child into social isolation, intimidating, exploiting, terrorizing or routinely making unreasonable demands on a child. Some provinces in Canada now include exposure of a child to violence between the parents as a form of emotional abuse. A recent study of wife assault found that children witness violence against their mothers in almost 40 percent of violent marriages.2

How Does Society Respond to Child Abuse?

Canadian society's primary formal response to child abuse and neglect is through its provincial child protection systems. The provincial laws on child welfare require that all cases of suspected child abuse and neglect be investigated. A variety of actions can be taken if the investigation indicates the child is in need of protection. Responses range from providing counselling and support services to the family, to temporarily or permanently removing the child from the home, to removing the abuser or abusers from the home. In the most serious cases, abusers may be convicted of a crime if the abuse can be proven under the Criminal Code of Canada.

In addition, many intervention and education programs are aimed at preventing child abuse and neglect. Prevention programs range from intensive help for families exhibiting a high risk of abuse, to general education programs for school students and the public. Everyone has a role to play in responding to and preventing child abuse and neglect.

How Widespread Is the Problem?

It is difficult to attain a reliable measure of the number of people who are abused at some time in their childhood (the prevalence of child abuse). It is also difficult to estimate the number of children who are abused in a single year (the annual incidence of child abuse). There is increasingly reliable information on the number of child abuse cases handled by child protection agencies and police, but the number of children suffering from undiscovered and unreported abuse can only be estimated.

Over the last decade, there has been a dramatic increase in both the reports of suspected abuse and neglect, and the number of children found to be in need of protection. However, it is clear that many cases of child abuse, even some serious ones, are not reported. Individuals and professionals working with children may fail to report because they do not recognize the signs and symptoms of child abuse. In some instances, they may tend to resist admitting to themselves that it is really happening or that it is serious enough to report.

Several other factors inhibit voluntary reporting:

* the nature of family problems related to child abuse and neglect,

* the sense of secrecy and shame surrounding child maltreatment,

* the possible consequences of intervention by child protection authorities or police, and

* many of the victims are young and relatively dependent.

Children may want to disclose their abuse so it can be stopped, but they are often afraid that no one will believe or help them. They may be afraid of what will happen. Abusive parents frequently warn their children not to tell anyone. They may convince the child that the abuse is the child's fault, and that telling someone will only get them into more trouble.

There are no national statistics on the prevalence or incidence of child abuse in Canada. Each province and territory compiles its own figures, using



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