Child Abuse & Neglect: The Meaning and Effects of Child Maltreatment

Fire can warm or consume, water can quench or drown, wind can caress or cut. And so it is with human relationships; we can both create and destroy, nurture and terrorize, traumatize and heal each other. ― Bruce D. Perry

An Inside Look at Child Abuse

Child Abuse Defined

Child abuse includes all types of maltreatment of a child under the age of 18, most often by a parent but also by a guardian, caregiver, or another person in a custodial role, such as a youth worker, coach, teacher, clergy.

Child abuse occurs at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and education levels.

In the United States, a report of child maltreatment is made every 10 seconds with 3.6 million cases reported every year. However, the number of children being abused and neglected is much higher as government statistics only include reported cases. Most child abuse, especially neglect and sexual abuse, is never reported.

Child abuse and neglect, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

Child Maltreatment: Any act or series of acts of commission [child abuse] or acts of omission [child neglect] by a parent or other caregiver that results in harm, potential for harm, or threat of harm to a child.

Acts of Commission [Child Abuse]: Words or overt actions that cause harm, potential harm, or threat of harm to a child (physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse). Acts of commission are deliberate and intentional; however, harm to a child may or may not be the intended consequence. Intentionality only applies to the caregivers’ acts — not the consequences of those acts. For example, a caregiver may intend to hit a child as punishment (i.e., hitting the child is not accidental or unintentional) but not intend to cause the child to have a concussion.

Acts of Omission (Child Neglect): The failure to provide for a child’s basic physical, emotional, or educational needs or to protect a child from harm or potential harm, including failure to supervise or inadequate supervision and exposure to violent environments). Like acts of commission (child abuse), harm to a child may or may not be the intended consequence.

All 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories have their own definitions of child abuse and neglect that are based on standards set by federal law (42 U.S.C. §5101), Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA):

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, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.

States recognize four major types of child maltreatment in their definitions:

Physical abuse is the use of intentional physical force, such as hitting (with a hand, stick, strap, or other object), punching, throwing, kicking, shaking, burning or other show of force against a child.

Sexual abuse involves engaging a child in sexual acts. It includes fondling, incest, rape, indecent exposure, and exposing a child to other sexual activities including exploitation through prostitution or the production of pornography.

Emotional abuse refers to behaviors that harm a child’s self-worth and emotional well-being. Examples include name calling, shaming, rejection, withholding love, and threatening. Emotional abuse is present in all types of abuse. Learn more >>>

Neglect is the failure to meet a child’s basic needs. These needs include housing, food, clothing, education, and access to medical care.

Some states also include witnessing domestic violence, parental substance abuse, and abandonment as child abuse. Find information on all the states and territories >>>

The Effects of Child Abuse and Neglect

Children who suffer the trauma of abuse and neglect are at great risk for health, emotional, and behavior problems that can continue into adulthood. These include:

We must protect, nurture, and value children. Abuse and neglect have consequences for children, families, and society that not only last lifetimes but for generations. The cruel and violent treatment of children is an evil that we must be acknowledged and confronted if we want to stop the unchecked cycle of violence in our world. We can start the healing by breaking the silence that surrounds child abuse and creating safe, stable, and nurturing relationships in our homes and communities.

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