Child abuse pertains to either doing or failing to do things to/for a child (under the age of 16, which is the age of consent), which may result in immediate harm to him/her, or may leave a deep impact on the child's mind. The term 'abuse' refers to maltreatment, deliberately or unknowingly, that may yield crucial consequences, and sometimes even be fatal. Child abuse is, in any form, a serious offense, and many countries have defined legislations that facilitate the fight against this grievous crime. Any kind of physical, mental or sexual mistreatment of a child amounts to child abuse. Leaving a child in a state of neglect or abandoning him altogether are also forms of the same.
The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) defines child abuse as:
- Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical and emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation.
- An act or failure to act, which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.
Every state in the U.S. has its own definition of child abuse, based on the basic framework provided by the CAPTA. These definitions, along with the laws against child abuse, have been incorporated in civil as well as criminal statutes of the respective states.
Child abuse can take place anywhere - at home, school, public places - wherever a child goes or interacts with others. It can take several forms, and cause long-lasting scars on the body of the child, as well as the mind. The various types are as under:
Causing any kind of physical injury to the child is known as physical abuse. This may be done by parents, teachers or a third person, and often takes place in the name of teaching the child to behave properly. Parents and teachers who are involved in this kind of child abuse generally do not tend to realize that this is actually a criminal/civil offense and an unethical act, which might harm the mentality of the child in the long run.
On the other hand, a child is physically harmed intentionally in order to cause him an injury. In this sense, the case of Mary Ellen Wilson, which was the first ever reported case of child abuse in America, is a classic example. It took place in New York, in 1874. Mary was physically tortured, tied, and beaten up by her step-mother everyday, and there were deep scars on her body when she was rescued. Such cases happen even today, and protecting children from such pedopaths becomes a big challenge, as not all such cases are reported. Some signs that point towards physical abuse in children include the presence of cuts, bruises, and other injuries on the body, fearfulness, being over-alert and shocked at minor things, deliberate attempts to cover the injury marks, etc.
This is also called psychological or emotional abuse. Causing harm to the child's psyche that may affect him in the long run amounts to mental abuse. This type of abuse tends to adversely affect, and sometimes even completely negates the all-round development of the child, especially in the social sphere. The immediate consequence of mental abuse is the loss of confidence or rise of a pessimistic attitude in the child. Cases of mental abuse display signs of two totally extreme psychological conditions - the child may either become too aggressive or he may become extremely passive.
Various forms of mental abuse, including humiliating the child in front of others; comparing him to his friends or others; shouting or threatening the child, or not talking to him at all, and exposing him to the abuse of some other person or animal, might adversely affect him. Mental child abuse can happen at home as well as in school. Sometimes, parents who are over-protective about their child also tend to emotionally abuse in the course of disciplining him/her. Children also get abused because of the stress or tension that their parents might be undergoing. Mental abuse of children is rarely a deliberate attempt on the part of the abuser; it happens due to the presence of certain circumstances, under which a person tends to unknowingly harm a child. This, however, does not mean that it can never be intentional.
This is when an older person uses the body of a child for his sexual satisfaction. Cases of child sexual abuse are being reported everyday all over the world, with the instances increasing at an alarming rate. Things amounting to sexual abuse of a child include provoking or forcing a child into a sexual act, indecent revealing of his genitals for one's sexual stimulation, and either showing him pornography, or using him for the same.
Child rape is the most horrific form of child sexual abuse, which can prove to be fatal, in most cases. Sexual abuse affects the child, both physically and psychologically. Several forms of physical harm which may be incurred, include damage to internal organs, bleeding, exposure to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), several neurological conditions such as improper functioning of the brain, untimely pregnancy in case of girls, and death in many cases.
Psychologically, the child may face conditions such as mental trauma, depression, loss of self-confidence or low self-esteem, anxiety or symptoms of self-destruction, that may eventually lead to suicide. It is a pity that a large number of such cases go unreported every year, as many children who undergo this trauma are either scared to tell the elders or are not taken seriously. It is the duty of the parents to talk freely about this evil to their children, and make them aware of it, so that they can understand what they are going through if they are ever subjected to it in the future, thus enabling them to oppose it.
Child neglect refers to depriving a child of his basic necessities of food, clothing, shelter, hygiene, and proper care. It amounts to child abuse when it reaches a level where the chances of harm to the child may surface. There are varied reasons for child neglect. It may take place if a parent or a guardian is either physically or psychologically unfit to take care of the child and provide him with his basic needs. It can also happen in cases where the parents or guardians are addicted to alcohol or drugs, due to which they are unable to care for their children.
Apathy or lack of concern is another reason for child neglect, especially in case of step-children. Poverty can also cause child neglect, as it results in the failure to fulfill the child's basic needs. A neglected child may suffer from physical as well as emotional problems. One of the most visible and apparent physical signs of neglect is the skinny or bloated appearance of a child, which is a result of undernourishment. He may also suffer from physical disorders such as asthma, hypertension, or various kinds of allergies.
On the psychological front, he may suffer from issues such as depression, stress, violent behavior, and aggression, among other behavioral disorders. However, the effects will depend on the degree of neglect that the child has had to face during his childhood, and his own willpower.
Substance abuse refers to exposing a child to any substance or its manufacture, that is not suitable for him or may have an adverse effect on his health, immediately as well as in the long run. This generally pertains to harmful substances such as tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. Exposure to these substances may lead to addiction in children, which in turn may harm their health in many ways. Children facing substance abuse at a young age may go on to become hardcore alcoholics or drug addicts, or even indulge in anti-social activities in the future, which in any case is not good for the society. So, substance abuse has been classified as one of the forms of child abuse in the U.S., and has serious legal consequences.
Child exploitation is prevalent in some form or the other throughout the world, especially in third world and other developing countries. Child exploitation involves evils such as recruiting children to perform laborious tasks, indulging them in prostitution, acts of child trafficking, and so on. All these acts amount to social and moral evil, and are punishable offenses. People subjected to exploitation as children may turn out to be anti-social elements or child exploiters themselves. One needs to understand that children need to play and study during their childhood, and should not be made to succumb to the difficulties of life at such an early age, as such things tend to make a deep impact on their lives.
Nowadays, the Internet has gained ground everywhere and is easily accessible to everybody, be it a child or an adult. In such a scenario, it is very difficult to keep a check on instances of child abuse that tend to take place every now and then through the world wide web, which could include child pornography, Internet bullying, conversation that is laced with sexual content in chat rooms, and so on. There are a number of cyber laws that have been framed in order to control such kinds of cyber crimes, but the Internet is a huge world. It is thus advisable to monitor such happenings at homes, schools, and Internet cafes, so that they can be reduced.
It is very important for a child to understand that he/she is being abused. This, then becomes the duty of the elders, especially the parents, who need to educate the child in this regard. Talking freely about child abuse in general, and sexual abuse in particular, with children, is a good way of communicating to them the evils that are involved. Children need to be sure that no matter what problem they get into, their parents are always there for them.
Parents need to trust their children completely, which in turn will help them gain the trust of the children. It is only in an atmosphere of absolute trust and security that children will be able to approach their parents or elders and talk to them freely, in case they have been abused. When the parents assure the child that it was the right thing that the child did by approaching and reporting to them, it will instill confidence within the child that he has support and help, whenever needed. But in cases where abuse is of a severe nature, it is always advisable to take the child to a counselor, who will help get rid of the feeling of guilt and fright, and aid in coping with the negative emotions.
Child abuse, in any form, is injurious to the future of a child. Physical scars heal with the passage of time, but mental scars don't. They leave a permanent impact on the mind of an abused child, who is likely to grow up into an individual with many psychological problems (abandonment issues, anti-social tendencies). Sometimes, the abused becomes the abuser, and often he becomes so aggressive that he poses a threat to society.
In some cases, he becomes a dominating kind of person, wanting to get all things done in his own way, and in other cases, he becomes a staunch pessimist, who tends to take everything in a negative light. He might also lack the ability to take the simplest of decisions on his own. In certain cases, he may even become a hardcore criminal, always wanting to be at war with society. Whichever the case may be, child abuse kills the child in a kid.
Some learn to cope with its effects and bring about a semblance of normalcy in their lives, while others continue to suffer from the severe effects of the act(s), and can never be the same again. It is to prevent this, that treatment in the form of counseling and support becomes an absolute necessity.