When one comes across the term child abuse, many dark connotations and examples come to mind, such as child molestation, defilement, lewd acts and sexual abuse, among others. These are all types of child abuse but the abuse is not limited to such gross acts. It can take all forms and there are different shades which make up the spectrum of child abuse. Child abuse can occur anywhere, be it within the family, at school, in institutions and so on. Perhaps the most ironic occurrence is when it happens within the family, by a family member, because a family is supposed to be the safest place for a child.
Child abuse within the family does not necessarily have to take on a sexual dimension. Some might be perpetrators of child abuse unknowingly, such as when a parent hits a child black and blue. Almost three million American children are abused or neglected each year, says Kate Havelin (Child Abuse: Why Do My Parents Hit Me? US, 2000, p. 6). In fact the majority of child abuse cases take place within the family! And that includes the parents, relatives, boyfriends or girlfriends of the child’s parents and even babysitters!
Child abuse can be divided into four main categories, with the first and most well-known category being physical abuse. It is easy to associate child abuse with physical abuse because of its physicality, that is, it is noticeable.
It is wrong for an adult to hit a child and it can be tantamount to child abuse. Obviously, although a slap to “correct” a child is wrong, because physical discipline is wrong in itself as stated by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, it does not amount to child abuse if it is not grave enough. Typical forms of child abuse are burning the child with a lit cigarette, hitting the child with a belt or cane, kicking, hitting or shaking. Children who are physically abused are said to have the “battered child syndrome” since such a child would usually have visible signs of abuse which the medical practitioners can treat.
Sometimes, if a child is being physically abused by one parent and consequently needs medical attention, the other parent, in order to help “save the family” or to “save face”, lies to the doctor as to how the child got the bruises or scars. These lies do not help the child, and they’re definitely not helping the family, nor saving it – they are only helping the perpetrator, because the perpetrator knows that he or she is safe and can keep on hitting, kicking and bruising the child. Until one day it is too late to save the child as happened in the Baby P case.
Another type of child abuse which might not seem like abuse, is when insults are hurled at the child or when the child is blamed for everything that happens. This is emotional abuse and “experts say emotional abuse is the most destructive abuse. This is because it negatively affects how the kids feel about themselves”, says Ms Havelin.
The other category of child abuse is neglect, where the child is abandoned, left to fend for itself without an adult’s help where food, clothing and all the basic needs are concerned. Another variation of neglect is when the parents simply do not care about their child’s education, such as when they encourage the child to skip school for various futile reasons.
The last category is sexual abuse, where a parent sexually assaults, grooms or defiles the child. Sexual abuse, just like physical abuse, tends to be covered up because of the shame it can bring on the family or because the other parent is “in denial”. Sometimes the perpetrator shifts the blame onto the child thereby forcing him or her not to tell anyone.
Unfortunately, children who are the victims of abuse may sometimes become perpetrators in their own right, and thus no longer remain the victim but become the offender as well. As a consequence of the abuse suffered such children are caught in an unforgiving web of juvenile crime and, moreover, when these children grow up and have families of their own they are likely to repeat what they went through simply because they have not known any better.
Dr Mangion is a lawyer and a published author with a special interest in family and child law.