All children have the right to a safe and nurturing environment. Child abuse is considered to be a worldwide social problem and crises that needs to be addressed and stopped; although it has been widely condemned, it remains a persistent, non-diminishing threat. Child abuse is a complex problem and there are many different contributing factors (individual, familial, social). Any type of abuse is an attempt to control the behaviour of another person. It is a misuse of power which uses the bonds of intimacy, trust and dependency to make the victim vulnerable. An abusive environment is certainly no way for a child to grow-up. There is no single, definitive cause of child abuse, and any child – regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, cultural identity, socioeconomic status, spirituality, sexual orientation, physical or mental abilities or personality – may be vulnerable to being abused.
A useful general definition of abuse is the placement of impediments to a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical development by individuals or institutions. The most frequent types of abuse against our innocent children are: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. Physical abuse occurs when a care giver inflicts or allows physical injury to a child that results in bruises, burns, broken bones and internal or skin injury. Sexual abuse involves any sexual use of a child by an adult. Emotional abuse is the use of threat, terrorism, rejection, diminishment or disparagement by a child’s care giver which reduces self-esteem or contributes to insecurity. Neglect occurs when insufficient care is taken to provide for a child’s needs.
A province-wide incidence study in British Columbia (Adolescent Health Survey, 1993) found that almost one in 4 girls and one in 5 boys in grades 8 and 9 report having been physically abused. Twenty percent of girls and 3 percent of boys in grade 9 report being sexually abused.
Trocme and Associates (1994) have provided a model study of child abuse reports in Ontario. They found the incidence of investigated cases to be 21 per thousand children. This figure represents almost 47 000 children. Child abuse was substantiated in 27% of these cases, suspected in 30% and found unsubstantiated in 42%. Almost 41% of the cases involved physical abuse, 21% sexual abuse, 30% neglect and 10% emotional maltreatment. A conservative estimate, based on the assumption that there exists an equal number of cases that remain unreported, is that there are approximately 94 000 Ontario children each year in situations that may be abusive. These figures correspond to recent US statistics. The US Department of Health and Human Services (1994) reported that in 1992 all the states referred for investigation 1.89 million reports on approximately 2.8 million children who were the alleged victims of child abuse. Forty-six percent were victims of neglect, 22% of physical abuse, and 13% of sexual abuse. The US-based National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse estimated that in 1992 there were 1 160 400 victims in substantiated cases of child abuse. Broken down, this figure involves a 45% incidence of neglect, a 27% incidence of physical abuse, a 17% incidence of sexual abuse, and a 7% incidence of emotional abuse. The Committee also reports fatalities as a result of child abuse have increased from 1.3 per 100 000 children in 1985 to 1.94 in 1992. In the group of 1261 children that likely died of child abuse that year, 87% were under 5, and 46% were less than a year old.
These findings help to place in context the calculation that 1 in 8 Canadian children experiences some sort of abuse. This figure represents 900 000 children. Moreover, it is well documented that largely preventable injuries are the single most common cause of child death in Canada. These statistics indicate that child abuse is a serious and widespread social problem. The problem is of such significance that it is unlikely that it will ever be eradicated. A more feasible approach is to reduce its incidence through prevention.