The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2013, p. viii) defines child abuse and neglect as any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker that results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation; or an act or failure to act that presents an imminent risk of serious harm. Each state has its own definition of child abuse based on the federal law, and most states recognize four major types of maltreatment: neglect, physical abuse, psychological maltreatment, and sexual abuse. Each of the forms of child maltreatment may be identified alone, but they can occur in combination.
Victims of child abuse: During 2013 (the most recent year data has been collected) US Child Protective Services agencies received an estimated 3.5 million referrals involving approximately 6.4 million children, and 2.1 million referrals (60 percent) were investigated. This is a rate of 28.3 per 1,000 children in the national population. Professionals made three-fifths (61.6 percent) of alleged child abuse and neglect reports, and they included legal and law enforcement personnel (17.5 percent), education personnel (17.5 percent), and social services personnel (11.0 percent). Non-professionals, such as friends, neighbours, and relatives, submitted 18.6 percent of the reports. Approximately 3.9 million children were the subjects of at least one report, and 678,932 were found to be victims of child abuse and neglect (a victim rate of 9.1 per 1,000 children). Victims in their first year of life had the highest rate of victimization (23.1 per 1,000 children of the same age). The majority of victims consisted of three ethnicities: white (44.0 percent), Hispanic (22.4 percent), and African-American (21.2 percent). The greatest percentages of children suffered from neglect (79.5 percent) and physical abuse (18.0 percent), although a child may have suffered from multiple forms of maltreatment. In 2013 in the US an estimated 1,520 children died from abuse and neglect, and nearly three-quarters (73.9 percent) of all child fatalities were younger than age three. Boys had a higher child-fatality rate (2.36 per 100,000 boys), while girls died of abuse and neglect at a rate of 1.77 per 100,000 girls. More than 85 percent (86.8 percent) of child fatalities were comprised of white (39.3 percent), African-American (33.0 percent), and Hispanic (14.5 percent) victims, and 78.9 percent of child fatalities were caused by one or both parents (United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2013).
Sexual abuse: Childhood sexual abuse is defined as any sexual contact between a child and an adult or a much older child. Incest refers to sexual contact between a child and their family members. In each of these cases, the child is exploited by an older person without regard for the child’s developmental immaturity and inability to understand the sexual behaviour (Steele, 1986). Research estimates that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 10 boys have been sexually abused (Valente, 2005). The median age for sexual abuse is eight or nine years for both boys and girls (Finkelhorn, Hotaling, Lewis, and Smith, 1990). Most boys and girls are sexually abused by a male. Although rates of sexual abuse are higher for girls than for boys, boys may be less likely to report abuse because of the cultural expectation that boys should be able to take care of themselves and because of the stigma attached to homosexual encounters (Finkelhorn et. al., 1990). Girls are more likely to be abused by family members and boys by strangers. Sexual abuse can create feelings of self-blame, betrayal, and shame and guilt (Valente, 2005). Sexual abuse is particularly damaging when the perpetrator is someone the child trusts and may lead to depression, anxiety, problems with intimacy, and suicide (Valente, 2005).
Stress on young children: Children experience different types of stressors. Normal, everyday stress can provide an opportunity for young children to build coping skills and poses little risk to development. Even more long-lasting stressful events, such as changing schools or losing a loved one, can be managed fairly well. Children who experience toxic stress or who live in extremely stressful situations of abuse over long periods of time can suffer long-lasting effects. The structures in the midbrain or limbic system, such as the hippocampus and amygdala, can be vulnerable to prolonged stress during early childhood (Middlebrooks and Audage, 2008). High levels of the stress hormone cortisol can reduce the size of the hippocampus and affect the child’s memory abilities. Stress hormones can also reduce immunity to disease. When exposed to long periods of severe stress, the brain can develop a low threshold, making the child hypersensitive to stress in the future. However, the effects of stress can be minimized if the child has the support of caring adults.
In the next chapter, we continue to look at childhood as we examine the period between starting school and entering adolescence known as middle and late childhood.