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The problem of child abuse is pervasive. Since the end of the 19th century, child abuse and neglect has been recognized as a serious social problem. The goal of this paper is to review how child abuse evolved into a social problem and how serious the problem of child abuse and neglect is. The paper includes a discussion of the child abuse scope, vulnerabilities, and impacts. Recommendations by experts to prevent child abuse are provided.
Keywords: child abuse, neglect, social problem, prevention.
Recommendations by Experts on How to Prevent Child Abuse
Child abuse is one of the main causes of public concern. Millions of children around the world suffer from the tragic impacts of abuse and neglect. Despite the long history of child abuse, it is not until the end of the 19th century that child abuse was recognized as a public and social problem. At the same time, abuse in families, including emotional and sexual abuse of children, remains one of the most prevalent social norms. Reasons why the developed world consistently fails to overcome the child abuse problem are numerous, from the lack of child abuse awareness in communities to simple reluctance to report child abuse cases and act against family violence and neglect. Today’s experts provide numerous recommendations to prevent child abuse, but the most essential is the need to reconstruct the existing social norms, turning child abuse into the most unacceptable form of human behaviors.
That child abuse is a huge problem cannot be denied. According to Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (2010), in 2008 alone, 1,740 children died from abuse and neglect in the U.S. In the same year, 772,000 children were found to fall victim to physical and emotional maltreatment and neglect (CDC, 2010). The number of child abuse cases that are non-reported remains unclear, but it is obvious that the scope of the child abuse problem in the United States is enormous. It should be noted, that the history of child abuse dates back to the prehistoric times. Still, not every society that was confronted with the problem of child abuse actually condemned it (Nelson, 1986). In other words, despite its long history, not all societies perceived child abuse as a social problem.
A social problem goes beyond what a few, or even many, individuals feel privately: a social problem is a social construct. Its creation requires not only that a number of individuals feel a conflict of value over what is and ought to be, but also that individuals organize to change the condition and achieve at least a modicum of recognition for their efforts from the wider public. (Nelson, 1986, p.5)
Child abuse became a problem of societal magnitude late in the 19th century: in 1874, the notorious case of Mary Ellen, a girl who had been regularly abused by her stepmother, became public (Nelson, 1986). The case generated public outrage and resulted in the creation of several child abuse prevention organizations in New York and other U.S. regions. With time, new leaders emerged to sustain the success of the social movement against child abuse and provide additional public and private resources to prevent and mitigate the consequences of abuse. Eventually, the developed world created and accepted the ideal of “protected childhood”, which shaped the cultural foundation for the rapid proliferation of the anti-abuse ideas and the subsequent restructuring of child abuse and neglect into a social problem (Nelson, 1986).
Apparently, children are the most vulnerable group in the context of child abuse and neglect. Yet, not all children are equally susceptible to the risks of maltreatment. CDC (2010) write that children under 4 years face the biggest risks of abuse, serious injuries, and death. Child abuse is more likely in families facing high levels of stress (CDC, 2010). The sources of such stress may vary across families and include the history of alcohol or drug abuse, chronic health problems, poverty, history of physical violence, socioeconomic difficulties, as well as the lack of social support, friends, neighbors, or relatives (CDC, 2010). Violent communities reinforce the atmosphere of child abuse and support the acceptance of child abuse as a social norm (CDC, 2010). All these risk factors demand consideration in the development and implementation of various child abuse prevention problems. The consequences of child abuse can be profound and far-reaching, from physical injuries to long-term stress, mental and cognitive impairments, problems with the immune and nervous systems, as well as the development of chronic health problems, which include but are not limited to depression, obesity, smoking, eating disorders, suicide, and high-risk sexual behaviors (CDC, 2010).
One of the biggest questions facing the developed society today is why, despite so many efforts, it has still been unable to eliminate the problem of child abuse. Experts suggest several possible reasons. King, Kiesel and Simon (2006) write about missing opportunities for child abuse intervention: statistically, every fifth victim of child homicides addressed medical professionals for reasons other than abuse within a month prior to their death. Apparently, medical professionals miss numerous opportunities to prevent child abuse, either due to their unprofessionalism, child abuse unawareness, or willful violations of the mandatory reporting requirements. These problems are also described by Blaskett and Taylor (2003), who claim that only 60% of medical professionals have received any training to recognize and report child abuse. However, even more serious is the fact that child abuse is regarded as an essential social norm: in the developed world, it is not uncommon to use violence to resolve conflicts or as a normal method of childrearing (World Health Organization, 2009). WHO (2009) suggests that, as social norms can encourage violence and child abuse, they can also condemn it. The most prevalent social norms encouraging child abuse include: community violence, sexual partner abuse, suicide and youth violence (WHO, 2009). Therefore, social norms approaches should be integral to most, if not all, health promotion programs targeting the problem of child abuse.
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Modern experts provide numerous recommendations to protect children from the risks of abuse. Generally, protecting children from the risks of abuse is the responsibility of adults (Prevent Child Abuse New Jersey, n.d.). Professionals at U.S. Administration for Children & Families included in the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (2008) claim that, to protect their children from abuse, individuals must develop better knowledge of their community and neighborhood, provide support to families facing stress, be an active member of their community, and learn how to recognize and report child abuse. Experts working at Darkness to Light, a non-profit organization that seeks to protect children from abuse, recommend that adults follow seven basic steps to protect their children from the risks of abuse. These steps include:
(1) learning child abuse facts and understanding its risks;
(2) minimizing high-risk situations and opportunities;
(3) speaking to the child about abuse;
(4) spotting the signs of possible abuse;
(5) making a protection/prevention/reaction plan;
(6) acting on any suspicion in terms of child abuse; and
(7) participating in volunteer organizations that help protect children from abuse (Darkness to Light, n.d.).
Simply stated, to protect children from abuse, parents and other adults should become much more attentive to everything children do in their daily lives. Parents should minimize or eliminate any one-child/one-adult situations, since 80% of abuse cases take place when the child is left alone with an adult (Light to Darkness, n.d.). Parents should teach children to avoid such situations and, preferably, participate in group activities as much as possible.
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At the same time, Administration for Children and Families (2008) recommends using nurturance and care with children, learning more about parenting and child development, developing strong social connections and getting concrete support in need for the families that want protect children from the risks of abuse. Experts from the Child Abuse Prevention Association (CAPA) provide a series of tips for parents, who want to protect their children: professionals recommend being actively involved in children’s activities, being more cautious when an adult spends unusually more time with the child, teaching the child not to withhold any secrets and being open with the parent and, in case the act of abuse takes place, getting medical and law enforcement support immediately (CAPA, 2012).
From the interviews with community stakeholders, it is clear that they know little of the child abuse problem and do not know how to deal with it. All community members can be regarded as child abuse stakeholders, since the problem impacts all aspects of the community and societal functioning. Still, the most important are young families with small children which, given the interview results, commonly believe that the problem of abuse will never touch them personally.
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Unfortunately, professionals do not mention the need to develop broad programs that will help change public perceptions of child abuse, condemn child abuse, and ensure that child abuse and neglect are no longer normal or socially acceptable. At the heart of the child abuse problem is the silent acceptance of violence as a normal element of children’s growth and development. Given the scope of the issue, only collective interventions can help eradicate child abuse, and these interventions should be intended to change the individual and public perceptions of child abuse and neglect.