Child abuse called cruelty to children the willful infliction of pain and suffering on children through physical, sexual,
or emotional mistreatment. Prior to the 1970s, the term child abuse normally referred only to physical mistreatment, but since
then its application has expanded to include, in addition to inordinate physical violence, unjustifiable verbal abuse; the
failure to furnish proper shelter, nourishment, medical treatment, or emotional support; incest and other cases of sexual
molestation or rape; and the use of children in prostitution or pornography.
Scale and causes
Surveys in North America and Europe that ask adult subjects to recall childhood mistreatment indicate that between 10 and 30 percent
of young girls are subjected to exploitation or abuse as widely defined above. Estimates of abuse or neglect by parents or
guardians range from about 1 out of every 100 children to more than 1 in 7, and figures are far higher if emotional abuse
and neglect are included. Although widely prevalent, child abuse often is overlooked by family, friends, and health professionals.
Prejudice, anxiety, and shame—not lack of information—seem to be the major reasons for the failure to recognize
these private acts of violence—a form of tacit denial that leads to their perpetuation. Child abuse can have serious
future consequences for its victims, including delays in physical growth, impaired language and cognitive abilities, and problems
in personality development, learning, and behaviour.
Cruelty to children has several major causes. Abusive patterns of behaviour by parents can be viewed as maladaptive
responses to stressful situations and feelings of powerlessness. As such, they represent the warped efforts of adults to master
situations that are out of their control and to regain a psychological equilibrium through the imposition of their will on
defenseless children. Psychiatric and pediatric studies have shown that a large proportion of parents who abuse their children
were themselves physically or emotionally mistreated during their childhood. Typically overdisciplined and deprived of parental
love in their infancy, these parents repeat the pattern with their own children, often in the belief that they are legitimately
exercising their parental right to punish a child. This “cycle of abuse” is a particularly important factor in
cases of sexual abuse, and it is now widely believed that many child molesters were victims of abuse as children.
Legal remedies for child abuse range from the incarceration of the offender to the removal of the abused child from
the custody of parents or others guilty of committing the crime. With proper social and psychotherapeutic intervention, many
childabusers can be helped. In fact, many emotionally troubled abusers are relieved to be discovered, and often they respond
well to the therapeutic help they receive. However, some recent theories about child molesters suggest that their conditions
are less susceptible to intervention than was once believed, and many jurisdictions have resorted to strict penal solutions,
such as sexual-predator laws, which provide for indefinite incarceration for habitual sexual offenders. The treatment or cure
of offenders is thought to be more difficult when the victims are young children or toddlers, and compulsive pedophiles are
viewed as intractable problems for both therapy and the justice system.
The legal definition of child abuse differs between societies and has changed significantly over time. For example,
the age of sexual consent varies greatly between and even within countries. Some European countries prohibit the use of physical
violence to enforce discipline, though others permit moderate forms of coercion. Despite these differences, the abusive treatment
of children, however it is defined, is widely proscribed by criminal statutes. One of the earliest national laws to protect
children from cruel treatment was adopted in Great Britain
in 1884, when the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was organized. Similar organizations subsequently
were created in other countries. In the United States in 1875, New York became the first state to legislate protection for children.
Its laws served as a model for other states, all of which developed statutes designating child abuse a criminal offense. In
the 1880s American states systematically began raising the age at which girls could give sexual consent from 10, which had
been in place since colonial times.
Child-protection legislation proliferated during the 1960s. First developed in the United States, these laws soon became models for criminal statutes in many other
countries. In 1962, American medical authorities discovered the phenomenon of “baby battering”—the infliction
of physical violence on small children—and both the federal government and states adopted laws to investigate and report
such acts; eventually, these laws were applied to cases of sexual abuse and molestation. In 1974 the United
States created a National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.
Since the 1970s, conservative and feminists groups, for different reasons, have sought aggressive measures to combat
child abuse. Although earlier campaigns against child molestation had emphasized the threat posed by strangers, feminists
stressed what they perceived as the vastly greater danger posed by male intimates, such as fathers, stepfathers, uncles, and
brothers. Because abuse by male relatives is rarely reported by the family involved, child-welfare advocates called for new
laws that would allow greater intervention by outside professionals. During the 1970s and '80s, most states adopted some formof
mandatory-reporting procedure whereby doctors, teachers, and social workers were required to report any circumstances that
might reveal suspected child abuse. The courts also revamped their procedures to grant more protection to victims. For example,
to remove the need for child witnesses to confront the accused, children often were permitted to testify from behind screens
or even by video link from another room, and judges and lawyers were encouraged to frame questions and language in a way that
did not baffle or intimidate children.
Along with the changes in laws and attitudes came a dramatic upsurge in the number of reported abuse cases. Between
1976 and 1986, reports of child abuse and neglect across the United States
rose threefold to over two million, with a further increase to nearly three million reports by the mid-1990s. However, a majority
of these reports were judged to be unfounded. Reports of sexual abuse rose 18-fold between 1976 and 1985. The increases in
recorded child-abuse figures, which may havebeen a result of greater awareness of the problem rather than a surge in abuse,
contributed to a widespread impression that society was suffering an “epidemic” of child abuse, and concern reached
immense proportions during the 1980s.
Dangers of overreaction
By the mid-1980s, child abuse was considered a leading social problem in the United States and other Western countries. The extent of the problem seemed to
many to be increasing, and many claims were made about the prevalence of incest, child abduction, and even child murder, as
well as the operation of organized child-abuse rings. In part these charges were the result of new methods used by social
workers and psychotherapists to interview children suspected of being victims of abuse. Interviews conducted with these methods
often suggested that the child had been exploited, and some interviews, especially with toddlers, appeared to yield details
of sexual abuse so bizarre and shocking as to suggest that it had been committed in ritualistic fashion by some kind of cult.
Also contributing to the perceived increase in the incidence of child abuse was the controversial practice of some psychotherapists
of attributing the problems reported by adult patients to repressed memories of sexual abuse suffered during childhood.
In fact, however, many of the children who reported sexual and other forms of abuse through the new methods were inventing
the stories they told. As critics later pointed out, the methods—which involved repeatedly asking leading and suggestive
questions and rewarding children for giving the “right” answers—encouraged children to tell false stories
of abuse or to believe, contrary to fact, that abuse had taken place. One significant series of cases involving such reports
were the trials beginning in 1984 of Virginia McMartin, founder of the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, and others on dozens of counts
of child abuse. Most of the charges, which were based on reports of abuse collected in interviews with hundreds of students,
were eventually dropped for lack of evidence. In 1990, the last case resulting from the affair ended in a mistrial; thus,
no convictions were ever secured. Even so, the careers of the McMartin family, as well as their reputations, were ruined.
During the decade after the revelations in the McMartin case, thousands of people worldwide were likewise accused of involvement
in ritual abuse.
During the early 1990s, charges of ritual abuse and recovered memory encountered serious criticism, which dealt a setback
to the child-protection movement. Although concern about sexual threats to children remained undiminished, doubts about charges
of abuse by parents and intimates led to renewed attention to child abuse—especially molestation—committed by
strangers. These fears were often centred on the Internet, which some considered a potential means for pedophiles to stalk
andseduce children and which others denounced for making child pornography widely available. Following a number of well-publicized
cases of child sexual abuse and murder in the early 1990s, many U.S.
states passed sexual-predator laws, which provided for the lengthy detention of sex offenders, especially those who had preyed
upon children. Jurisdictions also passed other stringent laws, including variations of Megan's law, which required that local
schools, day-care facilities, and residents be notified by police of the presence of convicted sex offenders in their communities.
Although these measures posed a serious threat of vigilantism and arguably infringed the legal rights of the offenders, supporters
justified them by citingthe extreme danger posed to children by molesters and pedophiles. The laws were widely imitated in
Europe. Nevertheless, reports of child abuse in developed countries grew sharply in the 1990s.
Japan, for example, recorded a ten-fold
increase in the period 1990–2000.
Opinions about the scale and nature of child abuse have changed dramatically since the 1960s, and the notion that children
are widely subject to abuse and exploitation has become firmly fixed in the public consciousness. Child abuse also has become
a major topic of study in academia; themes of incest and abuse are now common in the social and behavioral sciences, as well
as in such diverse subjects as literature, social theory, and cultural and women's studies. The surging interest in child
abuse, child protection, and children's rights was one of the most significant social developments of the late 20th century.