CHILD ABUSE (The Battered-Child Syndrome)

Maltreatment of children, especially by those entrusted with their care.Child abuse has a long and sordid history, dating back to periods when the father had the power of life and death over his children and when children were sold into slavery or mutilated to make them objects of almsgiving. Though mistreatment of children is not a new problem, it has been recently brought to the fore by surveys which indicate that about 10,000 cases of child abuse are reported in this country every year. Unreported cases may be an even larger figure. Studies have also shown that very few communities now have organized facilities for dealing with this problem on a social welfare basis.The nature of the problem has been indicated by a survey conducted by the American Humane Association in 1962. In this study, investigators sought to secure data on cases reported in the newspapers. Despite the acknowledged weaknesses of this procedure some revealing results were obtained. The survey showed that every conceivable type and degree of abuse is inflicted upon children. They are beaten with fists, hairbrushes, straps, bats; deliberately burned by open flames or lighted cigarettes; struck with pokers, irons, sticks; strangled, stabbed, suffocated, kicked, and shocked by electricity. One child of fifteen months was found to have 30 broken bones; others suffered severe head and internal injuries, including ruptured organs—not to mention innumerable welts, bruises and broken teeth.The statistics of this study showed that over half of the victims were younger than four years of age, and only 10 per cent over 16. More than 25 per cent died of their injuries, and 81 per cent of these children were under four or five (a fact that directly implicates their parents). Fathers inflicted injuries in 38 per cent of the cases and were responsible for 22 per cent of the fatalities; mothers were the abusers in 28 per cent, but were responsible for 48 per cent of the deaths.The remaining cases involved both father and mother, stepfathers, older siblings and other relatives, with the much-maligned stepmother responsible in less than 3 per cent of the cases.Since this survey was confined to newspaper reports, the cases undoubtedly represent the most serious instances of child abuse rather than the totality of cases that occur. The preliminary phases of a study now being conducted by investigators from Bran- deis University (Gil, 1966), who are using a broader base, indicate that the total percentage of deaths and serious injury may be somewhat lower than in the newspaper survey.In another phase of the American Humane Association study, the investigators sought to obtain information about the families and communities in which the children lived. Their findings showed that surprisingly few homes of abused children were outwardly broken: in 80 per cent, two parental figures, usually the natural parents, were living at home. All economic and social levels were represented, and all occupational levels except the professional. The ages of the parents involved averaged twenty-six for mothers and thirty for fathers; very few were teen-agers.The single most prominent causal factor appeared to be emotional immaturity. There were many cases of marital maladjustment, alcoholism, adult crime, and in some instances there was evidence of mental illness in the family background or in the immediate family. Though the survey did not attempt to discover the underlying motivations for the abuse, many of the situations appeared to fall into the following four categories: (a) sudden emotional explosions, particularly on the part of the fathers; (b) acute reactive depression, especially on the part of the mother, due to overwhelming circumstances that produced feelings of hopelessness and a desire to “get the child out of this cruel world”; (c) mercy killings in which the parent (usually the mother) sought to relieve a handicapped child of his burdens, or “return him to God”; and (d) disturbed parents prematurely discharged from mental institutions and unable to cope with the children. The author of the survey, De Francis (1963), summarizes his findings in these words: “We recognize that destructive parental behavior of this type is usually symptomatic of deeper emotional problems. Rarely is child abuse the product of wanton, willful, or deliberate acts of cruelty. We see abuse to result from parental inadequacy, from immaturity and from lack of capacity for coping with the pressures and tensions which beset the modern family. . . . Parents who abuse children are parents who react violently to their own unmet needs which may be in conflict with needs of their children. They are people with a low level of frustration tolerance, with hair-trigger controls which any irritant can set off into emotional violence. With few exceptions, these parents are not sadists. They do not take cruel delight in mistreating their children. They can be described more accurately as people who cannot help themselves.”Far too little is being done at the present time to give such parents the kind of psychological and social assistance they need. The vast majority of child abuse cases that come to notice are reported to law-enforcement agencies but never reach a child welfare or social agency where they could be handled without recourse to criminal action. As De Francis concludes, “Should not the primary objective be, first, to remove children from hazardous situations and, second, to plan for their best care and supervision, preferably in their own homes? And should not services be extended to their parents to help them resolve problems leading to neglect and abuse, and to help build in them the emotional stability so necessary and important to good parenthood?” The answer seems to be that we need a network of child protection services which will have the double aim of maintaining a healthy family life and dealing constructively with the problem of child abuse when it does occur.The solution to the urgent problem of child abuse, then, requires extensive social action. In recent years, one of the most noteworthy developments has been the enactment of reporting laws. In response to the shocking findings of the survey reported above, all fifty states enacted laws between the years 1963 and 1967, requiring doctors, teachers and other professional persons or organizations to report all cases of suspected child abuse. A common feature of these laws is that they grant immunity to the individual who makes the report, so that he will not be liable to criminal or civil action initiated by the parent of the reported child. Although some of the laws were hastily conceived and inadequate, taken as a whole they represent an unprecedented example of social action. It might be added that the new reporting laws make it even more imperative to develop special social services devoted to the protection of neglected and abused children.

Cite this page: N., Pam M.S., "CHILD ABUSE (The Battered-Child Syndrome)," in PsychologyDictionary.org, November 28, 2018, https://psychologydictionary.org/child-abuse-the-battered-child-syndrome/ (accessed October 14, 2019).
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