Child Abuse

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Child Abuse

Physical, sexual, or emotional mistreatment or neglect of a child.

Child Abuse has been defined as an act, or failure to act, on the part of a parent or caretaker that results in the death, serious physical or emotional harm, Sexual Abuse, or exploitation of a child, or which places the child in an imminent risk of serious harm (42 U.S.C.A. § 5106g). Child-abuse laws raise difficult legal and political issues, pitting the right of children to be free from harm, on the one hand, against the right of families to privacy and the rights of parents to raise and discipline their children without government interference, on the other.

The mistreatment of children at the hands of parents or caretakers has a long history. For centuries, this behavior was shielded by a system of laws that gave children few, if any, rights. Under English Common Law, children were treated as property owned by the parents. Parents, particularly fathers, had great latitude over the treatment and discipline of children. This outlook was carried to the American colonies and incorporated into early laws in the United States.

One of the first cases to bring national attention to child abuse arose in the early 1870s. An eight-year-old New York orphan named Mary Ellen Wilson complained of being whipped and beaten nearly every day by her foster family. Her case captured the attention of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). An attorney for the ASPCA took Wilson's case, arguing that as members of the animal kingdom, children are entitled to the same legal protections from cruelty as are animals. A judge heard evidence that Wilson's foster family, the Connollys, routinely beat her, locked her in a bedroom, and made her sleep on the floor. Charged with Assault and Battery, Wilson's foster mother was convicted and sentenced to one year of hard labor. Even more significantly, publicity surrounding Wilson's case led to the establishment, in 1874, of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The following year, the New York Legislature passed a statute that authorized such societies to file complaints of child abuse with law enforcement agencies.

In 1962, an article in a major medical journal again brought national attention to the issue by identifying the symptoms that can indicate child abuse. The article, by Dr. Henry Kempe, appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and discussed a diagnosis for child abuse. The article resulted in widespread awareness of child abuse and prompted further public discussion on ways to address the problem. By 1970, every state had enacted laws requiring certain professionals, such as teachers and doctors, to report incidents of suspected child abuse to law enforcement agencies. In 1974, the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (42 U.S.C.A. §§ 5105–5106) became law, authorizing federal funding for states to identify child abuse and to offer protective services for abused children.

Statutes make up one component of a state's child-protective services; another component, the child-protective services agency, implements the statutes. Reporting statutes, which vary from state to state, require that certain professionals report suspected child abuse, whereas others, such as neighbors, are entitled but not required to do so. Other statutes define child abuse. For example, in some states, officially recognized physical abuse occurs only when a child suffers a specified type of injury, whereas in other states, any serious injury that is not accidental in nature is considered abuse. Sexual abuse of children generally need not cause injury; any sexual act performed on a child can be considered abuse. Similarly, state statutes categorize as child abuse any neglect of a child that places the child at risk, regardless of whether the child is actually injured. Before substantiating a report of emotional abuse of a child, state statutes generally require a finding of actual harm. Still other statutes specify procedures for investigating child abuse, determining whether a report of abuse is substantiated, intervening to protect an abused child from further harm, and maintaining records of child abuse reports.

When allegations of abuse meet the statutory definitions, the state's child-protective services agency or a law enforcement agency steps in to investigate. Child-protective services agencies generally investigate allegations only when the child's parent or guardian is suspected of causing the abuse or of allowing it to occur. Family Law presumes that the parent or guardian will protect the child from abuse by other parties and that he or she will contact law enforcement agencies to investigate incidents of abuse by other parties when the parent is not causing or allowing the abuse.

Caseworkers for child-protective services investigate abuse allegations most commonly by interviewing or visiting with the child, the child's parents or guardians, and other sources such as physicians and teachers. If an agent finds evidence that supports a conclusion that the child has been abused, the agency deems the allegations substantiated. The next step is intervention.

Intervention can mean many different things. Frequently, when the risk of further abuse is immediate and significant, child-protective services agents will place the child temporarily in a foster home. Alternatively, agents may monitor the family or may provide counseling in order to curb the threat of abuse. If a family does not cooperate with the intervention efforts of child-protective services, the agency may take the case before a judge, who may determine that abuse or neglect has occurred. He or she may issue a court order mandating the agency's intervention. In extreme cases, agents may remove the child from the home permanently; following a judicial termination of parental rights, the child is then placed for Adoption. Another function of state child-protective services is record keeping, which is accomplished through a system known as the central registry. The central registry contains information about child abuse reports—both substantiated and unsubstantiated—such as the names of the child and of the suspected abuser and the final determination made by the child-protective services worker. This system helps agents in investigating current reports of abuse because it allows them to compare any previous accusations, particularly within the same family. The registry also supplies statistics about child abuse, which help the agency and the state legislature to enact appropriate laws and policies and to provide adequate funding for child-protective services. In some states, other parties may have access to the registry. For example, a day-care center may check the registry before hiring employees, or an adoption agency may check the registry before placing an infant with a family.

Few doubt that state child-protective services agencies provide a valuable service by responding to allegations of child abuse. But such agencies also have their critics. Many people who have been accused of child abuse, particularly parents, object to the way in which these agencies routinely remove children from their homes when child abuse is suspected. Children are traumatized by being taken from their parents, and allegations of abuse are frequently unfounded, these critics claim. Contentious Child Custody battles sometimes prompt false accusations of physical or sexual abuse, costing the accused time and money in the fight to reclaim their children and their reputations. Others object to the names of the accused being included on the central registry even when the accusations are unsubstantiated. The backlash against child-protective services spurred the establishment, in 1984, of an information and support group known as Victims of Child Abuse Laws (VOCAL). VOCAL claims to have thousands of members nationwide, and its members lobby for new laws that protect not only children but also parents who are falsely accused of being abusive or negligent.

Despite increased legislation and penalties for child abuse, extreme cases continue to appear and to sustain the debates over child abuse laws. Such cases include the Schoo case in suburban Chicago, which received widespread media coverage. In December 1992, David Schoo, a 45-year-old electrical engineer, and his 35-year-old wife, Sharon Schoo, a homemaker, flew to Acapulco, Mexico, for a Christmas vacation, leaving their daughters, nine-year-old Nicole Schoo and four-year-old Diana Schoo, home alone. The Schoos provided their daughters only with cereal and frozen dinners to eat and a note telling them when to go to bed. One day during their parents' absence, the girls left the house when a smoke alarm sounded. As they stood barefoot in the snow, a neighbor found them, learned of their situation, and called the police.

The Schoos were arrested while still on the plane that returned them from Mexico nine days after they had left their children. Following their indictment on various state charges of child endangerment and cruelty, a Grand Jury also found evidence that the Schoos had beaten, kicked, and choked their children in order to discipline them. In April 1993, the Schoos plea-bargained, agreeing to serve two years of Probation and 30 days of house arrest while the girls remained in foster care. In August 1993, the Schoos agreed to give up their parental rights and placed their daughters up for permanent adoption.

Another nationally publicized case raised questions regarding the effectiveness of child-protective services and implicated social workers charged with protecting the victim. Two-yearold Bradley McGee, of Lakeland, Florida, died in July 1989 from massive head injuries after his stepfather, 23-year-old Thomas E. Coe, repeatedly plunged him head-first into a toilet. Coe later testified that he had become angry when the child had soiled his pants. McGee's 21-year-old mother, Sheryl McGee Coe, pleaded no contest to second-degree murder and aggravated child abuse for allowing her husband to abuse McGee, and received a 30-year prison sentence. Thomas Coe, convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse, received a sentence of life in prison.

The McGee case alarmed the public not only because of the harsh physical abuse that caused the toddler's death but also because of what many perceived to be a failure in the system that is designed to protect children like Bradley McGee. Two months before his death, Bradley had been living with foster parents owing to allegations of abuse at the hands of the Coes. Despite strong objections by the foster parents, caseworkers for Florida's Health and Rehabilitative Services returned McGee to his mother and stepfather, determining them to be fit parents.

Public reaction was strong following the news of Bradley's death. Four social workers were prosecuted for negligently handling the case, but only the main caseworker, Margaret Barber, was convicted, for disregarding a report from a psychologist who had warned that the Coes were unfit parents. The publicity shed light on problems within Florida's child-protective services agency, including severe understaffing, and led to new laws that emphasize keeping children safe over keeping families together and that also increase funding for more social workers. A Florida appellate court later overturned Barber's felony conviction but left standing a misdemeanor conviction for failing to report child abuse.

In 1997, a controversial court decision led to a new legal concept: abuse of an unborn child. Traditionally, courts have refused to hold a woman who causes injuries to her own fetus criminally liable for the injuries. But in August 1977, the Supreme Court of South Carolina affirmed the criminal conviction of a woman whose crack cocaine usage while pregnant caused the fetus to be born with cocaine in its system, (Whitner v. State, 328 S.C. 1, 492 S.E. 2d 777 [1997]). By regarding the fetus as a person, the 3–2 majority concluded that the mother was guilty of criminal child neglect. In January 2003, the state court revisited its holding in Whitner when it voted 3–2 to uphold the 12-year sentence of a woman who had been convicted under the state's homicide-by-child-abuse law after her cocaine use had resulted in a stillbirth. (State v. McKnight, 353 S.C. 238, 577 S.E. 2d 456 [2003]).

In early 2002, a major child-abuse scandal involving priests shook the Catholic Church. Although child-abuse litigation against priests is hardly new, the public was shocked by the revelation that senior church officials had covered up the facts about widespread abuse. Beginning with allegations against church officials in Massachusetts, the scandal swiftly became national in scope. By year's end, 432 U.S. priests had resigned; at least 1,205 more had been accused of child sex abuse; church officials paid hundreds of millions of dollars to settle victims' lawsuits; and seven grand jury probes continued nationwide.

At the epicenter of the scandal was Boston-based Cardinal Bernard F. Law. Following the molestation conviction of former priest John Geoghan in January 2002, it emerged that Law had known of Geoghan's abuse during the 1980s yet had merely reassigned him to a new parish. More abuse ensued and ultimately led to over $10 million in settlements with victims. As fresh allegations emerged throughout the year, Law came under bitter public rebuke for allegedly shielding abusive priests from scrutiny, footing their legal bills, and either allowing them to remain on the job or reassigning them to new, unsuspecting parishes. Critics charged that such policies failed to protect children. With church attendance and donations reportedly in decline, the U.S. Conference of Bishops responded by instituting a policy requiring bishops to report abuse allegations to civil authorities. The church also began cleaning house: Following a meeting with the Pope, Law resigned in December 2002.

With most investigations continuing in 2003, grand juries probed possible criminal actions by church officials in Massachusetts, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati. Even with Law and seven bishops under subpoena, and with evidence of what was called an elaborate cover-up, Massachusetts attorney general Thomas Reilly dampened expectations for a criminal prosecution, due to barriers under state law to holding a superior liable for the actions of a subordinate. In New York, which concluded its probe in February 2003, no charges were brought because the five-year Statute of Limitations had expired. But grand jurors there issued a blistering 181-page report alleging that church officials had protected 58 sexually abusive priests and that they had intimidated victims in order to prevent legal action. The New York archdiocese denied the allegations.

Legislation at the state and federal levels continues to change to meet the goal of protecting children from abuse and neglect while protecting families from the damage of false accusations.

Further readings

Ahearn, James. 2003. "Quantifying Priestly Abuse." The Record (January 15).

Bayles, Fred. 2002. "Seven Grand Juries Examine Bishops." USA Today (June 20).

Cooperman, Alan. 2003. "N.Y. Grand Jury Faults Diocese on Handling of Sexual Abuse." Washington Post (February 11).

Ferdinand, Pamela. 2002. "Archdiocese Agrees to Report Past Sex Abuse Allegations." Washington Post (January 25).

Lavoie, Denise. 2002. "Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, Other Bishops Subpoenaed to Testify by Grand Jury." AP Worldstream (December 13).

Moore, Jill D. 1995. "Charting a Course between Scylla and Charybdis: Child Abuse Registries and Procedural Due Process." North Carolina Law Review 73.

Simpson, Victor L. 2002. "Boston's Cardinal Law Resigns After Months of Public Outrage That He Failed to Protect Children." AP Worldstream (December 13).

Zoll, Rachel. 2002. "Boston Scandal Leads Other U.S. Catholic Dioceses to Open up About Sex Abuse." AP World-stream (March 6).


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