When Adults Abuse a Child’s Fragile Trust
Recent statistics showing that more than 50 Los Angeles County children died from abuse in 1996 – up 8.1 percent over 1995 – reflect an alarming upswing in violence against children by adults entrusted with their care, according to the co-editor of a new volume of research on family violence.
“These unsettling statistics heighten the need to understand the impact of different forms of violence on children’s development and to determine the best ways to ameliorate these adverse effects or to prevent them entirely,” said Penelope K. Trickett, associate professor of social work and psychology, who co-edited Violence Against Children in the Family and the Community (American Psychological Association Books, 1998) with Cynthia J. Schellenbach of the American Psychological Asso-ciation.
THE NEW VOLUME sheds light on the impact of various forms of violence against children and analyzes intervention strategies. It brings together the latest findings from researchers on domestic violence, physical and sexual abuse, and community or neighborhood violence. Researchers contributing to the volume analyze the developmental consequences and the causes of these different forms of violence against children.
The book also describes promising interventions that have helped children already damaged by violence and suggests strategies for prevent-ing such violence before it occurs. In addition to Trick-ett, contributors from USC include John L. Horn and Gayla Margolin, both professors of psychology.
The concluding chapters seek to integrate the data, point out gaps in knowledge that future research needs to address, and discuss how public policy can work to prevent violence against children.
NATIONAL STATISTICS – the most recent roundup was compiled in 1996 – mirror the escalating numbers seen in Los Angeles County. The number of children seriously injured from all forms of maltreatment, including physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect, nearly quadrupled between 1986 and 1993 to more than 572,000 yearly. The incidents of child physical abuse of varying severity totaled more than 600,000 in 1993 alone. Statistics on the numbers of children witnessing domestic and community violence are more sketchy; researchers have only begun to examine the impact of this type of violence on children in the last decade.
“There is an urgent need to understand the impact of these different forms of violence on children’s development and to determine the best ways to ameliorate these adverse effects or to prevent them entirely,” Trickett writes in the volume’s introduction.
As awareness of the phenomena increases, the quality of research on the causes and developmental consequences of child physical and sexual abuse, and most recently, of children’s exposure to domestic and community violence, has improved and much has been learned, Trickett said.
But there is a lack of integration in the research, she points out. As a result, it has been difficult to determine the common ground and overlapping effects of the different forms of violence.
FOR EXAMPLE, to what extent do violent communities and abusive families find each other? To what extent do children experience both domestic violence and physical abuse? What difference does it make at what age or developmental stage different forms of violence are experienced by children?
“Until questions such as these are answered, the design and efficacy of efforts toward intervention and prevention targeting these different forms of violence will be compromised,” Trickett writes.
In the chapter “Integrating and Advancing the Knowledge Base About Violence Against Children: Implications for Intervention and Prevention,” Trickett and other researchers summarize what is known about violence against children.
SOME OF THE KEY CONCLUSIONS ARE:
* Current knowledge of the consequences of abuse remains at a “generic level.” The different forms of violence against children can lead to the same problems, including aggression, depression and social withdrawal. Violence can also trigger problems with relationships with parents, other adults or peers; problems with academic performance; or behavioral problems and psychopathology, from early childhood through adolescence and sometimes adulthood.
* The child’s response to these forms of violence can vary considerably. For instance, Margolin compared the critical similarities and differences among physical abuse, sexual abuse and exposure to marital or community violence. Issues of greatest concern are whether the parent or a parent figure is the perpetrator and whether aspects of the family environment buffer or worsen the negative impact, and the degree of personal threat posed to the child by the violence.
* Many children experience multiple forms of maltreatment through multiple contexts. For example, children exposed to marital violence are at a high risk of physical abuse, and neighborhoods with high rates of child maltreatment often have high rates of community violence.
* The impact of child abuse and violence can vary with characteristics of the victim, such as age, gender, developmental stage, ethnicity or other cultural factors. There have been fewer studies of boys who have been sexually abused, and no empirical studies of the impact of community violence on children younger than elementary school age. The adolescent period has also received little attention from researchers of community violence.
* The most complete data regarding causes of violence, ranging in focus from the individual to society, is in the area of physical abuse. Researchers know little about societal factors involved in exposing children to community violence, sexual abuse or domestic violence.
* The effectiveness of current programs to protect children from abuse and other violence is uncertain, and it is not known whether such programs can achieve their prevention goals. Many programs often arise from the public’s desire to “do something,” and thus are based on good intentions rather than clear theoretical direction.
* Programs that focus on parents have obtained the most promising results in preventing physical or sexual abuse. Promoting healthy parent-child relationships is the goal of some of the most effective efforts, such as the Healthy Start program, which provides home visitation services to new parents in high-risk groups.
CONTRIBUTORS to the volume call for an immediate policy change to reorient protective service agencies toward child safety as opposed to family preservation. They contend that because past behavior predicts future behavior, efforts to preserve families continue placing children at risk of abuse
The springboard for Violence Against Children in the Family and the Community was a conference at USC in 1995, co-sponsored by USC and the APA.