Defining Child Abuse

Definitions of abuse are notoriously variable, circular, or designed to leave room for interpretation on a case-by-case basis. In the United States, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 (PL93-247) defines abuse and neglect as:

the physical and mental injury, sexual abuse, negligent treatment or maltreatment of a child under the age of18 by a person who is responsible for the child's welfare under circumstances which indicate that the child's health and welfare is harmed or threatened thereby____

State definitions based on this law vary. Arguments about whether a particular act constitutes abuse under such a definition may focus on the nature of the act itself, whether the act caused harm, whether there was or should have been prior recognition that the act would cause harm, and whether the caretaker might have prevented the harm.

In both physical and sexual abuse, different individuals or communities distinguish acceptable from unacceptable behaviors using different criteria. In physical abuse, a distinction must be made between acceptable forms of discipline or punishment and abuse. As Kim Oates (1982) points out, definitions must specify whether abuse should be defined in terms of particular actions or particular effects. He describes two children who are pushed roughly to the ground by their fathers. One falls against a carpeted floor, the other hits a protruding cupboard door. The second sustains a skull fracture, the first is uninjured. If an act must cause harm to be abuse, then the second child was clearly abused, while the first may not have been. Acts that leave no physical marks are harder to classify as abuse, and it is generally harder to sustain criminal convictions or obtain civil sanctions in such cases, even though an unmarked child may sustain as much or more psychological harm as from actions that cause physical signs of abuse.

In sexual abuse, definitional problems also arise. Child sexual abuse is generally intrafamilial, and falls under the rubric of incest. While prohibitions against incest are universal, different cultures define incest to include, or exclude, different activities. "Parent-child nudity, communal sleeping arrangements, and tolerance for masturbation and peer sex play in children coexist with stringent incest taboos____

(M)others in many cultures use genital manipulation to soothe and pleasure infants. Some cultures prescribe the deflowering of pubertal girls by an adult male or by the father" (Goodwin, p. 33). Exotic cultural differences may be mirrored by different beliefs in our own culture. Some parents may sleep with their children, bathe with them, or take pictures of the children naked on the beach. In some jurisdictions, these activities may be defined as illegal or morally inappropriate.

Cultural or religious differences may also play a role in evaluating what constitutes medical neglect. Christian Scientists, for example, may claim that it is appropriate not to take their sick children to a doctor, while courts may determine that such behavior constitutes neglect. Some Native Americans believe that organ transplantation is prohibited, and so may refuse lifesustaining treatment for their children in liver failure. Similarly, Jehovah's Witnesses may, on the basis of their belief, seek to refuse consent for blood transfusions for their children, even if transfusions would preserve life. In situations like these, judgments must be made about the relative importance of respecting religious and cultural diversity, on the one hand, and protecting the interests of vulnerable children, on the other.

In addition to cultural differences in defining what behaviors are or are not permissible, serious moral problems arise when we attempt to determine whether, in any particular case, a behavior that is clearly not permissible in fact occurred. Court cases may turn on the rules governing the collecting and presentation of evidence. Even in adult rape cases, victims have difficulty convincing juries that they have been raped. Such difficulties are compounded in child-abuse cases, where young children often cannot testify convincingly on their own behalf.

In summary, both physical abuse and sexual abuse of children exist along a spectrum, from obvious cruelty and exploitation to grayer areas of corporal punishment or sexual game playing. The strong moral arguments against egregious abuse of children often lose strength as the definition of abuse expands along a spectrum including activities that may be considered morally praiseworthy, morally acceptable, morally forgivable, or immoral but noncriminal.

Anxiety and Depression 101

Anxiety and Depression 101

Everything you ever wanted to know about. We have been discussing depression and anxiety and how different information that is out on the market only seems to target one particular cure for these two common conditions that seem to walk hand in hand.

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