The definition of child abuse can vary greatly. Some view abuse as an actual serious injury sustained to a child. While others, have a broader definition of the intent to harm the child, physically or verbally. Alfred Kadushin and Judith Martin summarize child abuse as; physical abuse, malnourishment, denial of essential medical care, failure to attend school regularly, exploitation or overwork, sexual abuse, exposure to unwholesome or demoralizing circumstances, and in some cases emotional abuse and neglect involving denial of the normal experiences that permit a child to feel loved, wanted, secure, and worthy.
In the late 1960’s all states adopted child-abuse and neglect-reporting laws. These laws require professionals to report suspected child abuse cases to the local police department and the county welfare department. Through this law professionals are granted civil and criminal immunity but there are also specific penalties for failure to report.
It is hard to get accurate data on the true severity of child abuse for two reasons; the failure of citizens and professionals to report suspected cases and the reluctance of abused children to talk. It is common for children that are abused believe their punishment is deserved and in turn develop negative self-images.
George C. Curtis has brought about evidence stating many abused children may “become tomorrow’s murderers and perpetrators of other crimes of violence.” A large number of rapist, murderers, robbers, and spouse abusers were child abuse victims when they were younger. Children of abuse are also high risk to be runaways, which can lead them to other types of crime, such as shoplifting, theft, or prostitution.
The state is ultimately a parent to all children under the concept of parens patriae. If the natural parents neglect, abuse, or exploit a child, the state has the legal right or responsibility to intervene. Protective services, which include the profession of social work, is defined as “a specialized casework service to neglected, abused, exploited or rejected children.”
In colonial days, children were though of as chattel, an item of personal property. Parents would sell a child, exploit his or her labor, offer the child as a sacrifice them or even kill the child at birth. Eventually in the era of industrialization children were considered to have rights. In the early 20th century, child labor laws were finally enacted, prohibiting parents from exploiting the labor of their children.
Protective services had two focuses: a law enforcement approach and a rehabilitation approach. The law enforcement focus emphasized punishment for the abusive or neglectful parents. While, the rehabilitation approach, generally taken by protective services, emphasized the importance of helping the parents and keeping the family together rather than disrupting it. A federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, passed in January 1974, provide direct assistance to states to help them develop child abuse and child neglect programs.
Although professionals are mandated to report abuse most complaints are filed by neighbors, relatives, or family friends. A complaint is a report of a possible neglect or abuse situation that needs exploration. Sometime a person that makes a complaint may feel guilty and need reassurance that they are performing a very useful function that is necessary to protect children. Complaints can be made anonymous and the identity of the complainant is never revealed to the family the report is made against.
All complaints are investigated by the protective service. Each agency handles this differently. Some start with a phone call, others prefer an unannounced visit, which has the advantage of allowing the social worker to view the home environment in its day-to-day appearance. The social worker lets the family know there has been a complaint filed and there is a concern of a potential danger to the child in the home. If a potential danger is found it is the social workers job to be helpful to both the parents and the children.
The social worker attempts to obtain an objective and accurate description of the situation. During the evaluation the social worker almost always attempts to see the child who has allegedly been endangered. If abuse exists, the objective is to tell the parents that the focus of protective services is to prevent further neglect or abuse and to alleviate the factors that are now a danger to the child.
If there is no evidence of neglect or abuse the case may be closed after the initial interview. Services can be continued fro years for those families with serious problems.
In some cases, when the child is clearly in danger, or the parents refuse to make changes essential for the long-term well-being of the child, the child is removed from the home. If this happens the social worker will seek the parents’ voluntary consent. If consent is not received a petition is made to the court requesting that the child receive protection. After the petition is filed, a preliminary hearing is scheduled within a few weeks. The social worker must support the petition with documented facts.
Protective services cannot withdraw from the situation if it finds that the parents are uncooperative or resistant. Because protective services is involuntary, and because provisions of the service are based in an “outside” complaint, the recipients are likely to view the services as an invasion of privacy. Although the focus of protective services theoretically is rehabilitative and nonpunitive, protective service clients generally view services as punitive and investigatory. In working with parents who neglect or abuse their children, the social worker must show respect for the parents as people while in no way conveying acceptance if their mistreatment. The social worker need to convey empathy with their situation, be warm, and yet be firm about the need for the positive changes.
The protective service worker must be prepared to perform a variety of roles: teacher, enabler, advisor, coordinator of treatment, intervener, supporter, confidante, and expediter. They need to be focused on constantly identifying concrete needs, selecting intervening approaches and providing specific services.
A variety of treatment resources are used in attempting to make the needed changes. Crisis nurseries, extended day-care centers, and emergency foster homes provide short-term shelter to relieve potentially damaging crisis situation. Parent effectiveness train programs, group therapy, and family life education programs sometimes are useful on curbing the abuse or neglect.
Earlier in American history, the law guarded the rights if parents but gave little attention to the rights if children. But defining and protecting the rights of children has received national attention, in recent years. The balance between the rights between parents and children varies from community to community.