According to the National Children’s Alliance Center, in the United States each year more than 750,000 children become the victims of child abuse. That’s one case every 10 seconds. The abuse of a child is a heinous act causing permanent and irreversible psychological, sexual, emotional, social, and physical damage to the child. Child abuse occurs along all socioeconomic lines, religions, and cultures. It includes physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
Child abuse victims often find themselves trapped in fractured and abusive home environments where they become easy prey to predatory adults. Often, the abused child is helpless, and without intervention the abuse can go on for years. The physical and emotional scars of abuse may never heal.
In this section, we review the three primary forms of child abuse. We cover using evidence to build a legal case. We also look at the legal consequences for abusers and discuss how domestic violence plays a key role in many child abuse cases. We finish by reviewing some of the many resources available for abused children.
Identifying the Forms of Abuse
Sexual abuse of a child includes intercourse; fondling of the child’s genitalia, breasts, or buttocks; forcing a child to fondle an adult; penetration with a penis or other object; an adult’s indecent exposure to a child; sodomizing a child; photographing a child’s genitalia or the female breast area; exposing a child to pornographic materials; or coercing a child to engage in sexual acts.
Physical abuse of a child includes pushing, shoving, scratching, punching, kicking or biting, burning with cigarettes or scalding water, holding down or restraining, choking, throwing objects at a child, whipping or beating, violent shaking, hair pulling, neglecting medical care, or not providing adequate nutrition.
Emotional abuse of a child includes terrorizing the child with threats of violence or abandonment, locking the child in or out of the home, subjecting the child to reckless driving, bullying, manipulating or humiliating the child, constant demeaning, ignoring the child, or calling the child derogatory names.
Evidence of Abuse
Most abusers are adept at covering up evidence of abuse. Using overt or implied threats to the child if she reports the abuse to another adult, the abuser can often manipulate the child into remaining silent. When another adult suspects abuse, the abuser usually has a wealth of seemingly plausible excuses.
Whether out of fear of getting sued by the abuser for making false accusations, or a sense of not wanting to “get involved,” child abuse often goes undetected or unreported by those closest to it.
The best evidence of child abuse lies in a physician’s examination of the child, combined with the child’s statement identifying the abuser and confirming the form of abuse. Unfortunately, getting to that point in the evidentiary process is a challenge. To begin amassing evidence requires first identifying the symptoms of abuse. Identifying symptomatic behavior of an abused child often begins in school, where the first person to notice signs is the child’s teacher.
Teachers are often the first to sense abuse. They see the child daily and can notice changes in the child’s mood, appearance, and personality. Inordinate numbers of unexcused absences, unexplained bruising, failure to turn in homework, and grade changes can all indicate abuse. Other symptomatic evidence includes the child’s withdrawal from classmates and extracurricular activities, or a disheveled appearance and poor hygiene.
Teachers should keep a written log of what they believe are symptoms of abuse. In most cases, the teacher’s log is admissible evidence in a civil or criminal court proceeding against the abuser.
School officials often call in school nurses to confirm symptoms of abuse. During an examination of the abused child, the nurse will make notes in the child’s school record of their findings. The nurse’s chart is also admissible in court as evidence of abuse.
Friends and extended family members can also identify symptomatic evidence of abuse. In addition to changes in the child’s mood, appearance, etc., the child may suddenly cut herself off and remain inaccessible. Because of familiarity with the abused child, family and friends should be especially aware of changes in the child’s behavior.
Neighbors can also identify signs of abuse. Because of the proximity to the child’s home, the neighbor may hear screaming and yelling or notice occasions when someone locks the child out of the home. The neighbor may also see the sudden appearance of bruising on the child. Neighbors can be immediate witnesses to the child’s treatment. They may overhear parents making derogatory remarks, or witness excessive spanking, pushing or shoving the child.
The Legal Process
If you sense child abuse in any form, call 911. In most cases the police will be dispatched. If they believe evidence of child abuse exists they will isolate the child from the adult and conduct an investigation at the scene. At the same time, the police will contact child protective services.
When the abuse is obvious, the police may arrest the abuser at the scene. The child welfare department will take temporary physical custody of the child pending a court hearing.
When the abuse is not obvious, but instead highly suspected, investigators will seek immediate judicial intervention by requesting an ex parte (for the benefit of one person with no opposing attorney) civil court order for the removal of a child abuse victim from the home.
Child protective services investigators are duty-bound to respond to police requests for intervention and to third-party reports of child abuse. Investigators also conduct their own examination of charges of abuse. In most cases, child removal court orders are in effect for seven to 10 days, at which time the parents can attend a civil court hearing to prove to the court no physical or emotional abuse exists.
If the court determines physical or emotional abuse does exist, the child will remain in the custody of child welfare services. To regain custody, parents have to convince investigators and the court they will provide a safe environment. To do so, parents are often required to attend parental training and anger management courses. If they refuse to attend, or fail to complete the course, their child will remain under state protection.
If the court determines the physical abuse is serious enough, it refers the case to the local prosecutor’s (district or county attorney) office for consideration as a felony. In cases of sexual abuse, there’s no civil hearing. When police or child welfare services have sufficient evidence of sexual or extreme physical abuse, they go directly to the local judge or prosecutors’ office to secure a warrant for the abuser’s arrest.
The accused abuser subsequently appears in court for arraignment on the felony charge of sexual or physical abuse. If the court allows him or her to make bail, it will almost always order as a condition of bail that the accused have no contact with the child. If the accused ignores the condition, the court can revoke the bond or increase it substantially.
Child sexual abuse is a felony in all 50 states. So is aggravated physical abuse of a child. Prison sentences for convicted child abusers can range from five years to life in prison. Even if eventually paroled, the conditions of the abuser’s parole will include having no contact with the abused child or, sometimes, any children.
Child Abuse Victim Compensation: Suing for damages
When an institution or any one of its employees, associates, or agents commits the abuse, the child has a right to seek compensation. The abused child’s parents or legal guardian can retain a private attorney to represent them. The attorney can file lawsuits against the accused abuser personally and the institution itself.
We have all read of the terribly horrific acts of child sexual abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Church, by sports coaches, schoolteachers, and others. In these cases of abuse, the abused child had a right to compensation for his damages. Damages can include the child’s past and future medical and psychological treatment costs, out-of-pocket expenses for medications, bandages, etc., and for the abused child’s pain and suffering and emotional distress.
In many cases of institutional child abuse, the abused child’s restitution will also include punitive damages. These are amounts of money the court orders to effectively punish the institution and the abuser. In cases of severe or prolonged abuse, punitive damages can rise into the millions of dollars.
When the abuser is a parent or legal guardian, suing for damages is probably an exercise in futility. Abusive parents or guardians often don’t have assets substantial enough to provide monetary restitution. In many cases, the parent is in jail or prison.
A third party having legal custody of the child, or an adoptive parent with full custody of the child, can file a claim for damages only after the court has terminated the child’s biological parents’ rights. Because most attorneys won’t take on contingency cases where the abuser’s assets are limited or nonexistent, the parent or legal guardian may have to pay the attorney on an hourly basis.
Domestic violence plays a key role in many child abuse cases. While their parents fight with each other, deal with the police, make court appearances, or do time in jail, the children sit on the edges of the turmoil.
According to the Domestic Violence Roundtable, more than 3 million children between the ages of three and 17 live with domestic violence. Children from households dominated by domestic violence are five to seven times more likely to suffer serious psychological problems later in life. In most instances, the male in the household commits the domestic abuse. The woman often becomes the primary victim, while the child is a secondary victim.
Unfortunately, when children from homes dominated by domestic violence reach adulthood, their interpersonal skills are often severely damaged. The child abuse victim, now an adult, often comes to believe domestic violence is a normal way of life.
The child may carry skewed views of family life into adulthood, believing this altered view is the normal and productive way to conduct a domestic relationship. Some abused children believe replicating the abusive parent’s behavior is appropriate. However, not all abused children become abusers, by any means.
Boys who grow up in a home dominated by domestic violence are much more likely to emulate the behavior of an abusive father. Boys tend to use violence against their female partners as a means of control. Girls who grow up in a violent home tend to seek out male partners who act in a similar way to the abusive ones they knew as children. The good news is that not all abused females seek out abusers. The cycle can be broken.
Resources for the Abused Child
Crime Victim’s Fund
Most U.S. states have crime victims’ compensation funds. These are funds created to assist victims of crimes by paying for their medical bills, shelter, lodging, and food when required. Child abuse victims, like adult victims of crimes, can access victim funding by contacting their local prosecutor’s office. Victims can also visit the National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards.
Social Security Disability & Supplemental Security Income
The Social Security Administration provides supplemental income to children who have disabilities because of physical injury, infirmity, or psychological damage. Once removed from abusive environments, abused children may qualify to receive supplemental income their legal guardians can use for their medical and personal needs. Learn about applying for child disability at the federal Social Security website.
The effects of child abuse are often debilitating, even as the abused child grows into adulthood. With sufficient psychological proof of the disability, the child abuse victim, now an adult, may qualify to receive Social Security disability funds.
Child Help is an organization dedicated to assisting the victims of child abuse. Child Help offers education programs, financial assistance, foster care information, and more.
There are many other resources dedicated to providing child abuse victims and those in a position to assist them with personal and financial assistance. They include:
- Prevent Child Abuse America
- The National Children’s Advocacy Center
- American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children
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