Anyone who happens to spend any amount of time involved in social services, foster care or our child welfare system, is likely to soon notice some worrisome patterns. Most children who are taken away from their families are taken away due to accusations of child abuse, unless the parent voluntarily hands over their child, which does happen more often than you would imagine. However, there seems to be much confusion about what actually constitutes child abuse.
Of the following actions, which would you consider child abuse?
A parent deliberately refusing to feed their child for days.
A parent putting their toddler in scalding hot water for having a potty training accident, resulting in severe burns to their child.
A parent making their child stand in the corner all night, so that they get no sleep, and then sending them off to school.
A parent making their child take a painful physical position and hold it for hours.
A parent forcing their child to eat rotten food or non-food objects as punishment.
A parent making their child sleep on the cold, hard garage floor night after night as punishment.
Putting a child in a cage or tying them to a chair for hours.
Locking children in a closet overnight, or putting them in the trunk of your car.
Ignoring the fact that your older child is engaging in sexual activity with a much younger sibling.
How many of these did you think constitutes child abuse? Well, unfortunately in many cases these are not considered severe enough child abuse to take a child away. In fact, many of these actions are considered neglect rather than child abuse, and social services rarely intervenes or prosecutes cases of neglect unless they result in the death of a child. Actions like putting your toddler in scalding hot water for having a potty accident is often passed off as just being an ineffective and uninformed parenting technique.
Most of the time child abuse is only taken seriously or prosecuted if it results in the death of a child or severe physical injuries that have been photographed and can be proven. However, most parents don’t take their children to the doctor to have their injuries photographed after they have beaten them. Sexual abuse also often goes unpunished, unless there is significant physical evidence or the child is willing to testify, which rarely happens. It is simply too traumatizing to ask a child to testify against someone who may have abused them all their life.
So what can be done? That is a hard question. We certainly don’t want to be taking children away from their families without reason or prosecuting the innocent, but something must be done about all the parents who abuse their children and walk free. Too many children who have been severely abused never see their tormentors receive much more than a slap on the wrist, if they receive any punishment at all. Perhaps this is why so many who are victimized go on to become victimizers. After all, if everyone else seems to get away with it, why not them? If no one cared about them, why should they care about others?
I do think a good starting point would be to start taking neglect as seriously as abuse and prosecuting cases of severe neglect. I also do think we need to widen our view of physical abuse. There are many ways to physically abuse a child, many of them as severe if not more so than overzealous whipping or beating. Why is it that someone can be charged with not feeding their animals and providing them shelter, but they get away with doing that same thing to their own children? Perhaps we need to speak out about this issue, not ignore it or hide it simply because it is difficult to handle. If it is hard for us as bystanders to bear discussing these issues, just imagine how the children feel who go through it day after day after day.