Thursday, January 03, 2008

2. Who Abuses Children?

Australian Institute of Family Studies; Resource Sheet nr. 7; Februari 2005

It is clear from the available evidence that children are most likely to be physically or emotionally abused, or neglected, by parents or other caregivers (Cawson et al., 2000).

Further, despite the general view that children are sexually abused mainly by strangers, the reality is that most sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone who is known to the child, such as a family member, family friend or person with whom the child comes into contact (e.g., sports coach, teacher, priest) (Leventhal, 1998).

What information is available?

There are three main sources of data regarding those who perpetrate child abuse and neglect:
  • reports to child protection agencies;
  • child abuse prevalence studies (e.g., surveys of adults’ retrospective self-reports of their maltreatment experiences in childhood and adolescence); and
  • police statistics of criminal offences relating to the physical and sexual assault of children and young people.

All three sources of information have weaknesses, but it is considered that prevalence studies have the fewest limitations of the three. There are a number of limitations associated with child protection and police statistics:

  • Not all cases of child maltreatment are reported to child protection and police authorities.
  • Some cases where maltreatment is occurring cannot be formally substantiated because of a lack of evidence, therefore data on the perpetrators of unreported or unsubstantiated cases remain unknown.
  • The figures may also under-represent the extent to which child abuse is committed by biological parents because (Tomison, 1996a):
  • the closer the relationship between an abused child and a perpetrator, the less likely family members are to formally report the offender (Wallis, 1992); and
  • professionals may expect that non-biological parents are more likely to maltreat children in their care, and thus, injured children with a nonbiological parent may be more likely to be diagnosed as being maltreated (Gelles & Harrop, 1991).

Types of maltreatment

In this section each of the main forms of child abuse and neglect is discussed in terms of the evidence regarding those who are more likely to be identified as perpetrators.

Physical abuse

It is clear that both mothers and fathers physically abuse children. A British prevalence study found that while mothers were more likely than fathers to be responsible for physical abuse (49% of incidents compared to 40%) (Cawson et al., 2000), part of the difference may be explained by the greater time children spend with their mothers than fathers. Violence was also reported to be perpetrated by stepmothers (3%) or stepfathers (5%), grandparents (3%) and other relatives (1%).

There is some evidence that children living with both biological parents are more likely to be physically abused by their fathers than their mothers. For instance, Creighton and Noyes (1989) found that when the child was living with both birth parents, mothers were implicated in 36% of cases and fathers in 61%.

Some research suggests that men living with children are most likely to perpetrate severe physical abuse, especially abuse that results in a child’s death (Straus et al., 1980 cited by Englander, 2003; Ewing, 1997).

Single parents, adolescent parents, and de facto or stepparents (particularly males) have been found to be at higher risk of physically abusing children (Gelles, 1989).

The number of single father families is small (e.g., 2.7% of families in Australia, ABS 2004), and very little is known about whether their risk of providing a context for child maltreatment differs from that of other types of families (Tomison, 1996a).


Only a person who has a responsibility to provide appropriate care for a child can fail to provide that care, therefore neglect is predominantly perpetrated by biological parents.

However neglect can also be perpetrated by other individuals who have been charged with the care of a child, such as foster carers, teachers or child-care providers.

Few prevalence studies assess neglect. However child protection data confirm that biological parents are held responsible for the vast majority of neglect cases (Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996), with step and defacto parents being under-represented (Tomison, 1996a).

Despite changes to the role of women in the paid work force such that they are absent from the household for at least part of the week, most societies (including western societies) still perceive childrearing to be primarily the responsibility of women. As a result, mothers are often seen as the responsible parent in the majority of neglect cases even in two-parent families. In light of society’s views on gender roles, it has been argued that this may constitute unreasonable ‘mother blaming’ (O’Hagan & Dillenberger, 1995).

‘Chronic’ neglect cases can be characterised by economic disadvantage (low income, poor housing and living conditions), and long-term involvement with family support and child protection services (Coulton, Korbin, Su, & Chow, 1995; Nelson, Saunders, & Landsman, 1993).

It is important to note that it is difficult to separate the effect of family type (that is – increased risk associated with being a single mother) from the impact of economic disadvantage. Further research is needed to explore this area (Lawrence & Irvine, in press; Tomison, 1996a).

Fatal Child Abuse

Child deaths resulting from parental abuse are unique among homicides in terms of the high proportion of women offenders. Female offenders are usually biological mothers, whereas male perpetrators are usually de facto or step parents to the child victim (Alder & Polk, 2001). It has been found that de facto or stepparents kill children in their care at a much greater rate than biological parents, with many more stepchildren killed by stepfathers than by stepmothers (Daly & Wilson, 1994; Strang, 1995). The greater rate of harming by stepfathers is in part due to small children rarely residing with biological fathers and stepmothers (Daly & Wilson, 1994).

Most researchers who have used police homicide records suggest that the majority of perpetrators are males (Lyman et al., 2003). However, many deaths due to maltreatment may not meet the criminal definition of homicide, particularly deaths due to neglect (Finkelhor, 1997; Lawrence & Irvine, in press). The US National Incidence Study (Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996), which is based on child maltreatment cases that include neglect, showed that almost 80 per cent of fatal maltreatment cases were attributed to female perpetrators.

Studies have shown that mothers are predominantly responsible for neonaticides (death of child aged under 24 hours) (Creighton, 1995, Finkelhor & Dziuba-Leatherman, 1994).

These women tend to be young or immature women who are ill-equipped to deal with pregnancy and the care of a child (Finkelhor, 1997).

There is evidence that men are most often responsible for child deaths that result from physical assault (Ewing, 1997). A characteristic of these cases is the apparent attempt to punish or discipline in response to the child’s behaviour (e.g., crying), rather than an intent to kill the child (Adler & Polk, 2001).

Sexual Abuse

A review of North American sexual abuse prevalence studies suggested that sexual abuse is committed primarily by males (90 per cent of cases) (Finkelhor, 1994). The review also found that the child knew most perpetrators, with ‘strangers’ constituting between 10-30 per cent of offenders.

Non-biological male family members (stepfather or mother’s de facto partner) are disproportionately represented as sex offenders. For example, Russell (1989) reported that girls living with stepfathers were at a markedly increased risk: 17% had been sexually abused compared with 2.3% of girls living with biological fathers.

Although males clearly constitute the majority of perpetrators, a review of the evidence for female sex abusers (Finkelhor & Russell, 1984) concluded that females do abuse in a small proportion of cases: approximately 5 per cent of female victims, and 20 per cent of males victims experience sexual abuse perpetrated by a female.

Leventhal (1990) argued that women who fail to protect their child from sexual abuse may in some cases be seen as at least partly responsible. It has also been highlighted that often women who do sexually abuse children do so at the instigation or encouragement of male abusers (Adams-Tucker 1982, as cited by Wurtele & Miller-Perrin, 1993; Faller, 1987).

On the other hand, others argue that the low prevalence of female sexual abusers is an underestimation because of a general unwillingness to believe that women also commit sexually abusive acts (Banning 1989, as cited in Wurtele and Miller-Perrin, 1993).

Acknowledgement that children and adolescents may commit acts of sexual abuse has only occurred relatively recently (Vizard, Monck, & Misch, 1995). The National Children's Home (1992, as cited in Masson, 1995) reported that it is estimated that between one-quarter to one-third of sexual abuse cases in the UK are perpetrated by a child or young person.

Psychological maltreatment

The core issue of emotional (or psychological) abuse is that it is a sustained pattern of verbal abuse and harassment by an adult that results in damaging a child’s self esteem or social competence (Tomison & Tucci, 1997).

A US survey of child maltreatment cases welfare and law enforcement professionals found that biological parents were responsible for 81% of cases of psychological maltreatment, non-biological parents were responsible for 13%, and extra familial perpetrators responsible for 5%. Of biological parents, mothers were the perpetrators of emotional abuse in 60% of incidents and fathers were the perpetrators in 55% (these figures exceed 100% as in some instances both mothers and fathers perpetrate emotional abuse) (Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996).

It is difficult to determine the true extent of psychological maltreatment and to identify who is responsible for perpetrating psychological maltreatment. The difficulties in researching psychological maltreatment stem from on-going disagreements over how to define and measure this form of maltreatment (Tomison & Tucci, 1997; Black, Slep, & Heyman, 2001). For example, there is some debate over whether to make a distinction between psychological abuse (e.g., verbal abuse) and psychological neglect (e.g., ignoring).

Witnessing Family Violence

There is a lot of research that indicates that family violence and child maltreatment cooccur, however there is a lack of research that investigates the number of children exposed to family violence and the identity of the perpetrators of the violence to which children are exposed (Tomison & Tucci, 1997).

Research suggests that men are the main perpetrators of spousal assault (Mulroney, 2003), but some women can also be perpetrators. The reported prevalence of female perpetrators is low. For instance, one study found that 85-95% of calls to police concern male assaults on wives (Queensland Domestic Violence Task Force, 1988). Often spousal violence perpetrated by women is excluded from research studies due to small numbers.

The 1996 Women’s Safety Survey (ABS, 1996) showed that men in cohabiting relationships were about twice as likely as married men to perpetrate emotional and physical violence toward their current partner.

What is the rate of intergenerational transmission of child abuse?

It is widely believed that children who have been maltreated are more likely to become abusive parents than children who have not been maltreated. When this occurs this is known as the intergenerational transmission of abuse.

Estimations of the rate of intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment have ranged from 7 per cent (Gil, 1970) to 70 per cent (Egeland & Jacobvitz, 1984, as cited in National Research Council, 1993). However adults who have been maltreated as children may not necessarily have suffered the identical form of maltreatment they themselves perpetrate (Vondra & Toth, 1989).

Current evidence suggests that the majority of parents who have been maltreated as children do not become abusive or neglectful parents (Tomison, 1996b).

The best estimates are that approximately 30 per cent of maltreated children (with a plus or minus 5 per cent error) will go on to maltreat children in some way when they are adults (Kaufman & Zigler, 1987). This figure needs to be approached with caution because of methodological issues.

References and Further Reading

  • Alder, C., & Polk, K. (2001). Child victims of homicide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (1996). Women’s safety Australia. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics.
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (2004). Australian social trends. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics.
  • Black, D. A., Slep, A. M., & Heyman, R. E. (2001). Risk factors for child psychological abuse. Aggression and violent behaviour, 6, 189-201.
  • Cawson P., Wattam, C., Brooker, S., & Kelly, G. (2000). Child maltreatment in the United Kingdom: A study of the prevalence of child abuse and neglect. London: National Society for the Prevention Of Cruelty to Children.
  • Creighton, S., & Noyes, P. (1989). Child abuse trends in England and Wales 1983-1987. London: National Society for the Prevention Of Cruelty to Children.
  • Creighton, P. (1995). Voices from childhood: A survey of childhood experiences and attitudes to child rearing among adults in the United Kingdom. London: National Society for the Prevention Of Cruelty to Children.
  • Coulton, C. J., Korbin, J. E., Su, M., & Chow, J. (1995). Community level factors and child maltreatment rates. Child Development, 66, 1262-1276.
  • Daly, M., & Wilson, M. I. (1994). Some differential attributes of lethal assaults on small children by stepfathers versus genetic fathers. Ethology and Sociobiology, 15, 207-217. · Englander, E. K. (2003). Understanding violence (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Ewing, C. P. (1997). Fatal families: The dynamics of intra-familial homicide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. · Faller, K.C. (1987). Women who sexually abuse children. Violence and Victims, 2, 263-276.
  • Finkelhor, D. (1994). Current information on the scope and nature of child sexual abuse. The Future of Children, 4, 31–53.
  • Finkelhor, D. (1997). The homicide of children & youth: A developmental perspective. In G. Kaufman Kantor & J. Jasinski (Eds.), Out of the darkness: Contemporary perspectives on family violence (pp. 17-34). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
  • Finkelhor, D., & Dziuba-Leatherman, J. (1994). Children as victims of violence: A national survey. Paediatrics, 94, 413-420.
  • Finkelhor, D., & Russell, D. E. H. (1984). Women as perpetrators. In D. Finkelhor (Ed.), Child sexual abuse: New theory and research (pp. 171-187). New York: The Free Press.
  • Gelles, R. J. (1989). Child abuse and violence in single-parent families: Parent absence and economic deprivation. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 59, 492-501.
  • Gelles, R. J., & Harrop, J. W. (1991). The risk of abusive violence among children with nongenetic caretakers. Family Relations, 40, 78-83.
  • Gil, D. (1970). Violence against children. Boston, Mass: Harvard University Press. · Kaufman, J., & Zigler, E. (1987). Do abused children become abusive parents? American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 57, 186-192.
  • Lawrence, R., & Irvine, P. (in press). Redefining fatal child neglect. Child Abuse Prevention Issues, Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  • Leventhal, J. M. (1990). Epidemiology of child sexual abuse. In R.K. Oates (Ed.), Understanding and managing child sexual abuse (pp. 18-42). Sydney: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  • Leventhal, J. M. (1998). Epidemiology of sexual abuse of children: Old problems, new directions. Child Abuse & Neglect, 22, 481-491.
  • Lyman, J. M., McGwin, G., Jr., Malone, D. E., Taylor, A. J., Brissie, R. M., Davis, G., et al. ( 2003). Epidemiology of child homicide in Jefferson County, AL. Child Abuse & Neglect, 27, 1063-1073.
  • Masson, H. (1995). Children and adolescents who sexually abuse other children: response to an emerging problem. Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, 7, 325-336.
  • National Research Council (1993). Understanding child abuse and neglect. Washington DC: National Academy Press.
  • Nelson, K. E., Saunders, E. J., & Landsman, M. J. (1993). Chronic child neglect in perspective. Social Work, 38, 661 - 671.
  • O’Hagan, K., & Dillenberger, K. (1995). The abuse of women within childcare work. Bristol: PA Open University Press.
  • Queensland Domestic Violence Task Force (1988). Beyond these walls, report of the Queensland Domestic Violence Task Force to the Minister for Family Services and Welfare Housing. Brisbane: Queensland Government.
  • Russell, D. E. H. (1989). The secret trauma: Incest in the lives of girls and women. New York: Basic Books.
  • Sedlak, A. J., & Broadhurst, D. D. (1996). Third national incidence study of child abuse and neglect: Final report. Washington, DC: US Dept. of Health and Human Services.
  • Strang, H. (1995). Child abuse homicides in Australia: Incidence, circumstances, prevention and control. In D. Chappell and S. Egger (Eds.) Australian Violence: Contemporary Perspectives II (pp. 71-86), Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.
  • Tomison, A. M. (1995a). Spotlight on child neglect. Issues in Child Abuse Prevention, 4, Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  • Tomison, A. M. (1995b). Update on child sexual abuse, Issues in Child Abuse Prevention, 5, Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  • Tomison, A. M. (1996a). Child maltreatment and family structure, Child Abuse Prevention Discussion, 1, Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  • Tomison, A.M. (1996b). Intergenerational transmission of maltreatment, Issues in Child Abuse Prevention, 6, Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  • Tomison, A. M., & Tucci, J. (1997). Emotional Abuse: The hidden form of maltreatment. Issues in Child Abuse Prevention, 8, Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  • Vizard, E., Monck, E., & Misch, P. (1995). Child and adolescent sex abuse perpetrators: A review of the research literature. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 36, 731-756.
  • Vondra, J. I., & Toth, S. L. (1989). Ecological perspectives on child maltreatment: Research and intervention. In J. T. Pardeck (Ed.), Child abuse and neglect: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Gordon and Breach.
  • Wallis, Y. (1992). The Victorian community's attitudes to child sexual abuse. Melbourne: Community Services Victoria, · Wurtele, S. K., & Miller-Perrin, C. L. (1993). Preventing child sexual abuse: Sharing the responsibility. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

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