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Child Abuse: An Overview

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Definition of Sexual Abuse:

The National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect defines child sexual assault as: "Contacts or interactions between a child and an adult when the child is being used for sexual stimulation of the perpetrator or another person when the perpetrator or another person is in a position of power or control over the victim."10

Sexual abuse is any time that a child is engaged in a sexual situation with an older person. It can include actual physical contact, such as fondling or rape, but it also includes making a child watch sexual acts or pornography, using a child in any aspect of the production of pornography, or making a child look at an adult's genitals.

Examples of child sexual abuse:

Digital (finger) penetration; Exhibitionism; Fondling a child's genitals; Having intercourse with a child; Having oral sex with a child; Having sex in front of a child; Having a child touch an older person's genitals; Incest; Masturbation; Oral-genital contact; Prostitution; Rape; Showing an adult's genitalia to a child; Showing X-rated books or movies to a child; Sodomy; Using a child in pornographic production of any kind.4,6,7,18

Many experts believe that sexual abuse is the most under-reported form of child maltreatment because of the secrecy or "conspiracy of silence" that so often characterizes these cases.23

Note: Every state has, in its child protection laws, a definition, often more specific than this general definition.20

The Progression of the Act:

Excerpted from Delaplane, D. and A. Delaplane. Victims of Child Abuse, Domestic Violence, Elder Abuse, Rape, Robbery, Assault, and Violent Death: A Manual for Clergy and Congregations. Special Edition for Military Chaplains.

There are usually several stages in the process of sexual victimization of children.

1. The Approach
Child sexual abuse (molestation) is an intentional activity. The first requirement (with rare exceptions) is that the offender be alone with the child.

The child is often induced into being alone with the perpetrator by his suggestion of some activity like playing a game. It should be kept in mind that the greatest number of child molestations are by someone known to the child. Even in cases of "strangers" (those outside the family context) the offender, after becoming acquainted with the mother or caretaker, may offer to spend some time with the child in sports, a trip to the zoo or museum.

The initial approach, coming from an adult who may be the father, step-father, or another known person, who says it is okay, usually results in a favorable response. This is because children tend to accept adult authority, particularly that of adults close to them. In such cases the warnings about not talking with strangers do not seem relevant.

One exception to this trust factor on the part of the child is when the child has been molested, and this is a repeat request. In this event the child may back off, but by then the "secret," with accompanying warnings, has already been established.

The game itself turns out to be "our little secret." It is presented as a very special game. It may take the form of, "Look at my penis. Do you want to touch it? It's fun, isn't it? When we are finished we'll go out and have an ice cream," or some such similar approach.

There is, unfortunately, another method which does not involve this kind of fun and gentleness. Force, intimidation, threats and duress are used by some less skilled, or by some deviant perpetrators. In these cases the threat may be taken very seriously by the child because of her/his having seen force used on the mother or another in the family. Although sexual molestation, regardless of the method of approach, is very confusing and traumatic to the child, the forced molestation results in extreme trauma because of the additional intense fear factor.

2. Sexual Interaction
Child molestation, like other addictive behaviors, is progressive. It may start with touching or fondling, but can progress to some form of penetration -- vaginal, oral, anal...or all three.

3. Secrecy
Keeping the secret is absolutely necessary in order to avoid consequences and to allow continued availability of the victim. The longer the secret is held, the longer the behavior is able to continue. The offender usually knows that this conduct is against the law, and is, therefore, not adverse to telling the child that bad things will happen if the secret gets out. Violent offenders may be more specific, telling the child that bad things will happen to her/him if the secret is told. Many wonder why children do not tell. This threat aspect is the reason.

Children will usually keep the secret unless the confusion and pain is too great, or unless it is accidentally revealed. Many never tell, or do not disclose the secret until years later. To some, the experience is so shameful and traumatic that they actually forget (or block) the experiences. When other problems arise in adulthood, therapists often find, to the surprise of the victim, that childhood molestation which was blocked is at the root of the present problems.

4. Disclosure
Often disclosure is not voluntary. It may come through an unintentional slip of the child. She/he may tell a playmate, a day care provider, a Sunday or Sabbath school teacher, or other teacher or caretaker without intending to. Or disclosure may come by observation. There are many indicators of possible sexual assault. The presence of a number of these could cause suspicion.

There are cases where the disclosure is voluntary. The small child may be so traumatized, or in such confusion that she/he must get it out. The child may do this in stages, or indirectly by making it sound like the molestation is happening to someone else. Or she/he may just drop a word or two about it in the middle of a completely unrelated conversation. It is very important to hear these words and, without any emotional reaction (a very difficult assignment), to draw the child out further. If there is strong reaction on the part of the adult listener, the child's fear may cause her/him to close down.

When a child molestation victim reaches adolescence, she/he may, because of the dynamics of puberty, teenage relationships, and other adolescent issues, be so distraught by the ongoing molestation that she/he will voluntarily disclose. Disclosure will often be to the non-offending parent or to a trusted member of the family, or, in some cases it may even be to the authorities.

Whether the disclosure is voluntary or involuntary, there will be immediate reactions (by the offender) ranging from denial and hostility to a desire to protect and obtain help. The first line of defense for the offender is, of course, denial. This can be very strong and convincing. There is a lot at stake. There are severe consequences to admission (but, it should be added, more severe if not admitted and later found to be true by the courts). There is the possibility of publicity, loss of reputation, criminal charges, financial difficulties and marital and family breakdown. These give strong motivation for the offender to lie.

Thus, the offender may, in his position as an adult authority, attempt to undermine the victim's account. In a debate between an articulate adult and a child, the child, unless believed, can often come out the loser... in more ways than one.

Non-offending spouses, on the other hand, must also deal with important issues. The first is whether to believe the alleged offender. If the allegations are accepted as true, in addition to the above listed consequences, she must deal with the possible loss of financial security, the possibility of having to testify against her husband or partner and, perhaps even being victimized herself by physical or other forms of retaliation.

Also, the non-offending spouse may feel guilt for not protecting the child. In the process of looking the other way for fear it might be true, she may have known and yet not known. Always the question in the minds of everyone involved in the disclosure phase is, "How will I be affected by this?"

This leads to, perhaps, the most important question of all -- to report or not report. In the case of involuntary disclosure, the suspicion of child molestation may have been by someone who is mandated by law to report. In this case, the decision is taken out of the hands of the family members.

Although it is very difficult to see the law, social services or the courts involved, reporting can be a very positive step toward resolution of the problem. First and foremost, reporting will involve those who can protect the victim. In addition, coming from this action is accountability and the possibility of treatment for the victim and, often for the offender, particularly if admission and cooperation is forthcoming.

Clergy can play a very important part in this by reporting if they suspect child abuse; by encouraging the offender to overcome denial and seek treatment (this option cannot be guaranteed, but is much more likely if the offender does admit the crime and ask for help), and by assisting all parties involved through the system, keeping the welfare of the victim as a paramount concern.

5. Suppression
It is very common, in view of all of the problems surrounding disclosure, for all parties involved to attempt, or at least consider suppression. Even in the less likely event of the offender being an outsider, there is the strong temptation to try to avoid publicity and intervention. This is often done by minimization -- the attitude that, "It's not as big a deal as all that. She'll soon get over it." But she won't.

As the victim, the offender and the non-offending parent or family member become involved in the investigation and the court process, the offender may very well seek to discredit the child by pointing out both factual and fictitious faults of the victim. These may be such things as the victim's difficulty in school (which is not unusual for a victim of molestation) or her/his tendency to lie. This can cause a child, who may already be having problems with guilt, to feel isolated. She/he may simply stop cooperating with the investigation. The child might even change her story to get back into good graces.

6. Repression or Recovery
This is the choice. If the child sexual assault is suppressed, some surface adjustments may be made and life will go on as before. In most cases, "as before" will involve all that went on before, including the continued molestation. Having gotten away with it, the offender may begin to molest another child as well. The dysfunction is perpetuated.

Moving toward recovery, perhaps initially the more difficult alternative, is by all standards the preferred choice. Treatment of both the child victim, who has been severely damaged, and of the offender, who struggles with deep-seated psychological difficulties, is long and difficult. More often than not, treatment will last up to two years and possibly more. Often the specter of being required to return to court if treatment is not maintained is the only incentive that will keep the offender in treatment.

If those involved will not give up when things "die down" or appear "normal" again, the reward of a young person's not having to live with this darkness, and of the offender's finally acknowledging and dealing with his problem, is worth it all.

Child Abuse: Just One Story
Child Abuse Introduction   |   Signs of Child Abuse
Child Abuse Statistics   |   It's Under Reported
Effects of Child Abuse on Children: Abuse General
Effects of Child Abuse on Children: Child Sexual Abuse
Injuries to Children: Physical and Sexual Abuse
Effects of Child Abuse on Adults: Childhood Abuse
Effects of Child Abuse on Adults: Childhood Sexual Abuse
Definition of Physical Abuse   |   Signs of Physical Abuse
Definition of Sexual Abuse   |   Signs of Sexual Abuse
Definition of Child Neglect   |   Signs of Child Neglect
Definition of Emotional Abuse   |   Signs of Emotional Abuse
Abusers   |   Pedophiles
Child Physical Abuse and Corporal Punishment
Treatment for Child Abuse
Costs to Society
Conclusions
References
State Child Abuse Laws
Nationwide Crisis Line and Hotline Directory
National Non-Governmental Organizations and Links
U.S. Government Organizations and Links



Referring to this article:
"Child Abuse: An Overview" was written by C. J. Newton, MA, Learning Specialist and published in the Find Counseling.com (formerly TherapistFinder.net) Mental Health Journal in April, 2001.

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