Defining Abuse in Historical Context, Innocence and Abuse, Preventing and Prosecuting Child Abuse

Entry from Gale Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society

Child Abuse

Child abuse, as a historical subject, is deeply problematic, since the concept of abuse is inevitably relative and can be only very tentatively applied across cultures and across centuries. Parental conduct that would be considered battering abuse in contemporary America might be practiced as routine parental DISCIPLINE in other parts of the world, and would certainly have been regarded thus in past centuries in America itself. Furthermore, by today's Scandinavian standards even limited corporal punishment, as practiced in some American families, might seem abusive, and there is debate about the acceptability of such punishment within the American medical establishment.

Without doubt, judging across cultures, Americans would consider as abusive the female circumcision practiced in parts of the contemporary Islamic world or the foot binding that was once practiced in CHINA. The history and sociology of child abuse thus inevitably involve a recognition of relativism in identifying and describing the practice of abuse, inasmuch as abuse can be best understood within a particular social and cultural context.

Defining Abuse in Historical Context

The watershed in the history of child abuse must be dated as recently as 1962, when child abuse received its modern formulation by the American medical establishment as the battered-child syndrome.

The mistreatment of children was certainly common in earlier centuries, indeed timelessly imprinted upon European folklore as recorded, for instance, in the tales of the brothers Grimm. Yet that very prevalence ruled out any consensus about what constituted an abusive divergence from the social norm.

The article "The Battered-Child Syndrome," by C. Henry Kempe, Frederic N. Silverman, and colleagues thus marked the end of the ancien régime in the history of child abuse, separating the epochs before and after 1962. Thereafter it was the medical establishment, with its scientific credentials, that defined child abuse according to the evidence of medical examination, including the evidence of radiology, revealing the battered bones of young children.

At the same time, the scientific conclusions of "The Battered-Child Syndrome" further implied a set of sociological revelations:

  • first, the general prevalence of abuse in a supposedly enlightened society, and
  • second, the hitherto unacknowledgable circumstance that abuse was not usually the work of evil strangers, or even evil step-parents, but was largely practiced by natural parents upon their own children.

Crucial for the theoretical understanding of the history of child abuse was the history of childhood itself.

In 1960 the French historian PHILIPPE ARIÈS proposed the controversial theses that the concept of childhood varied and developed in different historical contexts and that modern childhood was, in some sense, "discovered" in the Renaissance; only then, according to Ariès, did European culture and society become fully attuned to the distinctive character of childhood, to its fundamental difference from adulthood.

The notion of fundamental difference between childhood and adulthood is essential for understanding child abuse, since the concept of child abuse assumes that there is a distinctive standard for the treatment of children and the violation of that standard defines abuse.

The relevance of the battered-child syndrome for the centuries before 1962 concerns not only the prevalence and intensity of corporal punishment but also the changing norms of punishment that might have made beating seem excessive to contemporaries.

Historians such as Lawrence Stone and Philip Greven have described a culture of corporal punishment in early modern England and colonial America that is extreme by modern standards but seemingly normal in the contemporary contexts.

Beatings at school constituted routine pedagogical discipline in EARLY MODERN EUROPE, England, and the United States, and this continued into modern times, while the punishment of children during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation was prescribed according to differing religious perspectives on the fundamental innocence or sinfulness of children. The well-known principle of not sparing the rod for fear of spoiling the child was not evidence of widespread abuse, but indicated rather that beating was considered an appropriate measure in the rearing of children. In fact, the Protestant culture of corporal punishment still flourished in America in the late twentieth century, prescribed in such fundamentalist publications as God, the Rod, and Your Child's Bod: The Art of Loving Correction for Christian Parents (1981).

While social practice in early modern families generally involved some degree of corporal punishment and some variation in judging the appropriate degree of intensity, landmark ideological developments in the writings of such philosophers as JOHN LOCKE and JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU began to transform the earlier religious controversy concerning children's sinfulness and the application of the rod.

  • Locke, in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), advocated less beating and preferred a penal strategy of inducing shame, while
  • Rousseau, who celebrated the innocence of humanity in the state of nature, was correspondingly convinced of the innocence of children.

"Love childhood," he enjoined his readers, in Émile in 1762, outlining a new pedagogy so sensitive to the child's supposed nature that conventional education appeared almost in itself to be something abusive. Rousseau believed that childhood could be violated by inappropriate treatment, and that the child could be accordingly robbed of childhood; such ideas were essential to the formulation of a modern concept of abuse.

Stone argues that a whole new culture of child rearing emerged in eighteenth-century England, a culture of coddling, based on indulgence of children and childhood. The controversy surrounding SWADDLING was characteristic of the century, for Rousseau declared this conventional practice to be cruel and oppressive, in some sense abusive of the child's freedom of the limbs; therefore he called for liberation from swaddling and enlightened parents heeded his appeal.

Locke's preference for shame over corporal punishment eventually pointed the way toward a modern conception of punishment for children in which excessive beating would appear as abusive.

Yet considering the twentieth-century French philosopher Michel Foucault's argument on the historical transition from the exemplary punishment of criminals to a social system of discipline and surveillance, one might conclude that children too were subject to the pressures of more comprehensive discipline even when they were ultimately spared the rod. In this sense the crystallization of the concept of child abuse would have occurred at the historical crossroads when beating was no longer regarded as the most efficacious method of pedagogy or discipline.

Innocence and Abuse

The secular standard of children's innocence, dating from the late eighteenth century, suggested whole new arenas for reconsidering what was appropriate treatment of children. The attribution of innocence implied the possibility of violation, and the necessity of protection.

The British Parliament passed legislation to protect chimney sweeps in 1788, and in 1789 the poet William Blake conjured their condition in his Songs of Innocence. During the nineteenth century child labor laws were enacted in England, America, France, and Germany, with rhetorical emphasis on the need to protect children from exploitation. That concept of exploitation implicitly suggested the notion of child abuse.

Innocence also implied the need for sexual protection

Beginning in the late eighteenth century, according to the research of historian Georges Vigarello, the prosecution of rape in France began to reflect a new and particular disapproval of the rape of children. Though in the eighteenth century Casanova had sex with girls as young as eleven and cheerfully boasted about it in his memoirs, by the late eighteenth century in Casanova's Venice, sexual relations between adult men and prepubescent girls could also be formulated with emphatic disapproval as the violation of innocence. Nevertheless there was neither a legal nor a sociological framework for identifying such conduct as sexual abuse.

A public breakthrough occurred in the late nineteenth century when the London journalist W. T. Stead exposed the prevalence of CHILD PROSTITUTION in the Maiden Tribute scandal of 1885, publishing his revelations, for instance, under the headline, "A Child of Thirteen Bought for Five Pounds." In response to this scandal, the age of sexual consent in England was raised from thirteen to sixteen.

Public horror at child prostitution pointed toward the eventual public recognition of sexual abuse, and, in the late nineteenth century, psychiatry further focused on the issue by diagnosing the perpetrators.

The nineteenth-century German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, in his Psychopathia Sexualis described the "psycho-sexual perversion, which may at present be named erotic paedophilia (love of children)," which he defined, according to German and Austrian law, as the "violation of individuals under the age of fourteen" (p.371).

The recognition of sexual abuse in its domestic context was almost achieved by SIGMUND FREUD when he arrived at the "seduction theory" in 1895, ascribing hysteria to the sexual victimization of children by adults, especially their fathers. In 1897 Freud reconsidered this theory, and decided that his patients suffered only from fantasies of sexual violation as children.

This conclusion suggests how difficult it was for even the most intellectually adventurous Victorians to confront the concept of child abuse as a common sociological syndrome. In 1919, when Freud wrote the article "A Child is Being Beaten," he discussed this scenario entirely as a matter of fantasy.

Yet in the late nineteenth century, there were established philanthropic societies for intervention on behalf of children neglected or mistreated by their parents. The model, ironically, was the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, founded in America in 1866 and followed afterwards by SOCIETIES FOR THE PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TO CHILDREN in America and England in the 1870s and 1880s. A "Children's Charter" in England, in 1889, attempted to formulate the rights of children. Inevitably, the philanthropic societies became the agents of Victorian middle-class intervention in the family life of the poorer classes, for the mistreatment of children was more readily attributed to the poor.

Throughout the Victorian age, dating from the first serial installments of Charles Dickens's OLIVER TWIST in 1837, at the very beginning of Victoria's reign, the figure of the menaced and mistreated child became a sentimental totem, and the brutalization of childhood's innocence exercised an almost prurient fascination upon the Victorian public.

The preservation of innocence became such an obsession in nineteenth-century society that the consequences were often oppressive to the children themselves, and indeed abusive by the modern standard.

The most striking instance was the medical preoccupation, all over Europe, with the prevention of MASTURBATION, as parents were encouraged to employ with their children painful precautions, contraptions, and punishments. In 1855 a French governess, Celestine Doudet, was discovered to be torturing five English sisters, with the approval of their father, in order to prevent them from masturbating. She was tried and imprisoned when one of the children died. Similarly, in Vienna in 1899, sensational cases of battering abuse came before the public only when mistreatment actually brought about the children's deaths.

The crucial technological development that brought about the twentieth-century revolution in the recognition of battering abuse was the X ray. Radiology played a pioneering role in exploring the hidden presence of abuse in American families, beginning in 1946 with an article by John Caffey entitled "Multiple Fractures in the Long Bones of Infants Suffering from Chronic Subdural Hematoma."

With such crucial discoveries being made in the medical profession, it was, eventually, in the field of PEDIATRICS that the evidence of radiology was synthesized and assimilated, culminating in the publication of "The Battered-Child Syndrome" in 1962.

Recognition of the prevalence of a child abuse was a challenge both for the medical profession and for society at large. The authors of "The Battered-Child Syndrome" remarked,

  • "There is reluctance on the part of many physicians to accept the radiologic signs as indications of repetitive trauma and possible abuse. This reluctance stems from the emotional unwillingness of the physician to consider abuse as the cause of the child's difficulty" (pp. 18–19).

Yet, by the end of the decade, child abuse laws were adopted in all fifty states, and departments of social services all over America were receiving reports and making interventions in domestic scenarios for the protection of children.
In the 1970s the national incidence of child abuse was estimated at 500 cases annually for every million Americans.
In 1977 an International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect was established, with backing from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization, for promoting and coordinating awareness of these issues all over the world.

Preventing and Prosecuting Child Abuse

Recognizing the problem has not led to automatic or simple solutions. The most emphatic interventions – that is, the removal of children from the parents' home and sometimes even the complete termination of parental rights – may have disastrous consequences for the child. Depriving the child of parents, even violent and abusive parents, can only be vindicated by the provision of compassionate FOSTER CARE, which is always, inevitably, in short supply. Indeed, institutional foster care sometimes exposes abused children to new forms of abuse.

In December 2002 the New York Times interviewed an adult who had been victimized as a child:

  • "He spent six months with his mother, months when he was abused and beaten again, he said, before being sent to another foster home…. He said he was sexually and physically abused in several foster homes."

Even the mandated reporting of suspected abuse has turned out to be an unreliable instrument. Especially the category of neglect, which, according to one pediatric account, encompasses "lack of supervision" and "chaotic life styles," encourges social workers to make rather subjective judgments, especially concerning poor families (Cantwell, p.183). Child abuse in the middle classes, however, remains more easily concealed and less readily suspected.

In 1987, New York City, and most of America, was rocked by the sensational coverage of the savage abuse, resulting in death, of Lisa Steinberg, age seven, the daughter of Joel Steinberg, a lawyer, and Hedda Nussbaum, an editor.

Because some of the categories of abuse are inevitably vague, and because American consciousness of abuse changed so rapidly in the course of a generation, it became more and more common in the 1980s for adults to define themselves as victims of abuse in their own childhoods.

The category of emotional abuse was considered alongside physical abuse, and some spankings, in memory, seemed like batterings.

Furthermore some therapists encouraged their patients to "recover" memories of abuse that had been forgotten or repressed. This was often sexual abuse, sometimes satanic sexual abuse, and in some therapy practices it turned out, implausibly, that 100 percent of patients had been victims of childhood abuse.

Issues of sexual abuse also led to devastating legal tangles in the great day care scandals of the 1980s, at the McMartin Preschool in California and the Fells Acre Day Care Center in Massachusetts. At first these cases seemed to suggest hitherto unsuspected depths of child abuse hidden away in the world of institutional day care, but the questionable legal procedure surrounding the children's testimonies led to doubts about their reliability, resulting in mistrials and overturned convictions.

Following the rape and murder of seven-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey in 1994, and the subsequent revelation that the crime had been committed by a man who had previously been convicted, a national movement emerged to establish a registry of sex offenders.

The determination to identify convicted sexual criminals in local communities, culminating in the passage of "Megan's Law" in New Jersey in 1996, reflected the anxiety in American society about child abuse. Though the abused child can sometimes be identified through bruises or burns by a doctor or a teacher, the abusive adult can rarely be distinguished from others in the community.

A full generation after "The Battered-Child Syndrome" was first published, there is general public recognition that various forms of child abuse are pervasive – but also an awareness that abuse may remain largely concealed within the domestic walls that protect family privacy.

Furthermore, just as treatment of children in the historical past may appear abusive by current standards, so there is also a divergence of perspectives within contemporary society about what exactly constitutes abuse.

For all these reasons, child abuse is a social problem that has been recognized but by no means resolved. This was emphatically demonstrated at the very beginning of the twenty-first century with the scandalous revelations of a pedophile predation by Catholic priests in American parishes during the previous several decades. It was discovered that the church hierarchy had been willfully looking the other way, suppressing the scandal of abuse and reassigning pedophile priests who simply continued their abusive conduct in new communities. Public outrage, which eventually resulted in the resignation in December 2002 of Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop of Boston, marked a new level of American commitment to the prosecution of child abuse as an unmitigated social evil.


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