The concept of child abuse

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The concept of child abuse is historically, socially and culturally bound.

Critically discuss this statement with reference to the subject material and literature.


This paper will look at child abuse, what that is in Australia today. Through reviewing literature on child abuse and child protection this paper aims to show that the concept of child abuse is dependent on social and cultural values. In order to discuss child abuse and its relationship to history and social and cultural values it is important to define the term ‘child abuse’ in the child protection field in Australia today. Zuchowski (2009: 30) cites Fernandez as recognizing that the importance of agreed and unambiguous definitions is central to identifying maltreatment and appropriate interventions and that child abuse is a socially constructed concept defined by social, cultural and economic conditions.

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In Australian child protection work child abuse is defined in terms of physical, sexual and emotional abuse and in the more contentious area, child neglect. Physical and emotional abuses are defined as acts of commission or omission that cause harm or worse to children. Sexual abuse is defined as the child being used for the sexual gratification of the adult and involves the abuse of trust and power inherent in relationships between adults and children. Neglect is defined as a situation in which the parents/carers fail to provide for the basic essential needs that children require (Tilbury, Osmond, Wilson & Clark 2007:5; Tomison, 2001:48).

The term ‘neglect’ is contentious and implies judgement; Feminism and Post-Modernist theories challenge workers to be critically reflective on the ways in which language contributes to the construction of social values (Healy, 2005:194). Applied to child protection work Feminist, Structuralist and Critical social work theories focus on social and economic resources and recognize the impact that structural disadvantages have on families’ capacities to provide for children (Tilbury et al, 2007:29). Neglect of children was not recognized prior to the industrial revolution and children as young as five were treated as slave labour in orphanages, workhouses and factories, where they were starved, beaten and often kept in leg irons (Tomison, 2001:48). These conditions are illegal in Australia today and would be considered as child abuse by current social values.

History of Child Protection

In the 19th century children were essentially seen as economic units, large families were an investment and children’s’ input was considered essential to family survival (Sanson & Wise, 2001:5).By the turn of the 20th century changes in attitudes to child labour in Australia were reflected in laws such as the Factory Act of New South Wales and Victoria of 1896, compulsory education for all children in all Australian states by 1900 and the establishment of voluntary child rescue groups such as The Victorian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1894 which was concerned with child abuse and the effects of poverty and disadvantage on their living conditions (Sanson & Wise, 2001:5; Tomison, 2001:50).

However, widespread public concern regarding the maltreatment of children only emerged when child abuse was ‘rediscovered’ by Dr H Kempe and his colleagues in the United States in the 1960’s. They coined the term ‘battered baby syndrome’ and their work created interest in child maltreatment around the world. (Tomison , 2001:50; Parton, 2002:5). At the time child abuse was seen as a socio-medical problem, a disease which could be cured and prevented whereas today child abuse is currently framed as a socio-legal problem with the emphasis on gathering and assessing forensic evidence (Parton, 2002:11; Tomison, 2001:52). The professionalization of child protection services during the 1970’s and 1980’s saw the development of risk-assessment tools ; aids to assist workers in making the right decision and to help ensure accountability. These developments saw the worker as the expert; whereas current theories used in social work in Australia such as strengths- based approaches and narrative therapies emphasize a collaborative effort between families and child protection services (Kreuger, 2007:237; Tilbury et al, 2007:16).

The influence of the child rescue movement in the late 19th century on child protection in Australia has been profound, particularly influencing the history of social intervention and removal of Indigenous children from their families (Sanson & Wise, 2001:8.).Child protection in Australia was first provided by predominantly Christian church groups in the non-government sector and targeted abandoned, neglected children and those with families considered ‘socially inadequate’. Initially ‘rescued’ children were boarded with approved families until later years when orphanages were established. In the early days of settlement the deprivation that children suffered in institutions was recognized, leading to foster care or boarding out being the preferred placement for neglected children (Tomison, 2001:49).

Indigenous ‘Child Protection’

From the first white settlement of Australia colonial values and approaches saw the land being regarded as ‘Terra Nullius’, Indigenous people being treated as free labour at best and subsequent laws, policies and practices that forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families (HREOC, 1997:2). The Colonial response to the atrocities perpetrated on the Aboriginal people was to establish a protectorate system which would segregate and therefore supposedly protect Indigenous people. By 1911 most Australian states and territories had reserved land and assigned responsibility and therefore control of Aboriginal people’s lives to a Chief Protector or Protection Board. This power was used to remove Indigenous children from their families with a view to converting them to Christianity (HREOC, 1997). This policy approach would be considered racist by current social standards. Australia has been slow to recognize and respect the cultural values of the Indigenous people of Australia in every way, including child care and protection.

As the population of mixed descent people grew government officials responded by removing children and housing them away from their families with the aim of absorbing and merging them into the non-Indigenous population. The forcible removal of Indigenous children continued in many guises up until the 1960’s; – those people affected by this practice are now known as The Stolen Generation. In New South Wales after 1940, Indigenous and non-Indigenous children came under general child welfare legislation. The inherent racism in policy and practice and lack of recognition of cultural differences ensured that Indigenous families were more readily found to be neglectful. Poverty was equated with neglect and Indigenous families, ineligible for unrestricted welfare support until after 1966, were judged as failing to provide adequately by non-Indigenous standards (HREOC, 1997).

Attachment theory is based on the joint work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Attachment theory recognizes the importance of the early relationship between parent and child and its influence on children’s future ability to form healthy relationships. Bowlby’s work on maternal deprivation, based on the premise that attachment to a caregiver is essential for survival, was not applied to Indigenous families in the 1950’s and 60’s in Australia (Bretherton, 1995:759; Osmond & Darlington, 2002:1). This failure can be attributed to the same racist attitudes to Indigenous Australians that saw Australia declared an empty continent by the first settlers (HREOC, 1997). Looking through the lens of attachment theory at Australia’s history of forcible removal of Indigenous children, it is easy to see the legacy of intergenerational suffering and its ongoing impact on the wellbeing of Indigenous communities today (Sanson & Wise, 2001:39). From today’s perspective historic child protection practices imposed on Indigenous Australians are seen as child abuse and maltreatment. Prime Minister Rudd’s apology, in February 2008, for the damage done to Indigenous Australian’s through past policies of removal, evidences the change in Australian social values which are reflected in policy.

In the ‘Bringing them Home Report’ (HREOC, 1997:19), Sir William Deane acknowledges the extent to which present disadvantage flows from past injustices and oppression. The report recognizes the permanent wounding caused to the Stolen Generation by forcible removal and institutional abuse. All states and territories in Australia have accepted the Indigenous Placement Principle as law or policy (SNAIC, 2002:66.)This policy recognizes the importance of retaining Indigenous Australian children’s connections to their community and culture(Ban, 2005:388).

The Indigenous Placement Principle embeds Indigenous cultural values in social policy by seeking to place children within extended families and their communities. This principle is critical to addressing issues such as Indigenous children being six times more likely to be removed than any other Australian children and twenty times more likely to be in the juvenile justice system. This high rate of removal can be attributed to structural issues such as poverty, lack of adequate housing and the intergenerational effects of policies that forcibly and deliberately removed Indigenous children from culture and family (Zuchowski, 2009:76).

In fifty years, approaches to indigenous child protection in Australia have radically changed; they now reflect recognition of past injustices, respect for cultural differences and values and a commitment to partnership and collaboration between governments, services and Indigenous Australians to build capacities and resilience in communities to keep families and children safe (Calma, 2007).

Economic Impacts

Thomson (2003) suggests that there is an institutional blindness to the role that poverty plays in putting children at risk of harm. The rise of economic rationalism as the dominant philosophy through the 1990’s in Australian social policy has been twofold: under- resourcing of welfare services such as child protection and a user -pays approach which sees the poor and needy further disadvantaged. Economic rationalism is a potentially value laden approach where those who are socially and economically disadvantaged held responsible for their circumstances. As Tomison (2001:52) acknowledges the focus of economic rationalism on efficiency, effectiveness and accountability potentially conflicts with the ethical commitments made by social workers such as a commitment to achieving social justice (Tilbury et al 2007:10; AASW, 1999). Economic issues impact the reconciliation process with the Indigenous community as healing and reconciliation relies on redress of past wrongs (HREOC, 1997). Thorpe (2007) also notes that a disproportionate amount of resources in child protection are spent on investigation rather than care.

Current Social Policy Approaches:

Prevention and early intervention

The current discourse on child protection, influenced by strength based and evidence based approaches, ‘has shifted from talking about abuse to talking about harm’ (Zuchowski, 2009:33). Feminism and Post-modernism recognize language as a site which contributes to defining social value; these discourses have also contributed to the shift from talking about abuse to focussing on the harm done to children. ‘Harm’ is defined in The Child Protection Act (1999) as ‘any detrimental effect of a significant nature…on the child’s wellbeing’. This term allows for family and child to contribute to the assessment of what is considered ‘detrimental’ and ‘significant’ (Tilbury et al, 2007:4). The focus since the mid 1990’s in Australia has been on early intervention and prevention (Tomison, 2001:54-55).

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“Resilience” has been recognized as a key protective factor in children surviving maltreatment and high risk situations and achieving healthy and adaptive outcomes. The growing recognition that enhancing protective factors to prevent maltreatment of children is cost effective, and provides both social and economic benefits, has seen an increasing focus on the delivery of early intervention and prevention services in Australia. These services are mostly delivered through non-government agencies such as Family Centres in New South Wales. Government policies now focus on ‘health and wellbeing’ through enhancing community, family and individual strengths. These current strengths-based family support approaches are a contrast to historic approaches that sought to place responsibility and blame solely with the parent. Children’s health and wellbeing is now seen as a community responsibility; the impact of the socio-economic environment in which the family lives is now taken into account (Tomison, 2002:7; 2001:55).


According to Tilbury et al “the ‘label’ child abuse changes according to social context and reflects public opinion and values as well as expert opinion” and reflects the degree to which society supports families to care for their children(2007:6). Furthermore understandings of child abuse and neglect ‘differ according to socio-economic status, culture and ethnic background’ (Bowes & Watson, 2004), as cited in Tilbury et al. (2007:6).

What constitutes child abuse is dependent on social and cultural values; this is clearly evidenced in the changes to the treatment and care of children throughout even the short history of Australia since white settlement. The increase in notification and substantiation of children at risk in the last decade is the outcome of a widening definition of what comprises child abuse (Scott, 2006, as cited in Thorpe, 2007:1). Australia’s history of forcible removal of Indigenous children, the disconnection of British migrant children from family, the abuse of children in institutional care and the ongoing social and mental damage that these practices caused is now well known (Thorpe, 2007:1). These historic practices are unacceptable and considered abuse and maltreatment in Australia today. When compared with Australia’s current collaborative and culturally sensitive approach to child protection it is clear that child abuse, and community perception and response to it, reflect the dominant cultural and social values of the day.


Catriona Robertson, Student No. 0718540740, Assignment 1, WS3027: Child and Family Welfare, 10th January 2010.


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