Child abuse is also known as battered baby syndrome and Caffey syndrome (named after the American paediatrician John Caffey who in 1946 first drew attention to the phenomenon).
The physical abuse of a child is no so much a symptom but a cry for help, in many cases from a parent who is not coping with the stress of childcare. At some stage in the first few months of their baby’s life, most parents feel like throwing their bundle of joy out of the window. Fortunately the vast majority of parents resist this desire, but there is no doubt that children can become irritating, frustrating and maddening to the most loving of parents.
Inexperienced parents and a new baby who cries day and night can lead to irrational thinking and spontaneous actions, which are quite out of character and will be profoundly regretted later. Child abuse in this situation is understandable but still inexcusable. Parents must seek help from their doctor or child welfare officer before this stage is reached.
In other situations, child abuse may be more callous or sadistic. An unwanted child may be abused in order to extract unwarranted revenge. A father may hurt a child to indirectly hurt his wife or girlfriend. Some parents are simply nasty people who are violent in all their human relationships. Many child abusers were themselves abused as children.
Child abuse can be physical, psychological or sexual. Whichever form it takes, it can be difficult to detect and may continue for a long time before the child comes to the notice of a responsible person and is given protection. A person who abuses a child rarely does it when anyone else is around.
If a person becomes suspicious that a child is being abused, they should talk to a doctor or children’s hospital. Child abuse may be suspected if a child has repeated bruising or burn marks and the parents delay or fail to obtain medical help, offer implausible or inconsistent explanations for the injuries or if their reactions to the injuries seem strange. The most reliable indication of continued cruelty or neglect is often failure of the child to grow at the normal rate. Children made unhappy by repeated abuse do not thrive and their weight drops well below the average for their age.
Neglect is as much a form of child abuse as deliberate injury. Poor hygiene and under- or over-clothing an infant may be due to lack of knowledge, but lack of food and failure to obtain attention for illnesses, skin diseases, infected eyes and injuries is unacceptable abuse.
There is sometimes a fine line between discipline by the parents, temper tantrums by the child and criminal abuse of the child. Casual observation by an outsider may give a false impression, but if the child shows signs of injury or the problem continues consistently, then the family requires help. This help is readily available from the family general practitioner, paediatricians, community nurses and welfare workers and special teams attached to most children’s hospitals.
Some parents realise that assistance in dealing with a difficult child is required, but are afraid to seek it because of the consequences. If help is sought voluntarily, it would be exceptional for any charges to be laid against the parents. Putting a parent in jail is rarely seen as a solution for either the child or the family as a whole. Rather, every effort is made to solve the problem by counselling, medications and care.
Sometimes the child can be removed from the family for a short period, if it is thought this will help to relieve stress, modify abnormal behaviour patterns in the child, and lead to normal future family life. Only those who consistently refuse to accept their responsibilities as parents and reject offers of professional assistance are likely to find the law invoked against them.
Child abuse is not new, it has occurred throughout history and is probably occurring less now than in Victorian times when child labour was the norm. However, society today is far more aware of the problem and less inclined either to accept it or sweep it under the carpet.
Many areas have a child abuse hot line that can be called in an emergency and any information supplied will be treated confidentially.