Academic journal article Family Relations

The Social Context of Child Maltreatment

Academic journal article Family Relations

The Social Context of Child Maltreatment

Article excerpt

When Kempe, Silverman, Steele, Droegemueller, and Silver (1962) created a new diagnostic entity--the Battered Child Syndrome--medical legitimacy was given to the ubiquitous problem of child maltreatment. This problem has not abated, despite the considerable ongoing professional attention given to it, perhaps because there has been a breakdown of the traditional support systems that enabled caregivers to cope with personal and social stressors in "kinder, gentler" times.

There is a coherent body of literature and reasonable consensus about what constitutes high-quality parenting in middle-class, predominantly white populations. For such populations, the focus is on styles of parenting and parental practices that generate different kinds and levels of competence, mental health, and character in children. By contrast, the vast and burgeoning literature on child abuse and neglect is applied research, generally cross-sectional, that almost without exception uses impoverished, captive populations as subjects. The literature on child abuse and neglect has not been integrated with the literature on normal and optimal family functioning or socialization effects. One purpose of this article is to evaluate the relevance of findings based on middle-class white populations to the clinical literature on child maltreatment.

Most attempts to define child maltreatment in empirical studies have relied of necessity on Child Protective Services records (e.g., Cicchetti & Barnett, 1991), thus excluding the kinds of maltreatment peculiar to middle-class families' ecological niche, such as depriving preschoolers of the opportunity for self-directed play in order to accelerate their scholastic performance. The legislation establishing the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, adopting a value-neutral stance, defined child abuse (or maltreatment) by a caretaker as "physical or mental injury, sexual abuse, negligent treatment or maltreatment of a child under eighteen...which indicate that the child's health or welfare is harmed or threatened thereby." (Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, 1974). This definition fails to define "injury" or a "child's welfare," or to take into account cultural variations in what is meant by optimal development and good parenting. Departures from affluent Euro-American standards of good parenting are often regarded as "maltreatment," and implicitly as abuse. Definitions of Psychological maltreatment are especially ambiguous, as can be seen from the exchange between McGee and Wolfe (1991) and a spate of commentators, none of whom agree fully with the authors, or with each other.

The position taken in this review is that escalating child maltreatment in the United States is symptomatic of societal abuse and neglect of the "forgotten half" of our citizens, with the primary causes and cures of child maltreatment attributable primarily to social-structural rather than to psychological factors. Therefore, the economic and cultural factors associated with child abuse are identified, thus situating the abusive family within a larger social context. Special circumstances affecting the occurrence of child maltreatment, such as maternal inexperience, single-parent status, parental discord, adoptive status, and the child's problematic behavior, are explored. Then, important facets of the two major parenting dimensions of demandingness and responsiveness that describe normal parent-child relations, as well as the patterns of parental authority based on these two dimensions, are examined in their possible application to abusive families. Finally, recommendations for prevention and intervention, and for research on child abuse, are offered.


The primary caregiving environment--the family--is itself embedded in a complex ecosystem that impacts family processes through conditions existing in the larger society. Two of those conditions are considered below: economic stress and the subcultural context. …

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