Few social issues evoke extreme emotive responses, both publicly and privately, as child abuse and neglect. This is not surprising as childhood is perceived by many to be a time of innocence and nurturing. Issues surrounding family behaviour are primarily regarded as essentially private, although legislative and institutional reforms have provided for a public response to any report of child maltreatment. How successful have academics and legal professionals been in placing this item onto the political agenda? How has welfare practice been able to respond to this problem? What is the response of the criminal justice system? How have we, as a society, improved the situation of those children who are the victims of abuse and neglect? Indeed, should child abuse and neglect be considered with its own unique behavioural components, or should the focus be more concerned with the continuum of family violence and family dysfunction generally? A second Trends and Issues paper due later in 2000 will examine practical interventions and prevention activities.
The Historical Context
In order to gain an understanding of the complexities surrounding child abuse and neglect, it is initially necessary to consider the historical context. From the beginning of the nineteenth century to the 1960s, concern was primarily centred on the protection of society from children and on the control of delinquent youth. The main focus on children was, therefore, in terms of the prevention of crime and anti-social behaviour (Parton 1985). Towards the end of the nineteenth century, during the industrial revolution, child neglect became recognised as a societal concern throughout most of the western world, with initial concerns for abandoned and physically neglected children resulting in the formation of the first child protection societies (1988).
The increasing awareness of child abuse as a problem parallels children's increasing legal status and the emergence of the child as an individual (Edwards 1996). Over the past thirty years, developments have placed child abuse and neglect on the public agenda in ways not previously seen. Australia, like other western countries, began to acknowledge the existence and extent of the physical abuse of children during the 1960s and 1970s. This process began with an article published in the journal of the American Medical Association in 1962 by Kempe and his colleagues where the term "Battered Child Syndrome" was first used (Kempe et al. 1962), and medical practitioners were challenged to recognise the incidence of injuries intentionally inflicted on young children. The controversy surrounding the Kempe et al. proposition, therefore, drew attention to the issues of physical abuse and neglect. It was then recognised that widespread damage was being caused by society's denial of the problem (Heifer & Kempe 1976). Professional concern was accompanied by legislative reform. At an international level, this led to the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which codifies the concept that children as individuals have certain distinctive rights. In 1981, Australia became a signatory to this declaration.
During the 1980s, the focus of attention moved to child sexual assault, when physically abused and neglected children began to reveal that they were often sexual abuse victims as well (Finkelhor 1986). Alongside this, surveys by rape crisis centres and sexual assault centres showed that many adult women had been abused as children. In a similar manner as girls, young boys began reporting that they were victims of sexual abuse by people they knew and trusted (Oates 1990, Goldman & Goldman.1988). This phenomenon has been compounded by developments in the late 1990s which have seen the emergence, both in Australia and other parts of the world, of a very emotional public debate on paedophilia (see James 1996).
It is now recognised that emotional abuse can be extremely damaging for a child. …