Child abuse is a significant harm done or anticipated to a child as a
result of human action. That action may be intentional or reckless and
inflicted by individuals, groups, agencies or the state.
This is a very wide definition which is, however, not new. Gil (1979) argues strongly that any view of abuse which does not incorporate wide societal factors will be inadequate because in numerical terms widespread problems such as poverty cause far more damage than individual parents.
The definition also draws on a more recent source, the Children Act 1989, introduced into England and Wales in October 1991. This act identifies two major ways in which children can suffer: either they are 'in need' because they lack welfare services or they are at risk of 'significant harm' from the acts and omissions of their carers (Sections 17 and 31.) The Act does not mention the state directly but, because services to children either come from or are regulated by government agencies it is clearly involved. Significant harm arises if children's needs are not met adequately by whatever source and one might therefore say that 'in need' is the warning and significant harm is the consequence. Legal grounds for action under the Act exist not only if a child is suffering now but also if he/she is likely to; it is this which allows us to define one aspect of abuse as potential abuse.
The problem with any broad definition is that it is capable of being subdivided. As will be seen throughout the book, this has indeed happened in the recent UK history. The reasons for this, the processes and the consequences, need to be explored before we can consider what child abuse may mean in the future and how our society might respond to it.