Psychological Maltreatment, the Under-Recognized Violence against Children: A New Portrait from Quebec

By Malo, Claire; Moreau, Jacques et al. | Child Welfare, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Psychological Maltreatment, the Under-Recognized Violence against Children: A New Portrait from Quebec


Malo, Claire, Moreau, Jacques, Lavergne, Chantal, Hélie, Sonia, Child Welfare


Acknowledgements: This study was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), with the collaboration of many professionals from the Centre jeunesse de Montreal-Institut universitaire (CJM-IU), and Quebec's 16 Youth Protection Centers.

Psychological maltreatment (PM) of children can be defined as "Acts of omission and commission which are judged on the basis of a combination of community standards and professional expertise to be psychologically damaging. Such acts are committed by individuals, singly or collectively, who, by their characteristics (e.g., age, status, knowledge, organizational form) are in a position of differential power that renders a child vulnerable. Such acts damage immediately or ultimately the behavioral, cognitive, affective, or physical functioning of the child" (Hart, Brassard, & Karlson, 1996, p. 73). Put more simply, PM is a repeated pattern of parental behavior that communicates to the child that he or she is neither loved nor desired, is worthless, is not in a safe environment, and only exists to respond to the needs of others. Recognized manifestations of PM include denigration; terrorizing; isolation; exploitation and corruption; ignorance of emotional needs; and negligence of basic educational, psychological, or medical needs (Hart, Brassard, Binggeli, & Davidson, 2002). Most of these direct forms of PM are clearly specified in the Quebec Youth Protection Act (YPA) of 2007, which also cites indirect forms, such as child exposure to conjugal or domestic violence.

PM is one of the most frequent types of maltreatment experienced by children (Egeland, Sroufe, & Erickson, 1983). Unsubstantiated and substantiated PM reports have a more or less important weight in countries recognizing this form of child maltreatment. In Australia, for 2014-2015, PM reports represent 43% of substantiated cases, making PM the most frequent form of maltreatment in this country (Australian Government, 2016). In the United States, according to the last national report, only 6% of substantiated cases involve PM, to which we could add the 2.2% of cases implying medical neglect, reported separately (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2016).

Such a gap between the two countries could rely upon different conceptions of PM. In the 2012 Santé-Quebec survey, conducted among a representative sample of Quebec families with children aged between 6 months and 17 years old, 49.1% of respondents reported children being victims of verbal or symbolic aggression at least three times during the past year (Clément, Berneche, Chamberland, & Fontaine, 2013). Another survey, the Canadian Incidence Study, conducted with a sample of 0- to 15-year-old children reported to child protection services for all Canadian provinces and territories, showed that 8.7% of substantiated cases involved psychological violence, and 34.2% concerned children who had been exposed to conjugal violence (Trocmé, Fallon, MacLaurin, Sinha et al., 2010). For Quebec, similar incidence studies have been conducted in parallel because of the particular dispositions of the YPA compared to other Canadian provincial youth protection acts. The last Quebec Incidence Study, conducted in 2008, reported 14.2% of substantiated cases involving PM and 21.0% of substantiated cases involving children exposed to conjugal violence; in the study, PM was the only type of child maltreatment that increased between 1998 and 2008 (Hélie, Fast, Turcotte, Trocmé, et al., 2016).

Specific negative consequences of PM on children's well-being and development are often difficult to identify in the short term given that, while PM sometimes occurs alone, it is often accompanied by other forms of maltreatment. Some even suggest that it is the main harmful component of all maltreatment (de la Vega, de la Osa, Ezpeleta, Granero et al., 2011; Hart et al., 2002; O'Dougherty Wright, 2007). Regarding very young children, the longitudinal study of Egeland and colleagues (1983) is one of the few that compares the specific effects of various forms of maltreatment. …

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