02 May Addressing Institutional Child Abuse
Childhood abuse is an incredibly traumatizing and disturbing reality that many children and families endure. Kentucky had over 20,000 child victims of maltreatment in 2019. For Child Abuse Prevention Month this year, we’re highlighting an often underrepresented form of childhood abuse that affects thousands of children. This area of child maltreatment is known as institutionalized abuse.
What is institutional abuse?
Institutional child abuse occurs when the abuse is committed by an adult or older child outside of the victim’s traditional home setting. The abuse may take place at schools, religious organizations, and community groups, or during extracurricular activities like sports or clubs. Abusers are typically described as upstanding members of a community and are often recognized, even by victims and their families, as respectable and trustworthy leaders. Coaches, teachers, youth leaders, and clergy members can all be perpetrators of institutional abuse.
These perpetrators target specific individuals, often vulnerable children, with the intention of grooming and abusing them. The abuser may begin to groom their victim in order to rationalize the abuse once it takes place. Grooming is a calculated and gradual process by which an offender coerces a minor into performing sexual acts. The process includes establishing trust with the child, building a relationship, and eventually crossing physical boundaries and escalating the behavior to sexual contact and abuse. Common signs a potential predator is grooming a child include the following:
- Paying special attention to the victim
- Listening to the child as a confidant
- Offering the child money and gifts
- Frequently touching or hugging the child
- Privately communicating with the child via phone or online
What are the consequences of institutionalized abuse?
There are also a number of side effects that can indicate potential child abuse. Behaviors that can be red flags of child sexual abuse include excessive or inappropriate knowledge of sexual topics, regressive behaviors like thumbsucking or bedwetting, sudden change in eating habits, nightmares, anxiety, and depression. It is common for survivors of child abuse to endure the long-term effects of child abuse as adults. Adult survivors may struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, emotional or mental disorders like depression and anxiety, and maintaining healthy familial and intimate relationships. Survivors of abuse may also be at risk of re-living their trauma and becoming abusers themselves.
As seen in many cases of institutional abuse, it can be extremely difficult for survivors to move on from their trauma because their abusers have not been held accountable for the crimes they committed. In several instances, allegations against abusers are not taken seriously or are silenced by the institutions themselves. This allows abusers, like priests and teachers, to continue working in these facilities and puts other children at risk of being abused.
What can be done to help survivors and prevent institutional abuse?
Parents can do their due diligence to prevent child abuse by communicating with their child about healthy physical boundaries, and what is and is not appropriate behavior for an adult in charge of the child’s care. Open communication is key, as it also reinforces a healthy relationship between parents and children and enables children to speak about any issue with their parents.
In terms of holding abusers accountable, supporting organizations and legislation that provide resources and support for abuse victims is a great first step. Advocating for survivors in your community can help them receive the assistance they need. In recent years, survivors of child abuse have filed lawsuits against the institutions where the abuse took place. Standing up to those who enabled and committed the abuse offers survivors the justice they deserve and can prevent further abuse from occurring.
A number of services may also be helpful for childhood abuse survivors during this time, including teletherapy and other counseling services. This can help survivors cope with their trauma so they may lead healthy lives.
This Child Abuse Prevention Month, let’s make an effort to support all victims of child abuse and neglect. Listening to survivors of institutional child abuse can give us all a better understanding of the systemic issues that are present in these institutions that allow child abuse to take place.
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