Skip Navigation Links

The growing tragedy of Battered Children

WHY do some parents beat and abuse their own children?
Is permissiveness the answer to this growing, heartbreaking tragedy?


THE true story of what is happening to many little children across the United States and Britain, and around the world, is more appalling than any horror movie,

Increasingly, children have been ruthlessly beaten or sadistically assaulted — by parents or guardians.

Instruments of abuse have ranged from bare fists to belt buckles, from knives to electrical cords, from hot pokers to open names, from matches to cigarette lighters, from bottles to broom handles, from hot liquids or pans to appliances and chair legs.

Children are daily brought into hospitals, having been beaten, burned, raped, stabbed, strangled, electrically shocked, stamped on, or thrown violently against walls. Fractured skulls, broken legs and arms, blackened eyes and horribly bruised bodies are commonplace. Some have been chained in attics, tied to beds, and even left hanging by their feet from the ceiling.

Sounds like an unreal nightmare. Fiendish. But these crimes are occurring today — committed by parents.


Facts "Swept Under the Carpet"

Said a social worker several years ago: "Child abuse is one of the dirtiest pieces of dirt being swept under the American-rug."

But the problem is by no means limited to the United States. Some years ago an official charged that cruelty to the young in Britain is common to every class, income group and area of the realm. One study estimated that seven out of every 100 British children are so blatantly abused or neglected that social authorities have had to intervene.

Such tragedies have been, and still are, common in certain poor, overpopulated areas of the world, where children are often abandoned to die of exposure, legally bartered and sold, or mutilated to enhance their appeal as beggars.

In the United States, where perhaps child abuse has been studied in greatest detail, many authorities view the problem as one of staggering proportions. The visible cases are merely the tip of a hidden iceberg.

Says Dr. David G. Gil, professor of social policy at Brandeis University: "Estimates of various investigators range from a few thousand to several million incidents per year" (Violence against Children, 1970, p. 12).

John W. Gardner, former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, declared: "According to the most conservative estimates, at least 10,000 children each year [in the U.S.] are so severely mistreated as to require hospitalization. And there may be as many as a million who are subjected to some form of abuse." Gardner pointed out that most of the seriously abused children are under three years of age. A great many who die of beatings are infants less than one year old.

Sadly, the vast majority of child abuse cases are never reported publicly. And all too often these children bear the life-long scars, physically and emotionally, resulting from beatings they receive from their own parents!


More Common than Deaths Due to Disease

Says Dr, Ray E. Heifer of the University of Colorado School of Medicine:

"More children under 5 die every year from injuries inflicted by a parent or guardian than from tuberculosis, whooping cough, polio, measles, diabetes, rheumatic fever and appendicitis combined." He estimates that at least 60,000 children are willfully beaten, burned, smothered and starved every year in the United States.

Bad as the problem is, it appears to be growing worse. The incidence of child abuse appears to be increasing — reported cases in the United States rose from 9,563 in 1967 to 10,931 in 1968.

Although this dramatic increase may partly reflect the growing concern about child abuse, rather than simply an increase in occurrences, it is still significant.

Dr. Edward Lenoski, assistant professor of pediatrics at the USC School of Medicine, estimated that in recent years child abuse has gone up threefold.

Professor Francis Camps, a British pathologist, told the Royal Medico-Psychological Association that official figures show a definite rise in cases of violence against children in recent years. He compared the increase in child abuse to the rise in drug addiction and violence in general in modern society.

Child abuse is not a new phenomenon. It is as old as the story of mankind, But, under the stress of modern living, in our modem violence-prone generation, more and more parents are neglecting proper child training and are then "losing their cool" — blowing up at their own children, and venting their unexpurgated wrath upon them.

Even the average person, put in a social and psychological situation conducive to violent behavior, and subjected to marital discord, financial stress, and a crying, wailing, disobedient baby, could do the "unthinkable" and turn upon his own child.

Why do parents commit such atrocities? What are the causes of child abuse? And what can be done about it?


Why Does It Happen

What provokes parents to beat, starve, smother, drown, chain, abandon, attack, and assault their own children?

Some authorities state that such parents have a negative approach toward their children,

Dr. Vincent J. Fontana puts his finger on a very significant aspect of the problem. He says parents who brutalize their children generally are emotionally insecure, are under financial stress, are separated or divorced, have problems with alcoholism or perversion, etc. He pointed out that such parents actually need as much help as their children!

Most incidents of child abuse stem from crude and improper attempts at discipline. Parents become provoked by the child's apparent inability to follow orders, his misbehavior, or rebellion. They lose their tempers and punish their children in violent anger. To call this child rearing is a tragic misnomer.

In a comprehensive survey of all child-abuse reports for 1967 and 1968, the United States Children's Bureau found that nearly 63 percent of the cases involved an adult response to a specific act of a child. Seventy-three percent involved "inadequately controlled anger of the perpetrator" (Gil, Violence Against Children, p. 126).

Such parents have a lot to learn about properly rearing their own flesh-and-blood offspring and about themselves.


"More children under five die every year from injuries inflicted by a parent or guardian than from tuberculosis,
whooping cough, polio, measles, diabetes, rheumatic fever and appendicitis combined."

Dr. Ray E. Heifer — University of Colorado School of Medicine


Unwanted Babies

Another vital aspect of child abuse concerns undesired pregnancies. In the United States, between l6 and 20 percent of all first-time brides are pregnant when they go to the altar. But 40 percent of all teenage brides go into the marriage ceremony pregnant, says Dr. Alan F. Guttmacher, former director of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at New York's Mt. Sinai Hospital.

These were usually unwanted and unplanned pregnancies resulting in unwanted children.

Says Dr. C. Henry Kempe, pediatrician at the University of Colorado School of Medicine: "Not infrequently the beaten infant is a product of an unwanted pregnancy, a pregnancy which began before marriage, too soon after marriage, or at some other time felt to be extremely inconvenient" (JAMA, 181, 1962).