This traditional term covers the neglect, physical injury, emotional trauma and sexual abuse of a child. Professional staﬀ responsible for the care and well-being of children now refer to physical injury as ‘non-accidental injury’. Child abuse may be caused by parents, relatives or carers. In England around 35,000 children are on local-authority social-service department child-protection registers – that is, are regarded as having been abused or at risk of abuse. Physical abuse or non-accidental injury is the most easily recognised form; victims of sexual abuse may not reveal their experiences until adulthood, and often not at all. Where child abuse is suspected, health, social-care and educational professionals have a duty to report the case to the local authority under the terms of the Children Act. The authority has a duty to investigate and this may mean admitting a child to hospital or to local-authority care. Abuse may be the result of impulsive action by adults or it may be premeditated: for example, the continued sexual exploitation of a child over several years. Premeditated physical assault is rare but is liable to cause serious injury to a child and requires urgent action when identiﬁed. Adults will go to some lengths to cover up persistent abuse. The child’s interests are paramount but the parents may well be under severe stress and also require sympathetic handling.
In recent years persistent child abuse in some children’s homes has come to light, with widespread publicity following oﬀenders’ appearances in court. Local communities have also protested about convicted paedophiles, released from prison, coming to live in their communities.
In England and Wales, local-government social-services departments are central in the prevention, investigation and management of cases of child abuse. They have four important protection duties laid down in the Children Act 1989. They are charged (1) to prevent children from suﬀering ill treatment and neglect; (2) to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need; (3) when requested by a court, to investigate a child’s circumstances; (4) to investigate information – in concert with the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) – that a child is suﬀering or is likely to suﬀer signiﬁcant harm, and to decide whether action is necessary to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare. Similar provisions exist in the other parts of the United Kingdom.
When anyone suspects that child abuse is occurring, contact should be made with the relevant social-services department or, in Scotland, with the children’s reporter. (See NONACCIDENTAL INJURY (NAI); PAEDOPHILIA.)