Posts Tagged child abuse

Joan Durrant: Child abuse in Sweden and the corporal punishment ban

June 12, 2009

Child Abuse in Sweden
By Joan E. Durrant, Ph.D.
April 9, 2003

For a number of years, various media have carried reports stating that child abuse has increased in Sweden since the passage of the 1979 corporal punishment ban. This statement, which was recently given new life in the Canadian Charter Challenge to Section 43 of the Criminal Code, is completely erroneous. All available evidence indicates that Sweden has been extremely successful in reducing rates of child physical abuse over the past few decades and that reduction has been maintained since the passage of the corporal punishment ban. The purpose of this brief report is to disseminate accurate information on this issue.

1 Reporting Rates vs. Rates of Actual Abuse
The claim that child abuse has increased in Sweden is primarily based on misinterpretation of assault report statistics. It is the case that reporting of child physical assault has increased in Sweden since the 1970s – as it has in every nation that has raised awareness of the issue of child abuse. Reporting rates are by no means equivalent to rates of actual abuse. They are sharp reflections of/strongly tied to shifts in public awareness.

For example, in the early 1960s, it was estimated that about 300 children were being maltreated in the U.S. By 1990, the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect had officially recorded 2.4 million reported cases. By 1993, they had recorded almost 3 million cases. It is highly unlikely that actual child maltreatment increased by a factor of 10,000 in that period. It is also highly unlikely that only 300 children were maltreated in the U.S. in the early 1960s.

It is a well-known fact that when mandatory reporting laws, public education campaigns, and other measures are implemented to increase awareness, reporting will increase. This is the goal of such measures. The Swedish reporting figures have been cited as if they are actual rates of abuse, which they are not.

Recently the Swedish National Crime Prevention Council examined 434 cases of assaults on young children within the family that were reported to the police in 1990 (all cases) and 1997 (every other case). It was found that the proportion of cases involving serious injuries sustained by children in this age range had decreased substantially. The majority of reported assaults result in minor injuries or no injuries at all. On the basis of an extensive analysis of the data, the National Crime Prevention Council concluded that there has been an increase in the propensity to report cases of assault on young children, and that it is this increase that is responsible for most, if not all, of the rise in the number of such offences reported to the police (Nilsson, 2000, p. 68).

2 Prevalence of Child Physical Assault Across Time
Studies conducted at various points in time demonstrate that the prevalence, frequency and harshness of assaults against children have declined dramatically in Sweden over the last two generations. Substantial proportions of women who became mothers in the 1950s struck their children at least weekly (e.g., 55% of mothers of 4-year-old daughters; 20% of mothers of 8-year-old sons) (Stattin et al., 1995). Among 3- to 5-year-old children of that generation, implements were used by 13% of mothers (Stattin et al.,1995).

In contrast, 86% of youth who were born in the 1980s report never having been physically punished (Janson, 2001). Of those who were, the vast majority experienced it no more than once or twice in their childhoods (SCB, 1996). Virtually no children are hit with implements in Sweden today.

It is important to note that legislative reform began many decades ago in Sweden. The corporal punishment ban was the end, not the beginning, of legal changes in that country. Most notably, the provision excusing parents who caused minor injuries to their children through physical punishment was repealed from the Swedish Penal Code in 1957. The explicit ban on physical punishment was implemented 22 years later.

3 Child Abuse Fatalities
The incidence of homicides of children under the age of 5 can provide an estimate of child abuse mortality, as it is these children who are most vulnerable to fatal injury and the contribution of other forms of external violence is minimized among this age group. Between 1975 and 2000, the average annual number of homicides of children aged 0 to 4 in Sweden was 4. The average incidence between 1995 and 2000 (2.8) was lower than that between 1975 and 1980 (4.0) – despite population growth.

The World Health Organization (2002) provides homicide incidence figures for children aged 0 to 4 in Sweden (1996), Canada (1997) and the United States (1998).1 These figures are:

Sweden: 3
Canada: 24
United States: 723

(Canada’s population is approximately 3 times larger than Sweden’s. The U.S. population is approximately 20 times larger than Sweden’s.)

Child homicides attributable specifically to physical abuse (excluding homicide-suicides, neonaticide and postnatal depression) are virtually non-existent in Sweden. Between 1976 and 2000 (the most recent year for which statistics are currently available), a total of 4 children died in Sweden as a result of physical abuse.

There is no evidence to support the claim that child abuse has increased in Sweden since corporal punishment was banned there in 1979. In fact, Sweden has maintained a very low rate of child abuse internationally for more than 25 years.

Three Important Points

  • It is important to note that Sweden’s law was intended to affirm children’s rights; it was not expected to end all abuse of children for all time. North American assault laws have not eliminated assaults against adults, yet we recognize their importance in setting a standard of non-violence for the society, sending a clear message, and affording protection to those who have been harmed. This was the fundamental intent of Sweden’s corporal punishment ban.
  • Legislative reform in Sweden began in 1928, when corporal punishment was forbidden in secondary schools. It was 1957 when the legal defence of reasonable correction was repealed from Sweden’s Penal Code. The ban must be viewed within its historical context to be understood.
  • Since Sweden passed its ban on corporal punishment in 1979, 10 other nations have followed: Finland, Norway, Austria, Denmark, Cyprus, Croatia, Latvia, Israel, Germany, and Iceland. The purpose of these bans is to explicitly recognize children’s rights to protection under the law – the same rights that adults take for granted. In addition, Italy’s highest court has ruled that “the use of violence for educational purposes can no longer be considered lawful.”

1 Rates per population are not available for Sweden and Canada due to their low incidence. Incidence rates are presented here for the most recent years for which data were available in the WHO World Report on Violence and Health (2002).

Nilsson, L. (2000). Barnmisshandel: En Kartläggning av Polisanmäld Misshandel av Små Barn. Brottsförebyggande rådet; Stockholm.

Janson, S. (2001). Barn och Misshandel. A Report to the Swedish Governmental Committee on Child Abuse and Related Issues. Statens Offentliga Utredningar; Stockholm.

SCB (1996). Spanking and Other Forms of Physical Punishment: Study of Adults= and Middle School Students= Opinions, Experience, and Knowledge.@ Demografiska Rapporter, 1.2.

Stattin, H., Janson, H., Klackenberg-Larsson, I., & Magnusson, D. (1995). ACorporal punishment in everyday life: An intergenerational perspective. (J. McCord, ed.) Pp 315-347. Cambridge University Press; Cambridge.

World Health Organization (2002). World Report on Violence and Health. Author; Geneva.

Joan E. Durrant, Ph.D., is a Child-Clinical Psychologist and Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Family Studies at the University of Manitoba. She is an internationally recognized expert on the Swedish ban. Over the past decade, she has conducted extensive research on this law and has lived in Sweden for extended periods to gain a full understanding of its history, implementation and effects.

Yes Vote welcomes OCC Child Abuse Report

June 4, 2009

The report released by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner today on New Zealand’s horrific levels of child abuse reiterates just why it is so important that our  law draws a line in the sand on physical punishment,” says Deborah Morris-Travers, spokesperson for the Yes Vote coalition.

“The report says that one child is admitted to hospital every week as a result of intentional assault and builds on previous work illustrating the need to change attitudes about violence against children.

“The vulnerability of infants and small children in homes where family violence is prevalent, parents are unsupported, there is poverty, and dysfunction, demonstrates the need for political and community action that addresses child abuse and maltreatment on a number of levels, including in law.

“While some claim these results represent an argument against having a law that removes a parental right to physically punish their children, the Yes Vote coalition sees the law as one key part of a vital social change for positive, non-violent parenting that is occurring in NZ.

“We find it baffling that opponents of the current child discipline law so strongly oppose child abuse while simultaneously working so hard for the right to be allowed to physically punish their own children.  This contradiction draws little media attention, providing evidence of society’s tolerance of violence against children,” concluded Ms Morris-Travers.

Infometrics: Child maltreatment in NZ costs $2 billion

June 4, 2009

The cost of child maltreatment is staggering, yet our willingness to live with the consequences suggests that we remain in a state of denial. The consequences of child maltreatment include:

  • Human costs to victims: child fatalities, child abuse related suicide, medical costs, lower educational achievement, pain and suffering.
  • Long term human and social costs: medical costs, chronic health problems, lost productivity, juvenile delinquency, adult criminality, homelessness, substance abuse, and intergenerational transmission of abuse.
  • Costs of public intervention: child protection services, out-of-home care, child abuse prevention programmes, assessment and treatment of abused children, law enforcement, judicial system, incarceration of abuse offenders, treatment of perpetrators, and victim support.
  • Costs of community contributions by volunteers and non-government organisations.

Translating overseas estimates of the costs of child abuse and neglect to the New Zealand context suggests that it imposes long term costs in the vicinity of $2 bn per year, ie in excess of 1% of GDP every year. Roughly one third of this cost relates to dealing with immediate consequences (eg health care, child welfare service, and justice system costs). Another third relates to ongoing health, education, and criminal consequences for child abuse victims in later life. The final third results from a decline in productivity as victims fail to meet their potential.

Reducing the incidence of child maltreatment would not only have a profound impact on the quality of life for potential victims but, by reducing our need to support victims, it will also materially improve the wellbeing of the rest of society.

Prevention is more effective than correction. The main reason for this is that maltreatment has lifelong impacts on the victims. The trauma of maltreatment can inhibit brain development in ways that mars intellectual, communication, social, and emotional abilities. Victims of child abuse face a greater risk of failing at school and of being emotionally alienated from society. That so many victims of maltreatment go on to lead essentially normal productive lives is a testament to the general resilience of human nature. But these victims have done it tough. Life could have been so much better and productive if their formative years had been less stressful. And then there are the walking disaster areas who go on to impose huge costs on themselves and the rest of society.

Abusive behaviour is not constrained by socio-economic status, but research has identified a number of risk factors that increase the potential for child abuse. Key markers of child maltreatment include:

  • Parental age and education, eg young or uneducated parents might not be naturally as well equipped to deal with the stresses of parenthood.
  • Parental mental health problems such as depression.
  • Social deprivation, in particular a lack of wider family support.
  • Alcohol or other drug dependency issues.
  • Past exposure of parents to interpersonal violence or abuse.

Poverty might exacerbate these pressures, but it is not clear that it is a root cause.

In New Zealand, agencies such as Barnardos, Plunket, Preventing Violence in the Home and many others play a critical role in supporting families to do their best for children.

Also the government’s commitment to preventing child maltreatment has increased considerably in recent years. Child, Youth and Family’s appropriation for education and preventative services for children increased from $16m in the 2004 Budget to $166m in the 2008 Budget. This increased spending has the potential to reduce the incidence and therefore the future cost of child maltreatment. But is it sufficient? Will services provided be effective? And what guarantee have we that the current commitment will be maintained?

A common problem with government sponsored programmes is their top-down, planned design. Large-scale programmes may miss the factors that made small-scale programmes a success or have difficulty obtaining success in different environments. Large programmes also have a propensity for diverting resources away from children and their families into running the bureaucracy and creating an overarching infrastructure.

Large-scale programmes can succeed if they have the following three features:

  • The programmes focus on at-risk children and encourage direct parent involvement.
  • There is a long term commitment to reducing the incidence of child maltreatment, including changing attitudes about physical punishment.
  • The programmes reward successful outcomes in order to encourage high quality and innovative practices.

A way of maintaining commitment would be to create a public endowment that would fund the provision of child and parent support services. A fund would clearly signal an ongoing commitment to reducing the incidence of child maltreatment, a focus on service rather than bureaucracy, a reassurance to service providers that there will be consistent demand for their services, and a willingness to fund effective, specialised and innovative services.

David Grimmond, Senior Economist, Infometrics Ltd

Misleading claims about the Child Discipline Law and The Yes Vote campaign

May 26, 2009

As the referendum campaign heats up, supporters will have seen a number of claims being made about the Child Discipline Law and the Yes Vote coalition. We decided to put the record straight.

Archie Kerr: Notes from a paediatrician

May 7, 2009

As a Paediatrician at Hutt Hospital for the last thirty plus years, I have seen a lot of abusive treatment of children by their caregivers and accordingly I strongly supported the repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act. This action has been glibly labelled as “the anti-smacking” bill, but in fact is not that at all. It removed the excuse that physical punishment with resulting injury could be a defence in court as being part of acceptable disciplining of a child. This is in line with our respect for adults and with the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child to which our government has agreed.

Unfortunately, I have been in a situation where a caregiver escaped punishment in spite of hitting a 14 year old girl with a broomstick so hard that she was unable to stand, sit or even lie down for 5 days without pain because of the bruising on her buttocks and thighs. As this happened nearly 20 years ago one might hope that attitudes have changed and no jury would make a similar decision now. That has not been the case and a number of similar decisions over recent years show that our children still need the protection of the legislation as it currently stands.

The wording of the forthcoming referendum is akin to the trick question of “have you stopped beating your wife?” To ask for a “yes” or “no” answer to the question “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?” is impossible as none of the basic terms are defined. What is a “smack”? What is “good parental correction”? What does a “no” vote mean and what is the likely outcome of such a vote?

It is noteworthy that the world has not fallen apart since the repeal of Section 59 two years ago and, even though child abuse continues to occur as expected, our children at least do have one more small piece of protection that they so sorely need. It also declares unequivocally to us all that hitting children for whatever reason is unacceptable.

Archie Kerr,
Paediatrician (Retired)

Plunket Barnardos Save the Children Unicef Jigsaw Ririki Parents CentrePaediatric Society Womens Refuge Epoch

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