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Child Abuse in Community Institutions and Organizations:
Improving Public and Professional Understanding


Victims of childhood sexual and physical abuse are increasingly seeking remedy through civil litigation. For example, Aboriginal people in Canada make up the largest proportion of plaintiffs who are litigating claims of sexual and physical abuse, and the numbers are growing steadily. It is estimated that between 12-15 per cent of survivors of Indian Residential Schools will file a claim, representing approximately 15,750 individuals. Non-Aboriginal survivors whose perpetrators range from clergy to teachers to residential staff (e.g., youth correctional facilities, former orphanages) are also turning to the civil courts for restitution. Many of these victims desire to hold both the individual perpetrator and the social institution, such as the church or school board, accountable through litigation.

In recent years, there have been several court decisions that have held organizations vicariously liable for sexual abuse perpetrated by an employee. Vicarious liability is considered indirect or no-fault liability, meaning that it is not necessary that the organization be proven to have wilfully ignored or directly inflicted the abuse. The vicarious liability of organizations is associated with whether the employer’s enterprise (e.g., providing overnight quasi-parental care to children) materially increases the risk of sexual abuse and thus harm. Similarly, limitation periods in cases involving a breach of fiduciary duty have been successfully challenged. Lastly, there has been a general trend of increasing damage awards in sexual abuse cases. Together, these legal precedents have resulted in survivors of abuse within institutions being able to seek remedy through the civil courts.[i]

One of the major barriers to understanding the specific and unique issues associated with abuse in institutions and organizations is the dearth of scientific literature addressing these issues. In our current review of the literature on the long-term consequences of child abuse, 22 empirical studies were examined (see Appendix A for a list of these studies). However, none made specific reference to child abuse in institutions and organizations. In the 15 studies in which different types of abuse were compared, the distinction made was between abuse perpetrated by a family member (i.e., intrafamilial) or a non-family member (i.e., extrafamilial). In the few studies in which the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator was identified (e.g., stranger, acquaintance, or boyfriend) in cases of extrafamilial or non-familial abuse, no consideration was given to how this relationship or association may have affected the victim.

Although the unique effects of abuse in institutions and organizations are not being included as part of the majority of studies on child abuse, there is a growing literature specifically addressing the impact of abuse by members of various institutions. These preliminary studies have surveyed survivors of abuse by priests, teachers, community leaders, and caretakers in residential institutions to form an understanding of the uniqueness of such abuse.[ii], [iii], [iv], [v]

Research on the impact of child abuse has largely focused on abuse by family members, almost to the exclusion of abuse committed in other trust-based relationships. These other trust-based relationships are most often found in community organizations and institutions. Therefore, the goals of this paper are: (1) to define child abuse in institutions and organizations in such a way as to accommodate the diverse contexts in which this form of abuse may occur; (2) to develop an understanding of the unique aspects of child abuse in institutions and organizations; (3) to formulate key dimensions affecting risk of abuse and psychological harm; and (4) to review the implications of these findings for prevention and treatment.


i. Grace & Vella (2000) Civil Liability for Sexual Abuse and Violence in Canada. [hereinafter Grace and Vella (2000)]

ii. Benthall, J (1989). Invisible wounds: Corporal punishment in British schools as a form of ritual. Child Abuse & Neglect, 15, 377-388.

iii. Groze, V. (1990). An exploratory investigation into institutional mistreatment. Children and Youth Services Review, 12, 229-241.

iv. Kelley, S. J. (1994). Abuse of children in day care centres: Characteristics and consequences. Child Abuse Review, 3, 15-25.

v. Powers, J. L., & Mooney, A., & Nunno, M. (1990) Institutional abuse: A Review of the literature. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 4(6), 81-95.

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