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


Child abuse, whether intra- or extra-familial, generally includes various forms of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Physical abuse includes acts such as punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning, shaking, or otherwise physically harming a child. Sexual abuse ranges from sexual touching to exhibitionism, sexual intercourse, and commercial exploitation. Emotional abuse includes acts or omissions that could cause serious behavioural, cognitive, emotional, or mental disorders. Operational definitions of these forms of abuse have been developed on the basis of three National Incidence Studies (NIS) conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Canadian Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect. [i],[ii]


In the past, researchers interested in the maltreatment of children within organizations and institutions generally focused attention on abuse occurring within residential treatment or educational facilities. The purpose of the present effort is to expand the definition of institutional abuse beyond its traditional parameters to include community organizations and other established social institutions that are not necessarily residential in nature.

When child abuse was first brought to public and professional attention it was most commonly thought to occur within the family context, with parents as perpetrators.[iii],[iv] In the mid 1970s David Gil[v] was the first to suggest that child abuse occurs at three levels: intrafamilial, institutional, and societal. A few years later, Eliana Gil[vi] took this one step further, identifying three distinct forms of institutional child abuse. The first is the overt physical, sexual, or emotional abuse committed by those individuals directly responsible for the child’s care, most often childcare workers or foster parents. The other two types of abuse – program abuse and system abuse – are unique to out-of-home settings. Program abuse occurs when programs operate below acceptable standards or rely upon harsh or unacceptable methods to control behaviour. In the United States, a number of class action suits have been filed for various forms of program abuse including the rights to receive or refuse treatment, to have access to counsel and courts, to receive and make phone calls, visits, etc.[vii],[viii]

According to Gil[ix], system abuse is not committed by a single individual or a single agency, but rather occurs when the entire childcare system is stretched beyond its limits. This type of maltreatment is often related to shortcomings of agencies responsible for the care and well being of children. Prolonged treatment, unnecessary removal from the home, misplacement and misdiagnosis due to inadequate assessment resources all may be viewed as forms of system abuse. Similar to other forms of abuse, the impact of system abuse may be devastating. Children who are moved from home to home may have difficulty forming long-term emotional attachments to nurturing adults, the impact of which may reverberate throughout their lives.[x]

Traditional definitions of child abuse in institutions and organizations were also rooted in Goffman’s[xi] model of the “total institution”. This model defined a total institution as one in which almost every aspect of the child’s life is controlled by the institution and by the same single authority, with common examples being institutions to care for people with physical or mental disabilities, children without family caregivers, or young offenders.

Persons living in a total institution often experience a sense of depersonalization and disconnection. Depersonalization is brought about by the generic and routine nature of the day-to-day living conditions, and disconnection results from physical and psychological isolation from family, community and culture. The Law Commission of Canada has expressed the view that degradation and powerlessness are other features often inherent in total institutions, and each occurs in both subtle and obvious ways.[xii]

The total institution model has been useful for conceptualizing the abuse that occurred within certain residential facilities, such as those imposed upon Canadian Aboriginal peoples, in which children were cut off from their families and communities for months at a time and forced to reject their culture. Other examples of total institutions are residential treatment facilities and correctional institutions.

Although total institutions may have been the more common model in the 1950s and 1960s, current institutions less often fit within Goffman’s original definition.[xiii] Goffman’s account, moreover, does not consider the broader social context in which institutions exist.[xiv] Finally, the total institution perspective does not consider the many other types of community organizations and institutions in which child maltreatment may occur, as discussed in sections to follow.


Because few definitions of child abuse in institutions and organizations have gone beyond maltreatment occurring within total institutions and residential care facilities, two steps need to be taken. First, the definition of “institution” needs to be expanded and operationalized to include various types of community organizations and institutions. Second, the parameters (e.g., perpetrator characteristics, institution characteristics, and consequences) associated with the type of abuse occurring in this redefined context need to be delineated and examined. It is likely that parameters associated with a revised operational definition will share some commonalties with intrafamilial abuse and with residential institutional abuse. However, some of these parameters will be quite unique and specific to the institution in which the abuse occurred. Illuminating these will result in improved treatment interventions, a more accurate recognition of the impact, and have policy and programming implications.

Defining institutions as systems or organizations that are an important part of a particular culture or society, not necessarily existing within the confines of a physical structure, accommodates the changes that many social institutions have undergone in recent years. Residential institutions and total institutions have been replaced by increased emphasis on community-based programming and services. Within those residential institutions that have remained, there is much more interaction with the broader community.[xv] Moreover, this definition allows for the inclusion of community institutions such as sports and recreation programs, churches, and non-residential schools.

The transfer of care from residential facilities into the community does not alter the reality that children and youth remain at risk of maltreatment, i.e., changing the context of the care does not necessarily change the dynamics of power, control and dependency that are often associated with abuse. Regardless of its physical structure, the potential for maltreatment exists in other types of community institutions and organizations in which adults are put in a position of power and authority over children and youth.


i. Sedlak, A. J., & Broadhurst, D. D. (1996, September). Third national incidence study of child abuse and neglect: Final report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

ii. Trocm, N., & Wolfe, D. A. (2001). Child maltreatment in Canada: Selected results from the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect. Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada.

iii. Kempe, C. H., Silverman, F. N. & Steele, B. F. (1962). The battered child syndrome. Journal of the American Medical Association, 181, 17-24.

iv. Helfer, R. E. & Kempe, C. H. (1974). The battered child. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

v. Gil, D. (1975). Unravelling child abuse. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 45, 346-356.

vi. Gil, E. (1982). Institutional abuse of children in out-of-home care. Child and Youth Care Review, 4(1-2). [hereinafter Gill (1982)]

vii. Soler et al., (1987). Representing the Client. New York: Matthew Bender.

viii. Horowitz, R., Davidson, H. (1984). Legal Rights of Children. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Shephard/McGraw Hill.

ix. Gill (1982), supra note 14.

x. Melton, G. B. (1990). Child protection: Making a bad situation worse? Contemporary Psychology, 35, 213214.

xi. Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. New York: Anchor/Doubleday. [hereinafter Goffman (1961)]

xii. Restoring Dignity, supra note 1.

xiii. Penhale, B. (1999). Introduction. In N. Stanley, J. Manthrope, & B. Penhale (Eds.), Institutional Abuse: Perspectives Across the Lifespan (pp. 1-15). New York: Routledge. [hereinafter Penhale (1999)]

xiv. Perring, C. (1992). The experience and perspectives of patients and care staff of the transition from hospital to community based care. In S. Ramon (Ed.), Psychiatric Hospital Closure: Myths and Realities. London: Chapman Hall. [hereinafter Perring (1992)]

xv. Grace and Vella (2000), supra note 4.

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