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

FACTORS INFLUENCING THE EFFECTS OF CHILD ABUSE IN INSTITUTIONS AND ORGANIZATIONS

We now turn to a consideration of the shared and unique factors influencing the impact of child abuse in community institutions and organizations. Our conceptual framework has identified several important factors that may play a critical role in the degree of harm caused by abuse in other settings. This framework does not account for all factors that may affect vulnerability to abuse and risk of psychological harm; however, we outline below those issues most specifically associated with institutions and organizations based on existing research and survivor accounts obtained through clinical experience. The five most critical factors include:

Significance of the Institution to Society. Certain institutions and organizations are highly valued. These institutions often serve important functions (e.g., education, religion, and social services) that help the community to thrive. When an institution or organization is important to a community, the community often holds both the institution and its members in high esteem. Children may be particularly vulnerable to abuse by individuals within these institutions whom they put in positions of trust and authority. When a child is abused, disclosure may be difficult because of the strong community support for the institution.

Role of the Perpetrator within the Institution. The role that a perpetrator plays within an institution is an important factor to take into account when considering both a child’s vulnerability to abuse and the consequences that may result from that abuse. Adults and children tend to trust certain individuals based on their position within a well-respected institution (e.g., teacher, minister, and Scout leader). Unfortunately, such implicit trust leaves children vulnerable to abuse, as parents are less likely to scrutinize the activities of such well-respected individuals, and children are less likely to question their authority. A child is also likely to be more vulnerable to abuse by an individual who has influence and control over his or her life. When a child feels that an adult has a great deal of power in his or her life, that child may feel unable to prevent, stop, or disclose abuse by that individual for fear of retaliation.

Extent of Child Involvement with the Institution or Organization. Children who are highly involved with an institution or organization may be at an increased risk for abuse. If a child spends a great deal of time with a potential perpetrator, there may be more opportunities for grooming and more opportunities for the perpetrator to be alone with the child.

Degree of Voluntary or Mandatory Involvement With the Institution or Organization. When the child’s association with the institution is mandatory (actual or perceived) he or she may feel trapped and unable to escape an abusive situation. The child also may be less likely to disclose abuse for fear of having to return to the institution and face the perpetrator. Also, children who are voluntarily involved in sports, clubs, or similar activities may tolerate an abusive situation so that they do not have to stop participating in an activity that they enjoy, or so that they may obtain a goal they are working towards (e.g., being accepted into a special academy or sports league).

Abuse and Post-Abuse Events. Circumstances surrounding the abuse and what happens after the abuse can have a profound impact on the victim’s well being. The use of the institution’s power structure, rules, or belief system to gain a child’s trust or maintain silence often leaves the survivor feeling disillusioned and betrayed by the institution or organization. The victim may not be believed or the institution may support the perpetrator’s denial. Even if abuse is acknowledged, a proper apology and consequences may not be forthcoming (e.g., the perpetrator may be transferred to a new position), leaving some victims with feelings of self-blame, injustice, or confusion.

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