HomeJoin UsContact Us
Forer Institutions
Federation Supporters
Support the Federation
Healing Trauma
Legal Services
Administrative Services
Client Human Resources
Access to Record Services
Public Educator's Office

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


Survivors of child abuse in institutions and organizations have clearly identified an important social problem that has long been ignored, denied, or minimized. Their courage has forced society to face painful realities about trusted community leaders, established organizations, and cherished institutions. Despite the tendency to deny the existence and extent of child abuse in institutions and organizations, it is not surprising that society has been slow to acknowledge such acts of abuse. Until a proper understanding is achieved, most community members would seek to disavow or minimize the events because the institution in question has been sanctioned by them to serve an important and desired function. Moreover, some forms of abuse are readily disguised within the function of the institution itself, thus confusing abuse with its proper role, such as discipline, childcare, and socialization. On the other hand, the overwhelming evidence of such widespread abuses and harm to the lives of many speaks to the need for greater public understanding and action.

Although most institutional representatives and volunteers are dedicated to the well being and safety of children and youth, a small minority creates havoc in the development of children by exploiting their trust and innocence through abusive care taking relationships. Without the disclosures of survivors, this pervasive problem could not be clearly named or understood. By naming a problem we refer to society’s ability to discuss an issue openly without the survivor being blamed for breaking the comfortable silence. For example, it is not unusual for survivors of abuse by teachers or priests to be shunned or disbelieved because of the discomfort in examining the role of the perpetrator as well as the re-victimizing response of the institution. The discussion often turns to false allegations of abuse or the financial plight of institutions, rather than the long-term impact on the victim.

Much of the general public’s current understanding of child abuse that occurs in institutions and organizations is derived from high profile media reports of investigations, arrests, and court outcomes. An unfortunate consequence is that the public often is presented with a biased or incomplete picture of the circumstances surrounding institutional abuse. For example, media accounts of large monetary settlements for victims or groups of victims of institutional and organizational child abuse are commonly reported. However, to someone with little understanding of the long-term effects of such abuse, these sums of money may seem only to foster a “victim mentality” in which one’s life is put on hold in hopes of obtaining financial gain. Offending institutions, which declare that such settlements are causing them undue financial hardship that threatens their important role, or future existence, in the community, worsens this prejudice. The result can be a backlash toward survivors, who may be seen as being responsible for the troubles experienced by the institutions, rather than the institutions or perpetrators being held accountable.

A deeper understanding of this issue must include consideration of the vulnerability of children (e.g., due to age, family status, or special needs) and the overwhelming power of authority figures within these settings. In the words of a survivor consulted for this paper, “when very right people do very wrong things, it’s hard for a child to know the difference.” This understanding has implications for developing safeguards within community settings that recognize this vulnerability and power imbalance in the hands of adults. These safeguards may include better training and awareness programs for adults as well as youth, policy and protocol development for dealing with disclosures and collaborating with police and child protection services, and more responsive community agencies and justice professionals that promote safety, accountability, and healing from abuse.

To increase understanding of the problem of institutional abuse, it is also necessary to appreciate the experiences, both past and present, of survivors of abuse in institutions and organizations. For example, although survivors may seek monetary compensation for their victimization, for most it is low on their agenda. Rather, the majority of survivors who take civil action or file for compensation do so for therapeutic, rather than monetary, reasons. They want to be heard and to have their experience acknowledged as hurtful and wrong. Survivors also take civil action in an attempt to obtain the justice they feel they have been denied. In fact, survivors rarely seek civil remedies or compensation solely for monetary reasons.[i]


This paper has postulated a number of dimensions that need to be considered in understanding the nature of the abuse that occurs within institutions and the unique impact of this abuse. With respect to mental health, the assessment and treatment of survivors will require an understanding and analysis of the dimensions of abuse. Often mental health professionals are asked to assess survivors for criminal and civil court hearings. In the context of criminal hearings, a judge and/or jury may need to understand delayed disclosures and continuing contact with the abuser in some instances. This evidence may be essential to educate the court. At the sentencing stage, a thorough assessment may help the court understand the long-term impact of the abuse on all areas of functioning, such as mental health, employment, relationships, education, health, and family functioning.

It will be important for clinicians treating a survivor of institutional abuse to recognize that there are some fundamental differences between the experiences of survivors of non-institutional abuse versus institutional abuse. There may be unique effects of abuse in institutions and organizations that need to be fully addressed to assess the impact that the abuse has had on the survivor, and to ensure that the survivor receives the maximum benefit from treatment. One impact of abuse may be distrust of professionals, which can further hinder a survivor’s chance of entering and remaining in treatment. As well, prolonged criminal and civil proceedings resulting from disclosure can compound these problems and further interfere with their ability to seek help. These legal proceedings may trigger flashbacks and other trauma-related symptoms that further undermine current adjustment and family functioning.

An increased awareness of the impact of abuse in institutions and organizations will also ultimately affect how legal remedies are administered. For example, a better understanding of the broad impact of various forms of institutional abuse will help lawyers argue cases, and assist juries and judges in making more informed decisions in both criminal and civil trials. Similar to other victims of abuse or violence, survivors of abuse in this report indicated that they need more help than what is typically available, that the treatment they did receive was of insufficient length to fully address the consequences of the abuse, and the quality of care they received was not what they had anticipated. It is hoped that a greater understanding by both professionals and laypersons of the consequences of abuse in institutions and organizations will lead to legal remedies and compensation packages that are more suited to the actual needs of victims and survivors.

The legal system seeks to define tangible symptoms stemming from child abuse that can be measured in financial terms. In fact, economists and others have recently sought to measure the costs of abuse to individuals and society as a whole, such as lost income due to dropping out of or failing school, poor employment prospects, and alcohol dependency.[ii], [iii] However, it is more difficult to put a dollar value on losing faith in God and leaving the supportive environment of a church community after child abuse by a minister, as one example. Traditional formulas to determine damages, as well as pain and suffering, need to be revised to capture the profound impact of abuse by institutions and community organizations.


A further conclusion from speaking with survivors is that there is a need for broad-based education and training on the effects of abuse in institutions and organizations. Education and training needs to be directed at institutions themselves (e.g., staff, volunteers, board members), as well as community professionals that provide services to survivors. Many survivors spoke of their entire families being shunned by religious communities due to the victim’s disclosure. The majority of victims describe the legacy of their abuse being compounded by lack of intervention and prevention programs, despite their efforts to break the silence. Survivors need to see an open and genuine effort by the institution that goes beyond superficial reactions to disclosures as if they are isolated incidents.

A starting point for education would be to have institutional leaders clearly name the problem within their settings, and verbalize a commitment to redress past abuse. For example, a priest, in his Sunday homily, could discuss this painful issue and acknowledge the long-term impact on victims and their family members. Special seminars and support groups within the congregation to provide an opportunity to heal could follow this address.

Education and training also needs to be directed to front-line professionals who come in contact with survivors of institutional abuse. Many survivors require long-term assistance that goes beyond the resources or capacity of the health and mental health systems. At a time of increasing cutbacks and restraint, survivors report being unable to access meaningful interventions beyond crisis responses and medication. Many survivors describe being re-victimized by insensitive and/or untrained service professionals, who tell them simply to “get on with your life” or “put this behind you” without appreciation of the profound impact of the abuse. They experience little relief from their symptoms, and may have their difficulties compounded by misdiagnoses and improper interventions. Therefore, education and training needs to include expanded assessment and intervention strategies that more fully capture the unique nature of the abuse and the long-term consequences. Furthermore, training needs to be inter-disciplinary to ensure the collaboration necessary amongst the justice, health, mental health, social service, and education sectors.


Survivors’ trauma can be mitigated knowing that initiatives in early recognition and prevention will stem from their experiences. Many of the survivors we have spoken with are profoundly distressed on learning that their abuser has moved on to other schools or churches and continued to inflict harm on other children, even after they had disclosed their abuse. The only plausible conclusion that one can draw is that institutions lack the policies, protocols, and prevention strategies necessary to ensure the safety of children. A recent review of sexual abuse by school staff in Ontario confirms that the most common response to historical abuse was to move the perpetrator to another setting rather than assuring safety of other students. In fact, the literature in this field refers to the term “passing the trash” as a way of recognizing the inadequate response of institutions.[iv]
Steps need to be taken to prevent future instances of abuse from occurring in community institutions and organizations. The conspiracy of silence within institutions, communities and society in general must be broken. Most modern institutions have begun to take steps to prevent future occurrences of abuse by their representatives. Some examples are improved screening and supervision of staff, putting policies in place to deal with transgressions, and community awareness programs. However, much still needs to be done before our children will be safe within these organizations and institutions.

The policies that are put into place to deal with abuse in institutions and organizations must reflect an awareness of the unique nature of institutional abuse. Society is increasingly becoming aware of the deleterious effects of intrafamilial child abuse, and as a result many institutions have programs in place that are designed to prevent and detect abuse. Some of these same institutions also treat victims and survivors of abuse in either an official (e.g., mental health facilities, Family and Children’s Services) or unofficial capacity, by providing support and guidance to victims (e.g., children from chaotic families often look to other adults in their life for the love and stability they lack at home).

Dealing with institutional abuse becomes problematic because it often involves individuals in positions of trust, power and authority – the very individuals we rely on to protect our children from harm, and the same individuals who run the institution. The power structure within institutions may make it difficult for both children and other adults in the institution to report abuse. When the abuse is reported, administrators are forced to balance the competing interests of the child, the alleged perpetrator, and the institution. All too often, the rights and well being of the child are eclipsed by the broad ramifications of the allegations on the institution. Even as society comes to recognize the seriousness and long-term consequences of abuse, most people are more comfortable viewing perpetrators as strangers rather than trusted adults. This disproportionate attention to strangers does not reflect the reality that the majority of perpetrators of physical and sexual abuse outside of the family are persons with significant roles in community institutions and organizations providing services for children and their families.


i. Feldthusen, B., Hankivsky, O., & Greaves, L. (2000). Therapeutic consequences of civil actions for damages and compensation claims by victims of sexual abuse. Canadian Journal of Women and Law, 12, 66-116.

ii. McKenna, K., Bowlus, A., & Day, T. (2001). The economic costs and consequences of child abuse. Final report submitted to the Law Commission of Canada, Ottawa, ON.

iii. MacMillan, R. 2000 Adolescent victimization and income deficits in adulthood: Rethinking the costs of criminal violence from a life-course perspective. Criminology, 38, 553-588.

iv. Protecting our Students, supra note 2.

<< Table of Contents                Summary and Conclusions >

© Copyright 2003 Internations' Justice Federation