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



David A. Wolfe
The University of Western Ontario

Peter G. Jaffe
Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System
of the London Family Court Clinic

Jennifer L. Jetté
Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System
of the London Family Court Clinic

Samantha E. Poisson
Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System
of the London Family Court Clinic

In recent years, Canada and many other countries have witnessed numerous well-publicized accounts of child abuse occurring within the context of residential facilities, schools, churches and other community organizations. Reports such as Restoring Dignity[i] published by the Law Commission of Canada and Protecting Our Students: A Review to Identify and Prevent Sexual Misconduct in Schools[ii]published by the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General give us some sense of magnitude of the problem and highlight the importance of increasing our understanding of the issues relevant to children abused within institutions.

Canada is only one of many countries searching for an understanding of and possible solution to this public concern. For example, The Forde Inquiry, a commission of inquiry into the abuse of children in Queensland, published by the State of Queensland, Australia; and People Like Us: The Report of the Review of the Safeguards for Children Living Away from Home, published by the government of England reflect the recent world-wide attention drawn to this far-reaching issue. The fundamental goals of these reports are similar: to gain a better understanding of the causes and consequences of child abuse in institutions and organizations in order to reduce the likelihood of future instances of abuse and to address the needs of survivors of past abuse.

Every week the Canadian media features articles on abuse of Aboriginal children in residential schools years ago, or recent incidents of abuse in churches and schools. Although professionals as well as the general public cannot ignore this social issue, there remains a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding about the problem. There are some who are sceptical and would believe that these allegations are motivated by financial rewards for the accusers and their lawyers. Others question whether acts of abuse committed long ago warrant such public recognition. There are still others who have difficulty believing that trusted institutions, such as governments and churches, could have even committed these atrocities in the first place. While this debate continues in the public and professional forums, former victims await justice. Nothing short of full acknowledgement of the harm, accompanied by resources to assist their healing, will ensure this justice. [iii]

This paper is intended to move the public debate forward by examining what is known about child abuse that occurs within a range of community institutions and organizations. Because of the paucity of research on this emerging issue, our analysis is based on a review of the existing literature on child abuse, documented reports of survivors, and our own clinical experience in assessing the impact of abuse for both criminal and civil courts. We also consulted with a panel consisting of survivors of institutional abuse and professionals, including lawyers, mental health professionals, policy makers, and researchers. The outcome of this collaborative effort is a conceptual framework that we hope will create the foundation for a more advanced understanding of the unique impact of this form of abuse and the implications for intervention and public policy. Similar to the professional evolution of our understanding of woman abuse, the inception of this work is grounded in the voices of survivors who have increased our understanding by sharing their experiences and knowledge.


i. Law Commission of Canada (2000). Restoring Dignity: Responding to Child Abuse in Canadian Institutions. Minister of Public Works and Government Services. [hereinafter Restoring Dignity]

ii. Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General (2000). Protecting our students: A Review to identify and prevent sexual misconduct in Ontario Schools. Queens Printer for Ontario. [hereinafter Protecting our Students]

iii. Globe & Mail (July 7, 2001). The Unpaid Bills for the Residential Schools, p. A12.

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