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


On March 23, 2000, Parliament received the first report of the Law Commission of Canada: "Restoring Dignity - Responding to Child Abuse in Canadian Institutions". The report examined a range of possible processes to address the human consequences of child physical and sexual abuse that took place in institutions run or funded by governments. It was the culmination of two years of research and consultation concerning the types of reparations required to redress the harms suffered in the past by children in institutions.

In an effort to promote research initiatives in line with its general recommendations, the Law Commission developed several projects in partnership with various organizations: the economic costs and consequences of child abuse, engaging urban Aboriginal survivors, an educational video and workshop, and improving public and professional understanding.

The project on improving public and professional understanding was developed in recognition that, although the public is aware of the issue of institutional abuse, and professionals, in particular mental health and legal professionals who deal with survivors, there is not a great deal of familiarity with the particular circumstances of survivors, the challenges they face, and their special needs in seeking redress and healing. To help bridge this knowledge gap, the Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System of the London Family Court Clinic examined the long-term impact of institutional child abuse as a means of raising awareness amongst legal and mental health professionals who work with survivors of institutional abuse. The goals of the paper are to define institutional child abuse in a way that recognizes the diverse institutional and organizational settings within which child abuse occurs, contribute to an understanding of child abuse in institutions and organizations, examine the risk factors associated with child abuse in organizations and institutions, and consider prevention and treatment options.

In addition to reviewing the literature on the long-term effects of child abuse, the authors review documented reports of child abuse, refer to their own clinical experience, and discuss results from a panel of survivors of institutional abuse and professionals (e.g., lawyers, mental health professionals, policy makers and researchers).

A primary concern for the authors is the need to expand our definition of institutional child abuse, which has traditionally focused on residential or educational facilities, to consider abuse within other community organizations and social institutions, such as sport and recreational organizations and various community-based service agencies. The authors believe that it is no longer useful to conceptualize institutional abuse solely within the ‘total institution’ or residential school environment. Instead, they argue the definition of institutional child maltreatment must consider that, in contemporary terms, abuse occurs in various community-based social institutions. As the authors note, “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.”

A barrier to understanding child abuse in institutions and organizations is the limited research on issues associated with this form of maltreatment. Therefore, to better understand the impact of institutional and organizational abuse, the authors examine the considerable literature on the consequences of intrafamilial abuse. In general, victims of this form of abuse might experience a range of cognitive and emotional distresses or dysfunctions that impact upon their development and mental health – symptoms that may persist into adulthood. These consequences of intrafamilial abuse are, in many respects, relevant to all victims of abuse, including victims of institutional and organizational abuse.

At the same time, however, the limited literature on the long-term impacts of institutional child abuse reveal a variety issues and themes particular to this form of maltreatment. From this, the authors identify several common consequences that have been reported by survivors of institutional abuse: loss of trust and fear of intimacy, shame, guilt and humiliation, fear of or disrespect for authority, avoidance of reminders of their abusive experience (e.g., avoid the social institution in which the abuse occurred) and vicarious trauma (e.g., those close to the victim experience vicarious abuse symptoms). In many respects, victims of institutional abuse have to deal with the impact of the abuse as well as the betrayal of the social institution within which the abuse occurred.

The report also examines the unique factors that influence the impact or degree of harm associated with child abuse in community institutions and organizations. Factors such as the significance of the institution to society, the role of the perpetrator within the institution (e.g., teacher, minister), the extent of the child’s involvement with the organization, whether the child’s involvement with the institution was voluntary or mandatory, and the circumstances following the abuse (e.g., whether or not a full apology for the act was offered by the institution) are among the factors that contribute to the risk of abuse occurring, as well as to the nature and extent of the post-victimization harm. These factors, the authors argue, will vary according to the type of institution or organization in which the maltreatment occurred (e.g., educational facilities, religious and spiritual organizations, sporting, cultural and recreational organizations, and special needs facilities).

Overall, the authors argue for a continued reflection on the long-term effects of institutional child abuse and the unique factors associated with this form of maltreatment. This includes an understanding of the vulnerability of children, the overwhelming power of those charged with the care of children in institutional and organizational settings, and the structure of organizations and institutions where abuse occurs.

To facilitate a better understanding, the authors recommend special education and training materials for mental health practitioners, criminal justice officials, community professionals, institutions, and the general public. Training and education will assist in naming the problem of institutional and organizational child abuse and acknowledging the importance of prevention initiatives and policies that recognize the unique nature of this form of maltreatment. In this respect, the authors hope the report will provide the foundation for informed dialogue amongst mental health professionals, lawyers and other professionals whose clients are adult survivors of institutional and organizational abuse.

The report of the Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System of the London Family Court Clinic acknowledges the Law Commission’s recommendation from its report on institutional child abuse that officials responsible for redress processes should have special training or experience with protocols for assisting survivors. It also echoes the Law Commission’s belief that, in addition to specific programs designed to meet the needs of survivors, it is crucial to establish programs of public education and to continue to develop and revise protocols and other prevention strategies. At the same time, however, the Law Commission continues to promote its interest in addressing the systemic causes of institutional and organizational child abuse, and encouraging alternative and community initiatives as a significant means of redressing institutional child abuse and ensuring that victims, their families and the community are involved in the response process.

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