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Abused children become youths who take risks

Children subjected to abuse lead more dangerous lives as teenagers. They try alcohol and drugs more often than other young people, as well as attempting to steal and resorting to violence against others. They also have more self-destructive behaviour, as shown in a dissertation in paediatric psychiatry.

Annerbäck.Child abuse is common in Sweden, despite hitting children having been against the law for over 30 years. One in every seven children has been abused, in almost every case by a parent. A year ago, the first results were shown in a study in which more than 8,494 students in Sörmland participated. The children covered by the questionnaire attend either junior high school or high school.

“Child abuse is a poorly researched field in Sweden,” says Eva-Maria Annerbäck, psychotherapist and post-graduate student, who conducted the study. She is now defending her thesis in paediatric psychiatry at the Linköping University Faculty of Health Sciences.

“We thought perhaps that we’d solved the problem with the prohibition on corporal punishment of children that became law in 1979.

The number of police reports on child abuse, however, increased tremendously in the 1980s and afterwards. But this mostly shows that the willingness to file a police report increased, while child abuse itself decreased from the 1960s onwards. The decrease seems to have halted, as shown by studies from 2006 and later.

Abused children have poorer health and take bigger risks as youths. Annerbäck can show a strong connection between having been abused as a child and using tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs, as well as taking sexual risks and stealing as a teenager. These children subject others to violence and hurt themselves to a greater extent than others. 70 percent of youths with self-destructive behaviour have been subjected to some form of assault. They fare worse both physically and mentally.

In Annerbäck’s study, only seven percent of abused children told an authority (school, social services, the police, etc.) about the abuse. 93 percent belong to the so-called ‘hidden’ cases.

Most child abusers also go free. Very few are convicted. Of the cases reported to police – which are a small minority in any case – only ten percent are convicted where a younger child is involved, and 14 percent for older children (aged seven and above), according to BRÅ, the National Council for Crime Prevention.

“As with all crimes that occur in the home, the condition of proof is difficult,” Annerbäck says. Often it’s just one person’s word against another.

And the punishments are slight. Minor abuse is often simply fined. Moreover, there is no alternative punitive sanction in the form of therapy for perpetrators – something that should be desirable.

She has constructed a model with four groups of factors that covary in child abuse – that is, if one or more of these factors are present, the risk of child abuse is greater. Among these factors are: generally violent behaviour towards the offender (58 percent of abused children also experience violence between their parents), joblessness and illness, an insufficient social network, and poor health in the children. A handicapped child, or one that acts out violently, runs a greater risk of being abused.

“These factors can function as a model in inquiries,” Annerbäck says. “It can help social service staff to know what to look for when a report of child abuse comes in.

The best way of preventing child abuse is to dare to talk about it,” she concludes.

“Bring up the prohibition against corporal punishment and the Children’s Convention in school; talk about children’s rights. Inform people of it and discuss it when immigrants come to the country, or in health care.”

Text: Anika Agebjörn



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Last updated: 2012-12-10