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Emotional maltreatment in young Canadians: results of the second incidence study of reported child abuse and neglect (CIS-2)


Background. Emotional maltreatment (EM) is a major public health issue. Yet it remains a little known problem within the overall population and the social services network. Generally encountered incidents include both acts of commission and omission, either direct or indirect which, according to professional, scientific and community agencies, harm a child's psychological integrity both in the short or more long term: terror, intimidation, denigration, blame, criticism, favoritism, isolation, emotional neglect, as well as exposure to violent, deviant and alienating ways of life. The problem is associated with various other forms of maltreatment (Hart & Brassard, 1991) and is in all likelihood the most prevalent form of child maltreatment (Finkelhor & al, 2005). The parameters for assessing the gravity of incidences are: the severity, frequency, chronicity/ recurrence of the situations, the co-occurrence of other forms of maltreatment as well as the observed and marked impact on child functioning. Emotional maltreatment affects all areas in a child's development and can be observed right into adulthood (Chamberland & al, 2005; Finzi-Dottan & Karu, 2006; Hart, Brassard, Binggeli & Davidson, 2002; Schneider, Ross, Graham & Zielinski, 2005).

The effects of maltreatment on adult mental health reveal themselves in two manners: the activation of primitive defences in reaction to traumatic situations and the inhibition of mechanisms of resilience as victimisation of this type compromises childhood develop­ment in terms of a positive image of self and others and of effective coping strategies.

Method. The data presented in this paper are taken from a secondary analysis of the second cycle of the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect (CIS-2003) (Trocmé & al, 2005). Approximately 12,000 reported cases were investiga­ted by some 1,000 social workers in 55 Canadian youth protection agencies. Data collected provide an estimate of maltreatment cases for close to 220,000 reported cases (annual and regional weighted data). Information gathered makes it possible to document: various forms of maltreatment, childhood functioning and parental psychosocial and socio-economic characteristics, the number of retained cases, chronicity, frequency of maltreatment and responses by Canadian youth protection agencies (reported cases, investigations, referrals to services and programs). Forms of maltreatment more specifically addressed in the research are emotional neglect (EN) and emotional abuse (EA). Bivariate analyses (Chi-square test, analysis of variance) and multivariate analyses (logistic regression with weighted sample) were conducted in order to examine the factors that best predict the probability that a child will be the victim of either form of emotional maltreatment, whether separate or co-occurring with other forms of abuse. Groups compared are the following: EN vs. EA; EN and EA vs. other forms of maltreatment (physical and sexual abuse and physical, educational and parental neglect; EN and EA with or without other forms of maltreatment).

Key findings. Analyses focus on: the severity of the problems; the increase in the rate of emotional maltreatment (EM) observed from the first study in 1998 to the second study in 2003; the co-occurrence of other forms of maltreatment; child functioning; family, social and economic risk factors; response by youth protection agencies. Primarily, the rate of EM more than tripled from 1998 to 2003. Findings indicate that, in general, forms of emotional maltreatment (EM) are equally if not more of a concern than habitual forms of maltreatment: more emotional harm and cases are more chronic; more cognitive, psychological and behavioural problem's child functionning; more parent's personal and social problems (alccol/drug addiction, domestic violence, mental health problem); more social isolation and precarious life conditions (especially for EN cases); more open cases and more references to other services.

Practitioners have notably observed that these types of abuse are more chronic. Children have been the victims of increased emotional abuse requiring treatment and have displayed more functioning problems: anxiety/depression, school absenteeism; drug abuse, risky behaviour. In addition, parents suffer more from adult issues: history of maltreatment, drug abuse, domestic violence and mental health problems. Cases of EN appear to be more severe followed by cases of EA. However, the issues of grave concern are those observed when other forms of maltreatment co-occur with EM. Practitioners from the health, mental health and social services network report more cases of EN whereas the police and schools are more involved in reported cases of EA. The discussion will address the following issues: the complex screening process, multiple family dynamics, the necessity of traumatic impact intervention, access by children to their significant people and, finally, the importance of network intervention in response to complex family needs. Recommandations will addressed these issues: need for clarity about the definitions of EM; access to mental health services for children and parents; differential response when children are exposed to terrorizing, hostile/rejecting or indifferent environments; and finally the relevance of collaboration between protection services and adult and child services.

Key references

Chamberland, C., Laporte, L., et al. (2005). Psychological Maltreatment of Children Reported to Youth Protection Services: A Situation of Grave Concern. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 5(1), 65-94.

Finkelhor, D., Ormrod, R. K., Turner, H. A., & Hamby, S. L. (2005). Measuring poly-victimization using the Juvenile Victimization Questionnaire. Child Abuse & Neglect, 29(11), 1297-1312.

Finzi-Dottan, R., & Karu, T. (2006). From Emotional abuse in childhood to Psychopathology in adulthood. A path mediated by immature defense mechanisms and self esteem. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 194(8), 616-621.

Hart, S. N., Brassard, M. R., Binggeli, N. J., & Gavidson, H. A (2002). Psychological Maltreatment. In E. B. Meyers (Ed.), The APSAC Handbook on Child Maltreatment (pp. 79-103). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.

Schneider, M. W., Ross, A., Graham, J. C., & Zielinski, A. (2005). Do allegations of emotional maltreatment predict developmental outcomes beyond that of others forms of maltreatment? Child Abuse and Neglect, 29, 513-532.

Contacts: Claire Chamberland, École de service social, Université de Montréal, C.P. 6128, succ. Centre-ville, Montréal, QC H3C 3J7, Canada, claire.chamberland@umontreal.ca Phone 514 343-7735.


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