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Emotional Abuse Often Goes Unreported by Protective Agencies, Report Says

  • Research

A lack of understanding about what constitutes emotional abuse often causes the problem to go unidentified in children referred to child protective agencies, USC researchers have found. And because of this, children are not getting the help they need for the abuse that is likely endangering their mental health and well-being.

In a study led by USC School of Social Work Professor Penelope Trickett and Associate Professor Ferol Mennen, researchers found that more than 40 percent of children referred to these protective agencies are emotionally abused but not identified as such. The reason for this, they say, is the lack of attention to, and lack of clarity about, definitions and classifications of what constitutes emotional abuse.

It is hard to know how prevalent something is when it has not been defined, Trickett said.

"Emotional abuse is defined so vaguely and, generally, it is viewed as less harmful than other forms of abuse," she added.

But when combined with other forms of maltreatment, other researchers have demonstrated convincingly that emotional abuse can often lead to more serious and long-lasting mental health consequences, the study reports.

In 2007, emotional abuse accounted for only 59,746, or 6.9 percent, of maltreatment cases reported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. For new reports of child abuse and neglect in Los Angeles County, the incidence of emotional abuse ranged from 6.6 percent to 8.5 percent of the total cases each month, with a median for the year of 7.8 percent.

For the study, published in Child Abuse & Neglect in January, the team of researchers – which also included Kihyun Kim, a 2008 Ph.D. graduate of USC School of Social Work and Jina Sang, a current Ph.D. candidate – looked at issues of definition and identification of emotional abuse.

They reviewed 303 case records of maltreated children from the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). They then abstracted information and categorized it using a framework that organized parental behavior deemed emotionally abusive into four subgroups: spurning, terrorizing, isolating and exploiting/corrupting.

Using this coding system, researchers found that almost 50 percent of the sample was found to have experienced emotional abuse in contrast to the nine percent identified at the time of deferral by DCFS.

Terrorizing was the most common type of emotional abuse identified in the case files, with 81.1 percent of the emotionally abused children experiencing it. Examples of terrorizing include parents threatening suicide, threatening a child with harm or engaging in physical acts that are particularly frightening.

Spurning was the next most common with 38.1 percent of children experiencing acts like name calling or being blamed for the problems of parents. Nearly one third of the case records revealed children being exploited or corrupted by acts like or similar to witnessing the use or purchasing of drugs, being forced into illegal activities or having to observe sexual acts.

The least common category was isolating with 13.6 percent of the children having this experience. Some examples of isolating include prohibiting phone calls or visits to family, or inappropriately confining a child.

About 63 percent of these emotionally abused children also experienced physical abuse and about 76 percent also experienced neglect.

"The importance (of this study) is it clarifies the, often extreme, nature of the emotional abuse experienced by these children, and shows how frequently it occurs, often along with other forms of abuse or neglect," Trickett said.

This is also a cause of concern because since child protective agencies seldom identify children as emotionally abused, interventions may not be aimed at the emotional abuse these children have experienced or their maltreating parents. This is especially important given the number of children who remain with maltreating parents, which in this study sample, was 54 percent.