It is easy to assume that children’s injuries come from horseplay, sports games, or at worst bullying. There are other, more terrible, possibilities. Sometimes the injuries are the result of abuse from a parent or caregiver. These individuals are not as easy to run away from as a bully and this type of abuse is particularly harmful because it has emotional as well as physical impacts. Parents and caregivers should be the ones that children run to when they are hurt or bullied but, for too many children, mom or dad are the bullies.
According to the Department of Justice Canada, “physical abuse is the intentional use of force against a child. It can cause physical pain, injury, or injury that may last a lifetime.” This type of abuse includes:
- pushing or shoving
- hitting, slapping or kicking
- strangling or choking
- pinching or punching
- throwing an object at a child
- excessive or violent shaking
Child Abuse and the Law
In 1991, Canada signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention lays out the basic rights of children including the right to protection from harmful influences, abuse, and exploitation. By ratifying this convention, Canada has promised to protect and ensure children’s rights as they are laid out in the convention. Canada has taken a number of steps to help better prevent child physical abuse. Provisions in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Criminal Code, and provincial and territorial child welfare legislation all aim to better protect victims and apprehend and punish abusers.
Although the Criminal Code indicates that assaulting (punching, hitting, kicking, slapping) an individual is a crime, there is another section of the Criminal Code that provides an exception. Section 43 of the Criminal Code, also known as the ‘spanking section’ states that:
“Every schoolteacher, parent or person standing in the place of a parent is justified in using force by way of correction toward a pupil or child, as the case may be, who is under his care, if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.”
Section 43 is limited to certain circumstances in which reasonable force may be used when it is connected to the caregiver’s duties to the child. Section 43 may be a defense to a charge of assault in limited cases if the caregiver has used reasonable force. Despite the controversy caused by this section, in 2004 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled to keep it in the Criminal Code claiming that taking it out would result in too many cases of alleged assault. For example, physically restraining a child from running across a street may be necessary for their safety but could result in a charge without a law such as Section 43. At this time of this ruling, the Court clarified Section 43 with the following:
- The person may only use force to correct a child if it will help the child learn. The person can never use force in anger.
- The child must be between two-years old and twelve-years old.
- The person can only use reasonable force and its impact can only be “transitory and trifling.” (causes little or no pain, and does not leave marks on the child).
- The person must not use an object, such as a ruler or belt, to apply the force.
- The person must not hit or slap the child’s face or head.
- The seriousness of what happened or what the child did is not relevant to how much force is used in discipline.
Identifying Physical Abuse
Recognizing and identifying the signs is the first step towards eliminating child physical abuse. If you know of a child exhibiting some of these signs, report it to the authorities. It is your job, as members of society, to help and protect other society members, especially when they are children and unable to defend themselves. The following are some common signs that a child is being abused:
- Has unexplained bruises, cuts, burns, scars, sprains or broken bones
- Has frequent “accidents” with questionable explanations
- Wears clothing to purposely conceal injury, i.e. long sleeves
- Avoids physical contact with others or complains of pain upon movement or contact
- Shows major changes in behaviour or increased social problems at school
- Plays aggressively, often hurting peers
- Has difficulty getting along with others or little respect for others
- Is overly compliant, withdrawn, gives in readily and allows others to do for him/her without protest
- Is apprehensive when other children cry
- Has exposure to family violence
- Seems frightened by parents
- Comes early to school, seems reluctant to go home afterwards
- Runs away from home and does not want to return
- Is repeatedly sick
- Is often late or absent from school
- Has sudden weight loss or weight gain
A caregiver may also show signs that make you suspicious they are abusing a child. The following are some examples:
- Shows a lack of concern for the child, takes a dismissive approach to the child’s problems or does not respond appropriately to child’s pain
- Uses, or asks others to use, harsh punishment if the child misbehaves
- Explanations of injuries to child are evasive and inconsistent or blames child for injuries
- Takes child to different physicians or hospital for each injury
- Sees the child as worthless, entirely bad, or burdensome
- Has inappropriate expectations in relation to the developmental stage of the child or is overly critical of the child
- Looks primarily to the child for care, attention, and satisfaction of emotional needs
- Is easily upset, have a low tolerance for frustration
- Is antagonistic, suspicious and fearful of other people
- Is socially isolated, no supporting network of relatives or friends
Effects of Child Abuse on Children
The effects of child physical abuse are different for every child and depend on the following factors:
- Severity of the abuse: how hard a child is struck and the implement used to strike the child are both factors in the effects however, child abuse injures both physically and emotionally.
- Frequency of the abuse: generally, the more often it occurs, the greater impact on the child
- Age of the child at the time of abuse: the younger the child the greater the impact, as it leaves a greater imprint. Abuse will have a greater impact if it continues throughout the child’s life.
- Child’s relationship to the abuser: If the child is close to the abuser, there is a great sense of betrayal.
- Child’s ability to cope: The child may try to cover their hurt by being outgoing or ‘the class clown’, the child may also internalize or externalize their emotions and either become withdrawn or act out for no apparent reason.
- Availability of support persons: If there is no one to turn to, the child feels abandoned.
Child physical abuse can affect many different aspects of the child’s life, both at the time of the abuse and long-term. The consequences may be physical, psychological, behavioral, academic, sexual, interpersonal, self-perceptional, or spiritual. Effects may also differ depending on the nature of the case; was it solved and was the abuser apprehended or does it remain hidden? In the most serious cases, some of these effects may be fatal.
Gender also plays a role in the effects of physical abuse. Girls tend to internalize, and are more prone to low self esteem, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, or other psychological disorders. Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to externalize by becoming more aggressive and violent towards others. Studies have shown that boys who experienced abuse at a young age are more likely to be violent in both adolescence and adulthood than those who did not experience violence at a young age.
Reporting Child Abuse
There are various reasons why people do not report child abuse. They may not want to get involved in others’ family matters; have personal views which condone the use of physical punishment; believe that the abuse is not serious; believe that reporting the abuse to the authorities is not in the child’s best interest; believe that reporting may not solve the problem because, for example, there may be a lack of appropriate services to help the child; lack knowledge about the signs and symptoms of abuse; not understand their responsibility to report abuse; not know where they can report; not know that a report can be made anonymously; and not know that there are no legal consequences, unless the report is false and is made maliciously.
Each province and territory has its own child protection regulations and organizations that oversee these policies. If you suspect a child is being abused, please contact the authorities in your province or your local police.
If you have further questions about your duty to report, please see our Duty to Report Abuse page.
Preventing Child Abuse
There is limited data as to how widespread child physical abuse is in Canada; many cases are never reported. Sometimes the child is too young to be able to go to anyone for help, other times the children may have been coerced or threatened by the abuser and are too afraid. As for witnesses, they may not believe the abuse is serious enough, or believe that is even abuse at all. Other times, people just do not want to get involved in other people’s business. If child abuse is to be eliminated, however, then the public needs to step up and be more aware of what is going on around them. If an individual sees the signs and suspects that a child is a victim of physical abuse, then the authorities need to be notified. The Canadian government has strengthened the laws and legislation regarding child abuse, creating child-specific offences in the Criminal Code and ensuring that sentencing provisions are appropriate to better protect children.
Other strategies to help prevent child physical abuse include:
Education: Educating children of their rights and educating the public about child abuse, how to recognize the signs, and how to prevent and report it.
Professional Development and Resources: Providing specialized training to the professionals that may come into contact with abused children, teachers, judges, police, lawyers, child-care workers, etc.
Support: Strong support services help the victims and treatment programs for the abusers help both the victim and the abuser to get their lives back on track.
Research/Data/Information Sharing: National research regarding types of child abuse, frequency, and support services will help to better combat child physical abuse and support the victims.
Child physical abuse statistics may be limited, but there is no doubt that it exists in our society. Child physical abuse is an abuse of power. A caregiver’s responsibility is to care for and protect children, not to harm and abuse them.
The government has made changes to, and is continuing to improve, Canadian legislation concerning child abuse in the hopes that more abusers are apprehended and punished and more children are protected and supported. However, no child can get help if the abuse is not reported. As the children are often too young and incapable to protect themselves, it is our duty to be aware of the signs and, if we recognize that a child is a victim of physical abuse, it is up to us to protect and help them by informing local authorities.
Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal. (2011). Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved from http://cwrp.ca/faqs March 2, 2015.
Child Abuse Effects. (2014).Physical Child Abuse Effects. Retrieved from http://www.child-abuse-effects.com/physical-child-abuse-effects.html March 2, 2015.
Coalition for Children. (2011). Recognizing Physical Abuse. Retrieved from http://www.safechild.org/new/2011/12/06/recognizing-physical-abuse/ March 2, 2015.
Criminal Code. (2016). Retrieved from http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-46/ September 30, 2016.
Department of Justice. (2004). Child Abuse: A Fact Sheet from the Department of Justice Canada. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/Collection/J2-295-2002E.pdf February 27, 2015.
Department of Justice. (2015).The Criminal and Managing Children’s Behaviour. Retrieved from http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/cj-jp/fv-vf/mcb-cce/index.html March 2, 2015.
Helpguide.org. (2015) Child Abuse and Neglect: Recognizing, Preventing, and Reporting Child Abuse Retrieved from http://helpguide.org/mental/child_abuse_physical_emotional_sexual_neglect.htm March 3, 2015.
UNICEF. (2014). Convention on the Rights of the Child. Retrieved from http://www.unicef.org/crc/ March 3, 2015.