Child Abuse Prevention Month: Institutional Abuse and Its Impact on Children

Child Abuse Prevention Month marks an important time to discuss childhood abuse, how it shapes children’s lives, and what parents and communities can do to be active partners in prevention. One form of child abuse that is often overlooked is institutional abuse, which is an area of abuse that takes place outside of a child’s immediate home environment. Preventing institutional abuse and bringing an end to all forms of child maltreatment starts with having important conversations and raising public awareness.

Understanding Institutional Abuse

Institutional child abuse occurs when an adult or leader of the institution takes advantage of a child, usually in the form of sexual abuse. The abuse takes place in environments outside of the child’s household. These include sports teams, clubs, religious groups, schools, youth group homes, and other facilities or activities responsible for a child’s care.

Prior to committing the abuse, perpetrators may use tactics to establish a relationship with their victim on the foundation of friendship and trust. In order to preserve an even greater image of trust, abusers typically establish a cordial relationship with their victim’s family as well. The abuser may spend time at the victim’s house, offer to drive the victim to and from practice or school, and find other ways to infiltrate the victim’s support systems or spend extended periods of alone time with the child. In many cases of child grooming, the child is often manipulated by their abuser into thinking the abuser cares about or even loves them.

As the victims grow up, it can take years to come to terms with the physical abuse and psychological turmoil they were subjected to. Long-term effects of childhood abuse can vary, but include substance abuse or misuse, and the development of mental disorders, like post-traumatic stress disorder. Adult survivors may relive their trauma for decades following the abuse. Many struggle with the fact that their perpetrators may not have been held accountable for the crimes they committed.

Recognizing the Red Flags

In an effort to protect children from enduring sexual abuse at the hands of predators and the institutions that protect them, parents and individuals in these childcare environments need to be able to identify the behavioral signs of childhood sexual abuse. These characteristics include bedwetting, nightmares, becoming quiet or withdrawn, inappropriate sexual behavior or knowledge, and developing new or irrational fears of people or places.

It’s just as important to be able to recognize potential perpetrators. Child abusers are calculated and manipulative, so it can be difficult to detect red flags. Common characteristics of perpetrators include a lack of close family and friends, possessing poor self-esteem or self-concept, immaturity, lack of interpersonal skills, and a need for emotional connectedness.

Child maltreatment in any form is unacceptable. Empower yourselves and your communities by understanding what institutional abuse is and the implications of institutional abuse on children. Have important conversations with your children about the signs of potential abusers and open the door for continued communication if your child ever has a scary or disturbing experience with an adult they know.

The Village can also serve as a resource for children who may have endured trauma. Addressing early childhood care and encouraging healthy development can help children become strong and resilient in and outside of their homes. During Child Abuse Prevention Month and throughout the year, we can all take a stand to protect our children and their futures.