Mothers, fathers top list of perpetrators for emotional and physical abuse of children

A study by University of Malta researchers on child abuse makes some disturbing observations on how we are dealing with this problem. KURT SANSONE leafed through the findings

Key study findings: 

• Educators rank third as most common perpetrators for physical abuse 

• Sex abuse in adolescence prevalently committed by partners 

• Under-reporting of child abuse suggests situation is more critical than believed 

• Victims want more serious legal consequences for abusers 

• Professionals call for stricter inclusion of perpetrators on the sex abuse register

Mothers and fathers were found to be the most commonly reported perpetrators in cases of physical and emotional abuse of children, university researchers have found. 

The second most common perpetrators of physical and emotional abuse are siblings and other relatives, whereas educators rank third. 

The broad study carried out by the Faculty for Social Wellbeing at the University of Malta also found that child sex abuse cases, strangers, other relatives and partners, were the most commonly mentioned perpetrators by victims. 

There was “a stronger prevalence” in adolescence of sexual abuse being perpetrated by partners. 

But notwithstanding the considerable impact of child abuse, reporting and seeking support by those experiencing it is often problematic. 

The study found that amongst participants, who endured abuse as a child, only 27% sought support and 30% of these said the support received was not helpful. 

“Respondents highlighted that they wished they were supported to stop the abuse and take action, that they were understood and listened to, and that they would have received guidance when they needed it most,” the study reported. 

Data from the court’s criminal records analysed for the study exposed “overall waves of increases” in the incidence of offences of child abuse over the last decade. 

Data from Child Protection Services (CPS), showed a sharp increase between 2020 and 2021, possibly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

CPS data confirms that emotional abuse, followed by physical abuse, is often found to be the most frequently occurring type of abuse, irrespective of the child’s gender. But the data also confirmed that individuals often experience various forms of abuse. 

But professionals interviewed for the survey also noted that child abuse is often under-reported. “The true picture might be even more critical than what we are currently aware of.” 

Among other issues raised, the need for social workers and social services to be more present was pointed out. The need for additional support in schools to be able to speak out and seek support was also underlined by study participants. 

More serious consequences for abusers 

But those polled for the study and others who participated in focus groups, emphasised the need for more serious legal consequences for abusers and more protection for victims by the police. 

Discussions with professionals working with perpetrators of child abuse also shed light on the nature and volume of clients that these encounter in their professional capacity. 

Professionals noted that only a few magistrates mandate a treatment programme or therapy as part of a perpetrator’s rehabilitation, thus failing to give support and an adequate chance of rehabilitation. 

“A lacuna in the provision of a structured treatment programme or protocol at a national level was also observed, together with a significant lack of coordination across services for perpetrators,” the study recorded. 

Another shortcoming highlighted by professionals interviewed for the study was a lack of monitoring of a perpetrator’s progress throughout their sentence unless this is specifically assigned by court. 

Professionals also called for stricter inclusion of perpetrators on the sex abuse register and a wider application of it by organisations that employ people who will come in contact with children. 

The findings shed light on possible improvements to the current scenario when it comes to safeguarding children, with researchers recommending better identification of the factors that increase vulnerability to child abuse. 

Researchers also called for a better understanding of the factors that lead to the neglect of children within Maltese communities. 

They also noted the need to identify barriers that prevent individuals from seeking help and urged greater collaboration and coordination between different agencies when dealing with child abuse and neglect. 

Researchers also called for practical parenting programmes for vulnerable mothers of preschool children and those attending early years education, and education through non-blaming and non-shaming media campaigns aimed at parents and carers vulnerable to abusive behaviour. 

“Ultimately, timely and effective action and assistance to those persons who have experienced abuse and neglect is what is needed above all,” the researchers concluded. 

The study entitled Protecting Our Children - Exploring And Preventing Child Abuse was conducted by researchers from the Faculty for Social Wellbeing of the University of Malta. It consisted of a quantitative survey, focus groups with adults, children and professionals, and analysis of data obtained from agencies that work with children and the courts. 

The project was carried out following consultation with the Malta Safeguarding Commission and was supported by Bank of Valletta. 

The researchers who worked on the project are: Prof. Andrew Azzopardi, dean, Faculty for Social Wellbeing, who was project manager; Dr Roberta Attard, principal investigator; and research support officers, Olga Formosa, Graziella Vella, and Annabel Cuff.