Peer abuse as child abuse and indications for intervention in schools

Children Schools Child welfare Bullying Australia

In defining either peer abuse or the more commonly acknowledged abuse of children by adults the similarities are far more noteworthy than the differences writes Dr. Jean B. Healey. There is a strong correlation between peer abuse and other forms of abuse in terms of the types of behaviours exhibited, their impact, outcomes and to some extent prevalence and in this regard it can be clearly demonstrated that peer abuse should be considered a form of child abuse. Part of the problem is the uncertainty of the parameters of definitions of child abuse. (National Research Council,1993) including uncertainty about whether to define abuse on the basis of adult characteristics and behaviour. It is no longer possible to utilise traditional parameters of sexual, physical, emotional abuse and neglect (Tomison,1997). The abuse spectrum has been expanded recently to incorporate more particular types of abusive behaviour including paedophilia in church and educational institutions, internet child pornography, systems abuse related to welfare interventions and ritual or satanic abuse (James, 2000). Nevertheless, bullying or peer abuse has not yet been considered for inclusion in the child abuse spectrum despite being far more prevalent than some of the behaviours recently incorporated. There has been a failure on the part of teachers to adequately assess the seriousness of the problem of peer abuse (Besag, 1989; Healey 2002a; Smith, 1994) and this seems to indicate that it should be incorporated into the legal procedures and professional processes established for protection of children and include consultation with other professionals. Teachers often do not interpret bullying behaviours as 'abusive' but as 'conflict'. However, 'conflict' constitutes mutually aggressive interactions between peers, not the abuse of one individual at the hands of another, more powerful, individual. It is a reasonable proposition that many aggressive interactions between peers result from the domination of one child by another in unequal and abusive situations. Consequently, in such cases where teachers become aware that students are being consistently harmed or harassed by a peer, and therefore reasonable grounds are established for abuse, the behaviour ought to be notified under the mandated legislative procedures for protection. This paper briefly examines the current discourse about child protection, data describing peer abuse and statistical information in relation to documented child abuse, and discusses the appropriateness of proposed interventions. Professional issues related to mandatory notification and the implementation of child protection legislative provisions are then explored as a means of addressing peer abuse on a more formal protective level.

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