What is Institutional Child Abuse?

From a young age, children are taught to respect adults and authority figures, especially those who are responsible for a child’s health and safety. What happens when these trusted adults use their power to take advantage of children, risk their safety, and traumatize them for years to come? When children are abused by older kids or adults outside of their households, it is considered institutional abuse. This form of abuse can take place in schools, churches, and other facilities where adults are in charge of children. For Child Abuse Prevention Month this year, let’s unravel this often overlooked form of child maltreatment and understand how we can all play a vital role in abuse prevention.


The Complexities of Institutional Abuse

Institutional abuse can encompass any form of child maltreatment, though abusers in institutional environments have historically used their status to coerce victims into sexual abuse and exploitation. Sexual abuse often occurs through a process of grooming. The abuser grooms their victim into believing they have a trustworthy, friendly, and often loving relationship. In cases of clergy abuse, the abuser may use the “Fear of God” to pressure the victim into performing sexual acts.


Child sexual abuse does not always involve physical interaction. The abuse can be described as sexual communications with a minor or “sexting,” exposing oneself in front of a minor, or masturbation in the presence of a minor. Whether or not the abuse is physical in nature, any sexual act perpetrated by an adult unto a child under 18 years old is illegal and considered abuse.


It can take many years for individuals to accept the reality of the trauma they experienced as children. As seen in the flood of lawsuits against abusive priests, teachers, and Boy Scouts leaders in the past decade, thousands of adult survivors have come forward to seek justice against these abusive institutions. Many of these cases have exposed how the institutional systems in place were designed to silence child victims and protect abusers with power.


Signs of Abuse & Traits of Abusers

For parents, family members, caregivers, coaches, faith leaders, and educators, it’s important to be able to identify the potential signs of child sexual abuse. These may include depression, withdrawal, nervousness around specific people and locations, self-harming behaviors, secretiveness, refusal to go to school or church, complaints about their genital area, and inappropriate knowledge of sexual behaviors or topics.


Child predators are masters of manipulation, and may be those who you would least expect or even trust. Knowing the statistics of child abusers and their personality traits is vital in identifying those who may be taking advantage of children. For example, sexual abusers in institutional environments are typically upstanding members of the community. They can be friendly, charming, and relatable. Predators may also use their charm in order to garner trust with victims and their families. This could mean the predator goes out of their way to infiltrate the family unit, or isolate the child from their safety net in an effort to spend alone time with them. At the end of the day, abusers will do anything in their power to get what they want, while also ensuring abuse goes unnoticed.


What We Can All Do to Stop & Prevent Abuse

It is the duty of all adults in a child’s life to be responsible for their well-being. Abuse prevention expands beyond parents to every adult present in every institution the child is a part of. Regardless of how parents work to prevent child abuse, it can still occur in the institutions that choose to sweep it under the rug. The institutions and their leaders need to step up to take responsibility for these crimes against children, and lead the charge when it comes to institutional child abuse prevention.


Schools and other organizations could start by encouraging transparency within their institution, and set core values around preventing child abuse. This could include staff trainings on child abuse awareness and mandated reporting, and implementing the reporting structures that make addressing child abuse cases easier for the victims and their families.


This month and all year round, we need to raise awareness to the issues surrounding institutional abuse in an effort to hold abusers accountable for their crimes, support survivors, and protect the futures of our children.