Legal and Social Issues Research Lab

APA 2004


Cross-cultural definitions and explanations for the etiology of child maltreatment
Katherine Lau, M. Alexis Kennedy & Boris. B. Gorzalka

            While child maltreatment is a worldwide problem, actual cross-cultural information is limited (Behl, Crouch, May, Valente, & Conyngham, 2001; Korbin, 1991). The term child maltreatment covers many topics, including neglect, physical, emotional and sexual abuse.  Ideally,distinguishing abusive behaviour from acceptable child rearing practices should be simple and easily translatable across cultures. However, the line between acceptable and abusive behaviour is not clear in homogeneous societies and becomes even less clear when compared cross-culturally. The lack of a cross-cultural definition of child abuse prevents the creation of universal standards for child rearing (Korbin, 1991). Without universal agreement, efforts to define and describe preferred child rearing practices are inevitably ethnocentric (D'Antonio, Darwish, & McLean, 1993).

            Jill Korbin and her colleagues (2000) recently conducted a study on laypeople's definitions of abuse. They also explored explanations for the etiology of abusive behaviour.  The present research sought to duplicate this methodology among an ethnically diverse sample.

            The research was conducted at a large Canadian university. Over 600 participants completed a questionnaire on child abuse.  Their self reported ethnicities included the following: European descent (n = 177); Chinese descent (n = 309); Southeast Asian descent (n = 41); Indo-Asian descent (n = 32); Afro-Caribbean descent (n = 2); Middle Eastern or North African descent (n = 8); Hispanic descent (n = 6); First Nations or North American Aboriginal descent (n = 9); 17 reported ethnic heritages that included more than one of the groups mentioned above.  Participants were asked in an open-ended manner, "Please name three things that you would consider to be child abuse and neglect." The responses were coded based on Korbin's six summary maltreatment variables: physical abuse, neglect, inadequate supervision, emotional/verbal maltreatment, sexual abuse and parents' misbehaviour.  Most of the responses given by the participants fell into these categories.  To collect information on the perceived etiology of child maltreatment, participants were asked to rate 13 items on a scale adopted from the research by Korbin and colleagues.  Participants rated on a scale of 1 (contributes nothing) to 10 (contributes a lot) how much they thought that each factor contributed to child abuse and neglect. Items on this scale included unemployment, teen parents, psychological problems,lack of religion, and drugs, among others.

            The frequencies of responses given to the open ended question were similar to Korbin and colleagues' finding. Examples of physical abuse were the most frequently given responses. In contrast to their findings, however, emotional or verbal abuse items were the second most common responses provided. The coding of responses will be discussed in more detail. ANOVA comparisons of the responses selected by the different ethnic groups indicated that in the first and second response choices, the groups did not vary from each other.  For the third response given, there was a significant effect for ethnicity, F(4, 559) = 2.546, p<.05.  Overall however, across cultures, an overwhelming majority reported physical abuse as their first response, emotional and verbal abuse for their second response, and neglect as their third response. Despite media coverage and a growing awareness about sexual victimization, sexual abuse was not frequently cited.

            When considering the 13 etiology factors presented as possibly contributing to child abuse and neglect, five items varied by ethnic group. The significantly different factors included stress, lack of family values, poverty, divorce and lack of religion. These differences will be presented in more detail. Clinical implications for these cultural differences will also be discussed.