Psychology, Department of


Date of this Version

November 2006


Published in Comprehensive Handbook of Personality and Psychopathology: Volume 3, Child Psychopathology, Robert T. Ammerman, volume editor; Michel Hersen and Jay C. Th omas, editors-in-chief; Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2006. Pages 367–387. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley and Sons, Inc. Used by permission.


Although poor and inhumane treatment of children is not a new phenomenon (Doerner & Lab, 1998; Wolfe, 1999), child physical abuse and neglect were not identified as serious social problems until the 1960s, with the publication of Kempe and colleagues’ description of battered-child syndrome (Kempe, Silverman, Steele, Droegemueller, & Silver, 1962). In this influential study, Kempe and colleagues described the clinical manifestation of this syndrome in terms of the deleterious physical consequences maltreated children experienced, ranging from undetected outcomes to those that cause significant physical impairments. Rather than exploring the potential psychological sequelae of maltreated children, Kempe focused on detailing the psychiatric profiles of abusive parents. They concluded that, although not all maltreating parents possess severe psychiatric disturbances, “in most cases some defect in character structure is probably present; often parents may be repeating the type of child care practiced on them in their childhood” (p. 112). Since Kempe and colleagues’ original characterization of physical abuse, professionals have grappled with exactly how to define child maltreatment. As many have pointed out, child maltreatment is a complex and heterogeneous problem (e.g., Cicchetti, 1990; Wolfe & Mc- Gee, 1991; Zuravin, 1991) that is difficult to define (Wolfe, 1987, 1999). In a summary of definitional consider ations, Zuravin (1991) suggested that operational definitions of abuse and neglect should differentiate among subcategories of maltreating behavior and should consider issues such as severity and chronicity. Before we discuss the respective definitions of child physical abuse and neglect, we will briefly review the legal aspects of these definitions.