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Child Abuse Negl. 2009 Jan;33(1):27-35. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2008.12.003. Epub 2009 Jan 29.

Emotional abuse in a sample of multiply maltreated, urban young adolescents: issues of definition and identification.

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  • 1University of Southern California, School of Social Work, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0411, USA.



The main purpose of this paper is to use the Brassard and Donovan [Brassard, M. R. & Donovan, K. L. (2006). Defining psychological maltreatment. In M. M. Freerick, J. F. Knutson, P. K. Trickett, & S. M. Flanzer (Eds.), Child abuse and neglect: Definitions, classifications, and a framework for research (pp. 151-197). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookers Publishing Co., Inc.] framework to examine and describe the nature of emotional abuse experienced by a sample of urban, ethnically diverse male and female youth (N=303) identified as maltreated by a very large public child welfare agency.


Case record abstraction was conducted on the DCFS records of these maltreated youth using the Maltreatment Case Record Abstraction Instrument (MCRAI) which was based on the work of Barnett et al. [Barnett, D., Manly, J. T., & Cicchetti, D. (1993). Defining child maltreatment: The interface between policy and research. In D. Cicchetti & S. L. Toth (Eds.), Advances in applied developmental psychology: Child abuse, child development and social policy (pp. 7-73). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corp.] as modified by English and LONGSCAN [English, D. J., & the LONGSCAN Investigators. (1997). Modified maltreatment classification system (MMCS). Retrieved from]. Fifteen items of parental behavior deemed emotionally abusive were coded and organized into four subtypes of emotional abuse (spurning, terrorizing, isolating, exploiting/corrupting) using the Brassard and Donovan (2006) framework.


Using this coding system, almost 50% of the sample were found to have experienced emotional abuse in contrast to 9% identified at the time of referral by DCFS. Most of the emotionally abused youth also experienced physical abuse (63%) and/or neglect (76%) as well. The most frequent subtype of emotional abuse experienced was terrorizing. Most youth experienced more than one subtype.


Emotional abuse, while frequent, was seldom the focus of the child protection services investigation. The nature of this abuse was not minor, but rather likely to be dangerous to the mental health and well-being of these children. Further more emotional abuse, in this sample of young adolescents, at least, was likely to be accompanied by other forms of maltreatment, especially physical abuse and/or neglect. These findings have important implications for practice and the direction of future research.


All those who interact with child welfare clients must recognize the prevalence of emotional abuse in maltreated children so that appropriate interventions are instituted. Screening for emotional abuse should be part of all intake referrals and when confirmed should be noted in official records. When children are placed, foster parents (both kin and non-kin) need training on the prevalence and consequences of emotional abuse, and strategies to help their foster children recover from the aftermath. When children remain with maltreating parents, emotional abuse should be a focus of the interventions designed to help maltreating parents with more effective parenting strategies and also should be a focus of the interventions designed to help the child recover from the consequences of maltreatment.

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