Mistreatment of children and adolescents is a subject that awakens great emotions, and which can be difficult to encounter or to find accurate information on. We have gathered information on child abuse based on scientific research and the experience of those working in the sector: information on physical violence, neglect and psychological violence, as well as sexual abuse. The content is suitable for both professionals and parents.
On this website you will find information on the type of child abuse occurring in Finland.
In a survey conducted in Finland in 2019, around 13 per cent of girls and eight per cent of boys reported experiencing physical violence by parents or other adults tending to them (such as a stepfather or stepmother, adoptive parents, foster parents, or child welfare institution counsellors).
Pursuant to Chapter 21 of the Finnish Penal Code, assault is defined as employing physical violence on another or, without such violence, damaging the health of another, causing pain to another or rendering another unconscious or to a comparable condition. The abuse of a child can be defined as acts and neglect by parents or other adults that cause harm to the child. Violence used when disciplining a child or physical punishment as an upbringing method also constitute child abuse.
Assaulting a child can take many forms, such as pulling by the hair, striking with a hand or an object, spanking or strangling. Neglect may include, for example, disregard for the child’s safety or failure to take care of the child’s hygiene. Assaulting a child is a crime and it must always be reported to the child welfare services. All but minor suspected assaults must also be reported as offences. Attempted assault is also a punishable offence.
Assaults on children have not become more common and become more serious
Cases of child abuse are highlighted in the media, which can lead to the perception that assaults have become more common compared to before. The number of reports submitted to the police have increased in recent years, which is largely due to the fact that people are more likely to react to assault than before. Some of the reports are also so-called false alarms. In other words, although the number of assault cases has not increased, a higher proportion of cases are brought to the attention of the authorities.
According to comprehensive studies carried out in Finland, the number of cases of child abuse has not increased, but on the contrary, it has decreased. This is in line with the fact that the views of the Finns toward using disciplinary violence have become more strict. For example, pulling a child by the hair is no longer perceived as harmless disciplining, but as violence.
Based on studies covering 1988, 2008, 2013 and 2019, it can be concluded that there has been a significant decrease in disciplinary violence between each study period for both girls and boys. Girls report mild cases of violence slightly more often than boys. Most commonly reported cases involve pushing, shaking and striking with an open palm. Serious violence against children (for example, kicking, striking with an object, or using a weapon) is rare in all its forms, and reported by around three per cent of the respondents. There has been no significant change in the overall frequency of serious violence between the periods studied.
In a survey conducted in Finland in 2019, around three per cent of girls and four per cent of boys reported experiencing physical neglect by their parents or other adults tending to them (such as a stepfather or stepmother, adoptive parents, foster parents, or child welfare institution counsellors).
In the study, physical neglect referred to leaving the child without food or drink, clean clothes or a clean, warm place to live. Failure to meet basic needs may also include, for example, non-compliance with health care guidelines, failure to seek appropriate health care, poor hygiene of the child, or neglect of emotional needs. Disregarding the protection and security of the child, for example, disregarding the child’s exposure to drugs and environmental hazards, or the failure to enable their attendance at school, also constitute a neglect to meet the basic needs of the child.
In the same survey, around 36 per cent of girls and around 18 per cent of boys reported psychological violence by parents or other adults taking care of them. In the study, it was considered psychological violence to shout, insult, humiliate and threaten a child and to make the child feel unwanted. Psychological violence also includes, for example, sulking, throwing objects, and threatening to strike. Psychological violence adversely affects a child’s psychological and emotional development.
Neglect of a child and psychological violence endanger the child’s physical, psychological and social development, and when such suspicions arise, a child welfare notification must be submitted. In case of doubt, you can consult child welfare services and, if necessary, the police.
In a survey conducted in Finland in 2019, around six per cent of girls and two per cent of boys report having sexual experiences (for example, caressing, showing or touching genitals or having intercourse) with adults. About one in 1,000 children reported experiences of intra-family abuse.
Pursuant to Chapter 20 of the Finnish Penal Code, sexual abuse of a child is defined as sexual acts against a child younger than 16 years of age (in some cases, for example, people with intellectual disabilities, under the age of 18), said acts being conducive to impairing the development of the child or adolescent. Sexual abuse of a child can take many forms and include very different sexual acts or proposals.
Sexual acts may include touching the genitals, intercourse, or showing films of a pornographic nature to a child or young person. Therefore, the definition of sexual abuse of a child does not require physical contact with the child. Abuse can also take place, for example, via the Internet or mobile phones (e.g. sexual grooming on the Internet) or a child can, for example, be exploited in pornographic publications. The purchase of sexual services from a minor and the attempted sexual abuse of a child are also punishable.
Sexual abuse of children has not become more common or more serious
The media very often discusses the topic of child abuse, and this may lead to the perception that sexual abuse has become more common compared to the past. The number of reports to the police has increased in recent years. Some of these are so-called false alarms and it is possible that more notifications are made because people are more likely to react to abuse than before. In other words, a higher proportion of cases of abuse are brought to the attention of the authorities. According to comprehensive studies carried out in Finland, sexual abuse of children has not increased in numbers.
Studies carried out in 1988, 2008, 2013 and 2019 show that the prevalence of sexual abuse has decreased significantly in both girls and boys in recent decades. Between the last two surveys, the prevalence of abuse has remained almost the same. According to these studies, the severity of abuse has decreased and the focus has shifted from experiences involving physical contact to more proposal in nature. In all the studies, the majority of those who experienced sexual abuse were over the age of 14. Cases of abuse against children under school age and internal family abuse were quite rare. According to current research data, only a small number of cases of child abuse involve a female perpetrator.
A Finnish retrospective study published in 2011 even found a slight decrease in sexual abuse. In that study, around 2–9 per cent of women and around 1–4 per cent of men reported experiencing sexual abuse in their childhood. Younger age groups reported experiencing less of both sexual abuse and related risk factors, such as other forms of abuse.
There is no reliable information on the prevalence of abuse taking place on the Internet
According to a study published in Finland in 2011, nearly half of girls under the age of 16 who responded to an anonymous online survey had received messages, images or videos of a sexually harassing nature from people who, according to their estimates, were clearly older than them. However, the sample of the study is not representative, which may have distorted the results. Finnish children and especially young people, spend quite a lot of time online. However, they have been found to be fairly well aware of the risks of the internet and to possess safety skills. According to the latest school health care survey, sexual harassment of school-age children online or on the phone also occurs to a significant extent by their peers.
Abuse online may include, for example:
- Grooming a child into sexual contact and sexually abusing a child online, in social media, for example.
- Manufacture, possession and dissemination of indecent image material portraying a person under the age of 18.
- Social networking of those interested in sexual images depicting children or sexual abuse of children (communities, forums).