Children and Chemical Abuse

As dangerous and potentially fatal as physical abuse, chemical abuse is an often overlooked possibility, seldom sneaking into mainstream awareness with the odd high profile case.  This is a highly troubling form of abuse in which children are given or exposed to potentially harmful chemical substances.  This kind of exposure can happen unintentionally and through no fault of the caregiver, but is only considered abuse based on the caregiver’s intention and whether or not it is determined that there was neglect present.  This kind of abuse has been underexposed and is hard to determine reliable statistics on because it can be so difficult to identify intent in these cases.  Our Child Abuse Quick Reference includes a simple-to-follow chapter on how to identify signs of chemical abuse.

The issue of intentional poisoning has gained some awareness from the occasional occurrence in popular culture, most notably the 1999 film The Sixth Sense.  In these cases, intentional poisonings are most likely associated with Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy, a mental disorder in which caregivers will secretly and intentionally cause harm to children in order to gain sympathy when their child needs medical attention. However, while Munchausen’s is a potential motivation for this kind of crime, it is not the only one, and these instances do not necessarily raise awareness for the issue as a whole.  Child chemical abuse can have many motives, and is often accompanied by physical and sexual abuse.  Some parents may even commit chemical abuse because they find the effects of drugs or alcohol on children amusing, or encourage unhealthy drug-related behavior as a reflection of their own habits.  If proper supervision has not been provided, even unintentional poisoning can be considered chemical abuse through neglect.

Chemical abuse can also occur as behavior modification.  Some caregivers may force children to ingest toxins as punishment or to sedate the child and reduce behavior they perceive as unpleasant, inappropriate, or annoying.  Improper use of medications to control a child’s behavior is considered chemical abuse, and any use of over-the-counter medication solely to modify behavior may be indicative of this.

Not all instances of child poisonings are an indication of chemical abuse.  Accidental poisoning does happen, often with no signs of neglect.  One of the most common causes of child poisoning happens when prescription medications are kept in a container that is not child-proof, such as a weekly pill divider or compact case, and often occur when the child accidentally ingests a grandparents’ medications, which are often more likely to be held in such a container.  Our book includes steps on how to best prevent accidental poisonings, and how to better identify truly unintentional poisonings.

For urgent information on poisonings, please visit the Poison Control Center website.

To purchase our Child Abuse Quick Reference, please visit our website.

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