San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Child abuse an ‘epidemic’ in Costa Rica

Child abuse in Costa Rica has reached epidemic proportions.

Officials at the National Children’s Hospital made this dramatic statement on January 19 to draw attention to the growing problem, which now affects more than 1,000 Costa Rican children every year, although officials believe the actual number is much larger.

Hospital officials say they are using the term epidemic because of an alarming increase of reported child abuse cases committed over a short period of time across a broad segment of Costa Rican society.

The World Health Organization uses the term when a health phenomenon affects 10 of every 100,000 habitants.

From 2008 to 2009, child abuse cases at the National Children’s Hospital increased from 913 to 1,507. In March 2010, the hospital saw a 600 percent spike in child abuse cases in a three-year period from 2007.

In the first six months of 2010, 858 child abuse cases were reported, an average of nearly five children per day. Given the complexity of reporting child abuse cases, hospital officials estimate that for each case they receive, 10 cases go unreported.

Of 4.6 million Costa Ricans, 1.5 million are under the 18, according to the 2000 census.

Speaking at an April 27 conference at the private Blue Valley School in the western San José suburb of Escazú, María Fernanda López, a National Children’s Hospital social worker, denounced a vast range of abuse that begins with prenatal abuse (alcohol or drug use while pregnant, and neglect of required prenatal treatments) and continues at varying stages of childhood development, such as shaken baby syndrome for infants, and physical, sexual and emotional abuse for children and adolescents.

The complexity of measuring the profound impact of an epidemic such as child abuse deals with the nature of the abuse, where adults as authority figures abuse their position of power in the lives of children.

According to rights outlined by Costa Rica’s Constitution and the United Nations Declaration of Children’s Rights, children should be guaranteed food, medical care, free education and protection. Children are also guaranteed the right to a name, nationality and freedom to play. 

Abuse by adults can be physical and emotional.

According to López, determining the impact of varying levels of abuse is difficult, particularly in cases of emotional abuse.

“One mother was punishing her daughter by spanking her with a belt when the buckle came off and struck her daughter in the eye,” López said. In another case, a father said his infant had fallen from a crib, but X-rays discovered the child’s leg bone was snapped in two, which could not match the fall from a crib, she said.

In response, López and other hospital officials launched a national awareness campaign to draw attention to the growing problem.

“We all have the capacity to become aggressive or abusive toward children. All of us need to engage in a process of self-analysis to recognize and question how we treat children. If we are aware of a problem we need to individually change and look for help. If we are conscious of cases that are occurring it is also our responsibility to report them,” López said.

The campaign includes public service announcements on radio, television and at bus stops. Also, a walk will be held on Sunday, May 8, from 9:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. in western San José’s La Sabana Park, next to Princesa Marina Restaurant. Proceeds from t-shirt sales will be donated to the Children’s Hospital.

To report child abuse, call 911 or the local Child Welfare Office (PANI) office in your area. For more, see:

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