Child neglect accounts for 75% of reported abuse cases
A new Institute of Medicine report looks at trends in child abuse and neglect, research, treatments, and effective interventions 20 years after an initial study shed light on the problem.
Awareness of child abuse and neglect — and efforts to address them — have expanded dramatically in the past 20 years, and with that has come a substantial decline in rates of reported physical and sexual abuse, a new report says.
At the same time, however, reports of psychological and emotional abuse have risen and rates of child neglect show no decline, accounting for 75% of all reported cases, says the report by the prestigious National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine, a non-profit adviser to the federal government.
In a 1993 NAS report, “we talked about (child abuse) as a devastating social problem. In this report we conclude from looking at both the long-term consequences and the impact to society and families that it’s a public health problem, as well,” says Anne Petersen, chairwoman of the committee that wrote the report.
Studies documenting the financial burden of child abuse put the cumulative cost to society at $80.3 billion annually, says Petersen, research professor at the Center for Human Growth and Development at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
“That was one of the most powerful conclusions that came through the research in the last 20 years. It’s well established that the effects are cumulative, long-lasting and come at great cost to individuals and society,” she says.
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Data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) indicate that more than 3 million referrals for child abuse and neglect are received by child protective services each year involving around 6 million children. But most of these reports “were not possible to corroborate with the usual rigorous process required by most states,” says the report.
The most recent National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (from 2005 to 2006) estimated that the rate of child abuse and neglect was 17.2 of every 1,000 children, totaling more than 1.25 million children, and many more were determined to be at risk.
Among recommendations in the report is the creation of a national surveillance system that better links data across multiple systems and sources as well as a national strategic research agenda uniting federal agencies, private groups and academic institutions.
Researcher David Finkelhor, who directs the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, says “one the biggest problems in the last 20 years has been the fragmentation in federal leadership,” on this issue.
“In 1993, Health and Human Services was the leading agency in the child maltreatment issue, but they didn’t stay in the forefront,” says Finkelhor, who was not involved in the study.
The report is sponsored, in part, by a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
A parent’s substance abuse, a history of child abuse or neglect, and depression appear to be the biggest risk factors for child abuse and neglect, says Petersen. Stressful environments and poverty are among other issues believed to play a role.
According to data from NCANDS and other sources cited in the report:
• In 2011 (the latest year for which statistics are available) state child protective services agencies encountered 676,569 children, or about nine out of every 1,000 children in the USA, who were victims of physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse and medical and other types of neglect. More than 25% had been victimized previously; 1,545 died as a result of the abuse or neglect they suffered, most younger than age 4.
• Nationally, more than three-quarters of these cases are classified as neglect, 8% as physical abuse and 9% as sexual abuse. Specific rates vary among states.
• Child victims of abuse and neglect are divided almost evenly between males and females. About 80% of perpetrators are parents, 88% of whom are biological parents. More than half of perpetrators are female.
• Only about 20% of investigated cases of abuse result in the removal of a child from the home.
NCANDS data also show that child sexual abuse declined 62% since 1992, with the sharpest declines occurring during the late 1990s. But the downward trajectory continued, with a 3% decline reported between 2009 and 2010. The congressionally mandated National Incidence Study issued in 2010 reported a 47% decline from the mid-1990s through 2005.
NCANDS reports a decline of 56% in physical abuse reports from the early 1990s through 2010. The decrease for physical abuse began somewhat later than that for sexual abuse but has followed the same slope, with steep declines in the late 1990s that tapered off by 2009. Likewise, the National Incidence Study reported a 29% drop in physical abuse starting in the early 1990s.
Neglect reports show “the most mixed trends picture,” says the report, with significant variation across states. From 1992 to 2010, for example, fluctuations ranged from a 90% decline in neglect in Vermont to a 189% increase in Michigan. These dramatic state variations are not mirrored in the sexual and physical abuse rates, which declined across almost all states over the same period.
The increase in emotional and psychological abuse reports is in part related to society’s changing attitude about what constitutes abuse or mistreatment, says Molly Jenkins, a research analyst with the American Humane Association who was not involved in the new study.
“Whereas 30 years ago, people may have scoffed at the idea of taking emotional abuse seriously, that’s really evolved in recent years,” says Jenkins. As more people accept the idea that emotional abuse is true abuse, “people may be more likely to report it or to take those reports seriously once they have come into the system.”