Incidence of Child Maltreatment

Annual data on the occurrence of child maltreatment in the United States are collected and analyzed by the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS). This is a systematic, nationwide effort that was launched to collect data from state child protective service agencies, the primary state agency responsible for responding to child maltreatment. Each state reports the numbers of children reported for suspected maltreatment, investigated, and subsequently determined to be abused or neglected.

The NCANDS report for 1998 states that the estimated number of children reported for suspected maltreatment was more than 2.8 million. The estimated number of children abused or neglected in the United States during that year was 903,000. Of this number, more than half were victims of neglect, nearly one-quarter were physically abused, and approximately 12 percent were sexually abused. Approximately 25 percent of the children experienced multiple forms of abuse. These percentages are typical of the breakdown from year to year.

The rate of abuse and neglect for 1998 was 12.9 per 1,000 children less than eighteen years of age. This is actually a slight decrease from the previous year. Since records have been maintained by NCANDS, however, there has been an upward trend in the number of maltreated children. In 1974 the number of reports for suspected maltreatment was merely 60,000; in 1980, the number increased to greater than one million. Several factors contribute to this dramatic increase, including changes in child abuse reporting laws and an increased recognition of abuse and neglect as real societal problems. Early laws governing reporting of suspected child maltreatment required only professionals to report to the state child protective service agencies. By the late twentieth century, most states required anyone with a suspicion of maltreatment to make a report. There is also evidence that the level of violence in society has increased such that it has been declared a public health epidemic. Violence toward children and violence involving children (as witnesses) are both on the rise.

The numbers of maltreated children are impressive, but it is commonly accepted that these numbers are inaccurate. The cases reported to social services represent only the ''tip of the iceberg'' of all maltreated children. There are several ways researchers know this to be true. One indication that some children are missed comes from studies of child fatalities. Many children are killed as a result of abuse or neglect, but not all are identified as victims of abuse or neglect at the time of their death. Second, parent surveys and other periodic national surveys obtain higher rates of abuse and neglect than that counted by social services. In some cases the difference in rates is not trivial. For example, a nationwide telephone survey of parents found a nearly tenfold increase in rates of physical maltreatment compared to rates reported by social services.

Obtaining accurate numbers of maltreated children is difficult for other reasons. A fundamental reason is that simply defining what constitutes child maltreatment, as previously mentioned, is problematic. Maltreatment definitions also vary from state to state. The potential for missing abuse clearly exists when only two-thirds of reported cases are investigated, in part because of an overburdened social services system.

Consider also the process by which children are identified as being maltreated—someone has to make a report. This process relies on individuals recognizing abuse and taking action. Several studies have identified resilient kids—where abuse or neglect is occurring at home but the children find ways to cope. These children are less likely to be identified, as are very young children who cannot relate what has happened to them. Then there are biases (based on race, gender, and socioeconomic status) that make individuals more likely to suspect and report maltreatment. Poor families are notoriously suspect because of presumably higher financial stress and the frequently as sociated lack of education and resources. The opposite also happens: there are biases that prevent suspicion of abuse, leading to many maltreated children being missed. Girls are traditionally viewed as the only victims of sexual abuse, and young boys who act out are labeled as hyperactive but the question of sexual abuse is never entertained. Even if abuse is recognized and suspected, someone must take action, which is a well-known barrier to intervention. People are reluctant to become involved in family matters even if it means helping a child.

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