UW Today

June 11, 2014

Nearly 1 in 8 American children are maltreated before age 18

News and Information

By the time they reach age 18, nearly one in eight – about 12 percent – of American children experience a confirmed case of maltreatment in the form of neglect or physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

These findings, published June 2 in JAMA Pediatrics, are the first to document the national cumulative prevalence of child maltreatment based on cases confirmed by child protective services.

Previous estimates indicated one in 100 children experience maltreatment, but those numbers relied on annual estimates of confirmed cases which do not give insight into how many children will ever experience maltreatment.

“Our study shows that child maltreatment is much more common than previously thought,” said co-author Hedy Lee, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Washington.

The new study used data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System Child File, which includes information on all U.S. children with a confirmed report of maltreatment. Lee and her co-authors only included reports of maltreatment that had been substantiated or indicated with evidence and confirmed by child protective services.

The researchers did an analysis for the cumulative prevalence of childhood maltreatment, which takes into account that the effects of neglect and abuse linger long after maltreatment ends.

“For example, if a child who is 9 years old in 2014 experienced maltreatment at age 4, the child is still dealing with the consequences of that maltreatment even if the case is not included in the current year’s counts,” Lee said.

Analysis of data between 2004 and 2011 showed that more than 5.6 million children had experienced or were recovering from maltreatment during this time period. Almost 80 percent of these cases were of neglect, not abuse.

The numbers were more sobering for black and Native American children, with one in five black children and one in seven Native American children experiencing maltreatment or its effects during the time period studied.

An expert in health disparities, Lee considers the findings to be another example of how social inequalities – such as incarceration and foster care – affect some populations more than others.

“This is about larger inequalities that impact African-American and other racial and ethnic minority families,” Lee said. “If childhood maltreatment is linked to economic inequality, we need to think more about contextual inequality, such as providing adequate housing and child care to lessen the strain on parents.”

She and her collaborators hope that the study will provide insight into the origins of poorer health during adulthood, as well as guidance for public health monitoring and investments.

“Maltreatment is on the scale of other major public health concerns that affect child health and well-being,” first author Christopher Wildeman said in a news release. Wildeman is an associate professor of sociology at Yale University.

“Because child maltreatment is also a risk factor for poor mental and physical health outcomes throughout life, the results of this study provide valuable epidemiologic information,” he said.

Other co-authors are Natalia Emanuel and John M. Leventhal, both at Yale; Emily Putnam-Hornstein at the University of Southern California and the University of California at Berkeley; and Jane Waldfogel at Columbia University.

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For more information, contact Lee at 206-543-4572 or hedylee@uw.edu.

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