Over the last 2 decades — since a previous report on the topic was released in 1993 — physical and sexual abuse of children has become less frequent, but rates of neglect have remained stagnant and rates of psychological and emotional abuse have increased, data compiled from a variety of sources around the country suggested.
Some uncertainty remains about those trends and the exact scope of the problem of abuse and neglect, however, because of differences in how the information is collected by various systems and the absence of a concerted national research effort to address the gaps in knowledge, according to a committee chaired by Anne Petersen, PhD, of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
About 6 million children are involved in cases of abuse and neglect reported to child protective services each year in the U.S., but there are probably many unreported cases. Based on 2011 data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, three-quarters of cases involve neglect, 15% involve physical abuse, and 10% involve sexual abuse. The majority of the perpetrators (80%) are parents and slightly more than half are female.
Research indicates that the effects of abuse and neglect can linger throughout a person’s lifetime. Long-term consequences can include physical health problems, psychological disorders like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety, adverse effects on neurobiological development and relationship skills, and increases in risky behaviors like early sexual activity and alcoholism, the report stated.
And there are financial costs as well. The annual estimated cost of child abuse or neglect is $80.3 billion, including $33.3 billion in direct costs related to healthcare for the victim, the child welfare system, and law enforcement, and $46.9 billion in indirect costs related to special education, early intervention, adult homelessness, adult healthcare, the criminal justice system, and lost work productivity.
A greater effort is needed to uncover the causes of child abuse and neglect and find ways to prevent the problem and reduce the impacts, according to the authors of the report.
To that end, they made four broad recommendations:
Develop a national strategic research plan through the collaboration of federal agencies, private foundations, and academic institutions
Create a national surveillance system that brings together multiple sources of information, and develop and promote standardized definitions of abuse and neglect
Develop structures needed to train a new generation of high-quality researchers from different disciplines who are focused on abuse and neglect
Create the mechanisms needed to conduct research into whether various changes to state and federal policy surrounding child abuse and neglect are working
“Child abuse and neglect is a complex societal problem that requires a comprehensive response,” Petersen and colleagues wrote in a brief accompanying the report. “The science of prevention and treatment along with the testing of associated programs and services have shown that the incidence of child abuse and neglect can be reduced and negative effects can be mitigated. Capitalizing on what we have learned requires exploring new directions when investing research dollars.”