The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) recently released data regarding child abuse and neglect in the United States for 2010. The federal Administration for Children and Families report, Child Maltreatment 2010, indicates that an estimated 695,000 children in the 50 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico were found to be victims of abuse¹ during Federal Fiscal Year (FFY) 2010. This is down from the 702,000 substantiated abuse reports in 2009 and 758,289 in 2008.
This is great news, right? Our efforts to prevent child abuse must be working! My response: not so fast. The researcher wannabe in me immediately begins to contemplate possible explanations.
First off, it seems counter intuitive that there would be less child abuse in a time when unemployment, child poverty, and homelessness are increasing with the troubled economy. We don’t have solid research supporting the hypothesis that a poor economy would result in an increase–or decrease–in child abuse. The last time the U.S. experienced anything close to the current level of economic hardship was decades ago, during the Great Depression. Of course, that was prior to the collection of data on child abuse rates (NCANDS collection has been voluntary, starting in 1990).
As I consider other possible explanations, headlines over the past few years come to mind. Almost every state in the country has implemented hiring freezes or worse, reductions in workforce, in public child welfare systems. If there are fewer people investigating, assessing, and supporting vulnerable families, isn’t it possible that some child abuse reports, and children, are falling through the workforce cracks?
Another possible explanation is changes in definitions of child abuse. What many people do not realize is that the requirements to substantiate child abuse are essentially a moving target. Definitions vary by state and have evolved over time. Compounding this is the fact that evaluating child abuse allegations is not an exact science. Sure, some jurisdictions have well-developed protocols and procedures in place to ensure consistency across work units and individuals. However, the bottom line is, that any time there is human assessment involved, there is also the potential of unintended variability.
Lest I sound like a ‘glass half empty’ person, I must submit that it is possible, that child abuse really is declining. It is possible that prevention efforts are working. Or that we, as a society, responded to the call for action to protect and nurture our most valuable assets, our children. I hope so. However, I’d prefer to see the research to be certain.
¹The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), (42 U.S.C. §5101), as amended by the CAPTA Reauthorization Act of 2010, retained the existing definition of child abuse and neglect as, at a minimum:
Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act, which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.