Is Child Abuse Declining?

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Few groups of people are more difficult to count than abused kids, given that both the perpetrators and the victims try to hide the crime. A couple of federal laws require the government to count anyway, and the latest effort – a once-a-decade study – is intriguing for two reasons.

First, for what it says: that Americans are abusing and neglecting their children a lot less than they did in the 1990s. Second, for what it shows about how researchers come up with the numbers.

The Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-4), released in late January, says the rate of children harmed by abuse and neglect declined by 26 percent from 1993 to 2005-06, to 17.1 per 1,000. It says the raw numbers fell as well, from 1,553,800 annually to 1,256,600.

Most of those children (61 percent) were neglected, with educational and physical neglect being the most common forms. Among those abused, most were physically harmed, while about one-fourth were sexually abused and one-fourth emotionally abused.

Is the decline true? The trend jibes with other indicators. The annual Child Maltreatment reports issued by the U.S. Administration for Children and Families (ACF) say that child maltreatment totals fell from just over 1 million in 1995 to 794,000 in 2007.

Observers see a couple of reasons for a decline.

“We’ve had 20 years of increased public awareness” about abuse and neglect, said Linda Spears, vice president for policy and public affairs at the Child Welfare League of America. The thinking, she said, is that increased media and government attention starting in the 1980s spurred more reports about abuse, and then a gradual leveling off in abuse itself as more resources were devoted to prevention and early intervention.

Then there’s economics. The NIS data were collected in 2005-06, during a strong economy. Abuse and neglect reports often increase during recessions. Even the new NIS found abuse and neglect rates more than twice as high for children with unemployed parents as for those with employed parents.

The implications for child protection are significant, said Jim Hmurovich, CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America. He said the decline shows that prevention efforts like home visitation, which had been expanding in the years before the study, pay off. But at a time of government budget cuts, he worries that states will use the decline to justify reductions in abuse prevention and investigation.

Some think the numbers show that the estimation practice is ludicrous. Notice, for instance, that the latest NIS estimate for 2006 of about 1.2 million victims is 53 percent higher than the Child Maltreatment estimate of 794,000 for 2007. Their latest rates differ significantly as well: 17.1 per 1,000 children in NIS, 10.6 in Child Maltreatment. Yet both reports are issued by the ACF.

How can this be? The new NIS shines a light on two central issues in estimating harm to children: What gets counted, and who counts it?

What counts?

The NIS has been conducted approximately once each decade since the 1970s, as mandated by various federal laws. The three previous studies collected data in 1979-80, 1986 and 1993. This study was conducted by Westat under contract with the ACF.

The ACF’s Child Maltreatment reports are issued every year and are narrower: They tally the number of abuse and neglect reports filed in each state, and calculate the number of substantiated cases.

Because it is assumed that most abuse and neglect is not reported, the NIS looks further: It counts all investigations by child protective services, plus reports from other observers, and includes a category for “endangerment” that has not yet caused harm. (The final estimates that were widely reported by the news media last month, and cited above, involve actual harm.) The NIS counts only situations involving parents or caretakers maltreating a child or knowingly letting someone do so.

Aside from obvious abuse – such as physical and sexual battery – the NIS counts the many behaviors that can be abusive but can also be misinterpreted as such. Abuse and neglect can include “excessive corporal punishment,” severe confinement (such as locking in a closet), threats of abandonment, “overtly hostile” verbal abuse, and “permitting or encouraging chronic maladaptive behavior,” such as truancy and drug abuse. Physical neglect can include not only starvation, but inadequate personal hygiene. Emotional neglect can include “overprotectiveness.”

The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform calls the abuse and neglect definitions “absurd.” Executive Director Richard Wexler said in his critique that “if Mom sends her son to bed without his dinner, that qualifies. So does making him do more chores than the ‘sentinel’ [an NIS observer] thinks is appropriate.”

Such extreme examples would probably go under the “endangerment” category, but it’s impossible for outsiders to know exactly what was counted and put where. There is room for interpretation, which Westat tried to control by providing detailed definitions of various types of abuse, and coding the reports according to the numerous criteria they had to meet in order to be included in the calculations.

The ACF declined to make anyone involved with the study available for comment.

Who counts?

The NIS uses two sources of information. The first is local child protection agencies, which supply data on reported incidents that they accept for investigation. Westat worked with the child protection agencies in a “nationally representative sample” of 122 counties. They submitted a total of 10,667 completed reports.

Getting cooperation from county and state agencies was not always easy: It took “persistence in negotiating and renegotiating,” the study says. Some balked at the extra workload for their staffs, said they already had too much going on (such as changing administrators and carrying out court-ordered improvement plans), and worried that the reports would violate confidentiality laws for children and families. Initially, there were five “state-level refusals,” which were overcome after the project director visited all five state agencies, according to the report.

Secondly, the NIS taps professionals outside of child protection agencies who regularly work with children. These 10,791 “sentinels” came from law enforcement, juvenile probation, social services, mental health, public housing, schools, hospitals, day care providers and shelters. They were asked to “stay on the lookout for children who are abused or neglected.” Those lookouts produced 6,208 completed reports.

Spears of CWLA said the inclusion of sentinels, and their expansion from the last study, “should strengthen the quality and significance of the findings.”

But how consistently do the various sentinels apply definitions of abuse and neglect? This has always been an issue, the report acknowledges:

“NIS has never examined sentinels’ own definitions of maltreatment, or asked about their standards for submitting children to the study. This has hampered interpreting changes in the size of the maltreated child population from one NIS cycle to the next, since the study has had no means of determining whether or to what extent the changes reflected true changes in the occurrence of child maltreatment as opposed to shifts in sentinels’ definitions or in their standards for submitting data to the study.”

Westat trained the sentinels on what to report and conducted a survey to find differences in their criteria. Ultimately, the contractor is the gatekeeper. The NIS guide urges the sentinels to err on the side of reporting: “If you have doubts about whether or not a case meets the study guidelines, we suggest that you fill in a data form and let us evaluate whether or not it fits the standardized study definitions.”

The result, said Wexler, is “hyperinflated figures.” But Hmurovich of Prevent Child Abuse said, “They are as credible as we can get. No one can provide better information.”

One thing everyone agrees on is that because the study has been conducted by pretty much the same methods each time, the reported trend seems true: Over a recent period, fewer children were abused and neglected. Nailing down why that happened and how to maintain it will prove even harder than counting.

Contact: The NIS-4 and supplemental materials are at http://www.nis4.org. The NCCPR critique is at http://www.nccpr.org/reports/NIS4.pdf.