Is Child Abuse On the Decline?

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The number of maltreated children in the U.S. has fallen steadily in the last two decades, according to a report this week from the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

Overall, physical-abuse cases per capita fell 3% between and 2007 and 2008 (the most recent year for which stats are available). Meanwhile sexual abuse fell by 6%, the report says. These figures continue long-term downward trends in the rate of physical and sexual abuse nationwide — with most states reporting cumulative drops of over 50% since 1992 — although neglect cases per capita seem to have remained fairly stable.

Sound too good to be true? All of that data comes from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, which began compiling the stats in 1990 from states’ child-protection agencies. The numbers are based on “substantiated” abuse cases only — where substantiated means that the cases were reported to a child-protection agency and investigated, and that the agency then found “a preponderance of evidence” to suggest maltreatment. But while it may sound as if the trend could be just a trick of the data then — states could have simply decided to investigate fewer cases over time, for example — the new report argues that the decline in abuse is very real. A separate study found similar declines in child abuse using different methods, according to the report: Researchers conducting the recent National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect talked to workers in schools, hospitals and day cares about abuse, without looking at state investigations at all. And victim self-reports show the same pattern too, with declines in the number of children reporting physical and sexual abuse throughout the 1990s and 2000s. It would appear, then, that the good news is genuine. There really is less child abuse than there used to be.

The report states:

There is currently no consensus in the child maltreatment field about why sexual abuse and physical abuse have declined so substantially, although a recent article and book suggest some possible factors (Finkelhor & Jones, 2006; Finkelhor, 2008). The period when sexual and physical abuse started the dramatic downward trend was marked by sustained economic improvement, increases in the numbers of law enforcement and child protection personnel, more aggressive prosecution and incarceration policies, growing public awareness about the problems, and the dissemination of new treatment options for family and mental health problems, including new psychiatric medication. While some have suggested community notification laws as a possible explanatory factor, the passage and implementation of these laws actually occurred well after the sexual abuse decline was underway.

Over the same 1990 – 2008 period, however, the number of neglect cases per capita has barely budged. The report suggests that this may be the case because neglect “has not been the subject of the same level of policy attention and public awareness as sexual and physical abuse.”