Side Effect of the Recession: An Increase in Child Abuse

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Losing your job when the economy takes a dip can have some damaging effects on your health; the stress, anxiety and depression among the unemployed has been linked to heart disease and an increased risk of suicide. But according to new research presented at the annual meeting of the American Academic of Pediatrics, if you’re a parent, those health consequences may have even longer-reaching effects — on the well being of your children.

I caught up with the study’s lead scientist, Dr. Robert Sege, at the conference in San Francisco to explore what the study means for families. Sege is director of the child protective team at Boston Medical Center and reported that child maltreatment increased with the rise in unemployment, with a lag of about a year. (More on Cyberbullying? Homophobia? Tyler Clementi’s Death Highlights Online Lawlessness)

Sege says that he and his team decided to investigate the relationship when they noticed that abuse cases at the center began climbing several months after the recent recession began. Since the economic downturn in 2008, the center recorded a 30% increase in child maltreatment cases, most of which involved neglect, and since 2009, the hospital has already recorded a 2% to 3% increase.

For the study, Sege’s group wanted to see whether the trend was occurring in other cities around the country as well, and compared state-level unemployment statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics with data on child abuse in all 50 states since 1990. The scientists aggregated the varied definitions of maltreatment, which included instances of physical violence against youngsters by their parents as well as cases of neglect such as children not receiving appropriate medical treatment if they needed it, or not getting the proper supervision and care because their parents were abusing drugs or alcohol. For every 1% increase in unemployment, they found an increase in child abuse reports of at least 0.50 per 1000 children one year later. “Over the 18 year period, when employment went up or down, maltreatment went up or down with a one year delay,” he says. “So the change in unemployment this year predicts child maltreatment next year.” (More on Divorce: It’s Not If You Fight, But How You Fight That Matters).

While the relationship is not unexpected, Sege points out that it’s significant because a growing body of research suggests that the effects of childhood abuse can extend well into adulthood. Both psychologically and physically, victims of maltreatment early in life are more vulnerable to mental illnesses and chronic conditions such as heart disease. “The things that make you prone to heart disease are smoking, lack of exercise and overweight,” he explains. “And what makes people smoke or not exercise? One of these factors could be adverse childhood experiences.”

What’s more, while certain government services such as Medicaid and unemployment benefits are boosted during an economic downturn to lessen the burden on the unemployed, child protective services are often cut during difficult times. “The amount of resources available for maltreatment social services go down,” says Sege. “So in a way, we are building a human capital deficit but not addressing the issue.” (More on Man Owes Half a Million in Child Support)

The findings highlight the need to maintain services that protect children and help families during economic loss, particularly since the study also found that states with higher unemployment rates also recorded more cases of child abuse. “There are long term consequences of childhood abuse and neglect,” says Sege. “Lifelong effects.”

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