One in every eight U.S. children experience a form of child maltreatment by the time they turn 18, according to a study published Monday.
Conducted by researchers from various universities, including UC Berkeley, the study compiled and analyzed data from the 2004-2011 National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System. It was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics.
“This finding shows that (child) maltreatment is so common that we can’t sweep it under the rug anymore,” said Christopher Wildeman, assistant professor of sociology at Yale University and the lead author of the study. “It calls for policies that are proactive.”
Child Protective Services is mostly reactive in the United States, Wildeman said, becoming involved in child maltreatment cases mainly when something goes wrong. Other countries such as Denmark, however, have proactive home visitation programs that assist new families in implementing and improving childcare, positive parenting and various other assistances.
Although annual data on child maltreatment already exist on the national level, this study is the first of its kind to compile that data cumulatively, Wildeman said. Isolating the effects of abuse and neglect to a single year underestimates the problem at hand, said Emily Putnam-Hornstein, a researcher at the campus Center for Social Services Research and assistant professor at the University of Southern California School of Social Work.
“Presenting these really important cumulative statistics is not something we’ve had in the national level in the past,” Putnam-Hornstein said.
The research examined three types of child maltreatment, including neglect, sexual and physical abuse, and mental and psychological abuse, according to Wildeman.
The impact of maltreatment at a young age is considerable, Wildeman said. According to the study, impacted children are not only prone to developing criminal behaviors and negative health conditions but are also up to five times more likely than others to commit suicide.
The study also revealed gender and racial disparities in child maltreatment throughout the country. Girls are slightly more likely to experience maltreatment by the time they turn 18 than boys, according to the study’s findings. In addition, black children are reportedly impacted by maltreatment more than those of other races.
“A large proportion of children facing maltreatment are vulnerable populations and minorities,” Hedwig Lee, a co-author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Washington, said. “This reflects similar patterns for institutionalized inequalities and processes like incarceration.”
In addition to policy changes, Wildeman hopes that these findings will change the way people think about the prevalence of child maltreatment in the United States.
“We like to think about maltreatment as something that is rare and committed by psychopaths,” Wildeman said. “In reality, it’s a sufficiently large social problem.”