Child abuse: statistics, signs and prevention

A report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds in the U.S. In total, about 4.3 million child maltreatment reports are made every year, resulting in the identification of 678,000 abused children. Experts fear the actual number of cases may be actually three times greater.

It’s a sobering thought. While so many of us are striving to give our little ones love and affection and working to meet all their needs and more, countless children are left to wonder what they did to deserve their bruises and emotional scars. 

The definitions for child abuse and neglect can vary from state to state, but at the very minimum follow the guidelines set forth by the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) legislation, which reads: 

“Any recent act or failure to act on the part of the 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 imminent risk of serious harm.” 

Abuse statistics 

Did you know that an estimated four children die every day in the U.S. due to child abuse? And that three out of four of these victims are under the age of 4? According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, child maltreatment fatalities continue to remain a serious problem, despite the efforts of the child protection system.

Did you also know that in the U.S. … 

  • Ninety percent of reported rape victims under the age of 12 knew their perpetrator? 
  • Child abuse occurs at every income level, in every ethnic group and cultural group, and within every religion? 
  • Nearly 80 percent of perpetrators of child abuse and maltreatment were the parents? 
  • Over 36 percent of women and 14 percent of men in prison were victims of child abuse? 
  • Children ages 1 and younger suffer the highest rates of child abuse and neglect?
  • One-third of child abuse victims will grow up to abuse their own children? 

Recognizing child abuse or neglect 

There are different types of child abuse and neglect—physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. A child who is abused in one way is likely to be abused in more than one way. The Child Welfare Information Gateway offers the following tips for recognizing signs of child abuse or neglect.

Does the child: 

  • Have unexplained burns, bites, bruises, broken bones, or black eyes? 
  • Have fading bruises or other marks after a school absence? 
  • Shrink in the presence of adults? 
  • Report being injured by their parent or another caregiver? 
  • Lack needed medical or dental care, immunizations, or even glasses? 
  • Consistently appear dirty or have a bad body odor? 
  • Beg for or steal food or money? 
  • Show sudden changes in behavior or school performance? 
  • Have difficult learning or concentrating? 
  • Act overly compliant, passive, or withdrawn? 
  • Show signs of not wanting to go home? 
  • Refuse to change for gym class? 
  • Experience a sudden change in appetite? 
  • Demonstrate unusual sexual knowledge? 
  • Becomes pregnant or contract a venereal disease, particularly if under age 14? 

Does the parent: 

  • Offer conflicting explanations or no explanation at all for their child’s injury? 
  • Use harsh physical discipline with their child? 
  • Have a history of being abused as a child? 
  • Seem indifferent or depressed? 
  • Abuse alcohol or drugs? 
  • Demand a level of performance the child cannot achieve? 
  • Act secretive, isolated, jealous, or controlling? 
  • Blame, belittle, or berate the child? 
  • Reject the child?

Preventing child abuse 

Perhaps the toughest part of putting an end to child abuse is our collective resistance to butt into other people’s affairs. Maybe your neighbor spanks their child for the smallest of transgressions. Or perhaps you have witnessed a harried parent yanking a screaming toddler out of a grocery store by their arm. Or maybe your child has mentioned a classmate who always seems to be showing up at school with bumps or bruises that can’t be explained.

When do you speak up? How do you speak up? 

If you suspect abuse or neglect, report it to your local social services department. Call the police immediately if you believe a child is in immediate danger, says Prevent Child Abuse (PCA)

But, and perhaps more importantly, try to look beyond the headlines. Instead, try to focus your attention on ways you can actively take part in reducing the incidence of child abuse, by reducing the stress in your community that can lead to abuse and neglect. Ways of reducing stress include: 

  • Donating your used clothing, toys, or furniture to a family you know, to help reduce the financial stresses that parents sometimes take out on their children. 
  • Talking to your neighbors about watching out for each other’s children to show that you are involved. 
  • Volunteering time or money to community programs that support families and children. 

However you decide to reach out, take heart and remember that child abuse prevention is a year-round effort.

Last updated October 17, 2020

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