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Child Abuse More Prevalent Than Revealed By Statistics

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

According to new research, published in the journal, Lancet, child abuse is more prevalent than revealed by statistics. Ruth Gilbert, MD, from University College London Institute of Child Health, United Kingdom led the four-part study, showing that only 10% of child abuse cases are investigated, or proven each year.

Child abuse occurs in 14 to 16 percent of children, and one in ten children are verbally abused or neglected in high-income countries annually. The study shows that only one-tenth of cases of childhood neglect, and physical or sexual abuse are ever proven. The study also showed that 5 to 10 percent of children are sexually abused via penetration, and three times more than that experience other forms of sexual abuse.

The impact of child abuse is enduring. Experts believe that abused children later engage in increased criminal behavior, drug or alcohol abuse, and other risk taking activities.

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Dr. Gilbert's study was conducted in four parts. The second part of the study reveals that most schools and community health services do not report all cases of suspected child abuse. The reasons may be multifaceted – fear of repercussion, lack of knowledge regarding reporting procedures, and misperceptions about the benefits of reporting possible child abuse may all be contributing factors to the lack of accurate statistics.

The authors write, "Professionals who have continuous contact with children, such as people working in schools and community health services, can have a leading role in recognizing, responding to, and supporting maltreated children. Their scarce reporting to child-protection agencies is a cause for concern, and we need to find out whether maltreatment is being recognized and dealt with in other ways. Doubts are widespread that the benefits of reporting suspected case of maltreatment to child-protection services outweigh the harms." Yet, an analysis from the US showed that 15,000 physician visits were made for child injuries. Ten percent were due to child abuse; only six percent were reported. (1)

According to the World Health Organization, child abuse or neglect claims the lives of 155,000 children under age 15 each year, worldwide. In the United Kingdom, 35% of children murdered are less than one year old.

The Lancet introduces their Child Maltreatment Series with the following: "Children, the most precious and vulnerable members of our societies, deserve closer attention to their care and education and better protection against abuse." Anyone involved in caring for children should view the series. It is a call to action for professionals. We need to be more aware of children who may be abused.

(1) (Pediatrics 2008; 122:611-619).