New Study: Child Abuse Down, but Kids in Single Parent Families Far More Likely to be Abused

The Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-4) has just been published by the Office of Planning Research and Evaluation of the Administration for Children and Families.  Here‘s the Executive Summary.

There’s a lot of good news and a lot of old news as well.

First, the good news.  Since NIS-3 which was published in 1997, the overall incidence of child abuse and neglect has fallen dramatically.  Here’s the hard data.

Using the stringent Harm Standard definition, more than 1.25 million children (an estimated 1,256,600 children) experienced maltreatment during the NIS–4 study year (2005–2006). This corresponds to one child in every 58 in the United States. A large percentage (44%, or an estimated total of 553,300) were abused, while most (61%, or an estimated total of 771,700) were neglected. The NIS classifies children in every category that applies, so the components (here and throughout the NIS findings) sum to more than 100%. Most of the abused children experienced physical abuse (58% of the abused children, an estimated total of 323,000). Slightly less than one-fourth were sexually abused (24%, an estimated 135,300), while slightly more than one-fourth were emotionally abused (27%, an estimated 148,500). Almost one-half of the neglected children experienced educational neglect (47% of neglected children, an estimated 360,500 children), more than one-third were physically neglected (38%, an estimated 295,300 children), and one-fourth were emotionally neglected (25%, an estimated 193,400 children).

And here’s how it compares to previous data in previous reports:

Unlike the dramatic increase in the incidence of Harm Standard maltreatment that occurred between the NIS–2 and NIS–3, where the rate increased by 56%, the NIS–4 reveals a smaller change since the NIS–3, in the opposite direction. The NIS–4 estimate of the incidence of overall Harm Standard maltreatment in the 2005–2006 study year reflects a 19% decrease in the total number of maltreated children since the NIS–3 in 1993. Taking into account the increase in the number of children in the United States over the interval, this change is equivalent to a 26% decline in the rate of overall Harm Standard maltreatment per 1,000 children in the population. This decrease is close to significant, meaning the probability that it is due to chance factors is less than 10%. This decrease returned the incidence of Harm Standard maltreatment to a level that does not differ from the NIS–2 estimate for 1986.

The number of children who experienced Harm Standard abuse declined significantly, by 26%, from an estimated 743,200 in the NIS–3 to 553,300 in the NIS–4.  This reflects a 32% decrease in the rate of Harm Standard abuse per 1,000 children in the nation. Moreover, the incidence of all specific categories of abuse decreased.

It must be noted that all those figures refer to actual cases of abuse and neglect.  The NIS-4 uses another measure of abuse that includes the figures reflecting actual harm, but adds children whom CPS workers believe to be in danger of abuse or neglect in the future.  Those figures seem about the same since 1996, the last year of the NIS-3.

So when only actual instances of child abuse and neglect are considered, children are faring much better than they were 13 years ago – a 32% decrease overall.

Now for the old news.  The old news is that family structure is still a great predictor of child abuse and neglect.

Considering both factors, the NIS–4 classified children into six categories: living with two married biological parents, living with other married parents (e.g., step-parent, adoptive parent), living with two unmarried parents, living with one parent who had an unmarried partner in the household, living with one parent who had no partner in the household, and living with no parent. The groups differed in rates of every maltreatment category and across both definitional standards. Children living with their married biological parents universally had the lowest rate, whereas those living with a single parent who had a cohabiting partner in the household had the highest rate in all maltreatment categories. Compared to children living with married biological parents, those whose single parent had a live-in partner had more than 8 times the rate of maltreatment overall, over 10 times the rate of abuse, and nearly 8 times the rate of neglect. (Emphasis added.)

More astonishingly still, abuse of children in single-parent households bucks the overall national trend.  Although child abuse and neglect overall are “significantly” down, in single-parent households it’s increased since 1996.

In nearly all categories, the incidence of maltreatment and levels of harm increased since the NIS–3 for children living with one parent but decreased for those living with two parents. The largest rate increase for children with one parent was in Endangerment Standard neglect (58% higher in NIS–4 than in NIS–3), especially the specific category of emotional neglect (a 194% increase). The largest decrease for children living with two parents occurred in the rate of Harm Standard sexual abuse, which declined by 61% from its level at the time of the NIS–3.

The NIS-4 uses methodology and questions that make it amenable to comparison with previous NIS studies.

So all in all, this report shows a positive trend toward lower incident rates of child abuse and neglect.  Let’s all take a minute and applaud that good news.

It also, once again, shows the value to child wellbeing of intact families.  As countless other sets of data show, children overwhelmingly do better in intact families raised by their biological parents.  In the case of abuse and neglect, the difference was eight-fold.

Will policy makers notice?

Thanks to Mike McCormick for the heads-up.

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