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Journal Issue: Preventing Child Maltreatment Volume 19 Number 2 Fall 2009

Epidemiological Perspectives on Maltreatment Prevention
Fred Wulczyn

Summary

Fred Wulczyn explores how data on the incidence and distribution of child maltreatment shed light on planning and implementing maltreatment prevention programs. He begins by describing and differentiating among the three primary sources of national data on maltreatment.

Wulczyn then points out several important patterns in the data. The first involves child development. Based on official reports, maltreatment rates are highest during certain periods of children’s lives, especially infancy and adolescence. Bringing a new baby into the home, in particular, heightens stress and increases the risk of maltreatment by parents, who tend to be younger and less experienced as parents. These data patterns should help shape strategies that target these families.

A second pattern in the data involves social context and the contribution of race and poverty to maltreatment. Children of color, for example, are much more likely than white children to be reported. Research, however, suggests that when the whites and minorities who are being compared live in a similar social context, disparities in maltreatment rates narrow to some extent. What scholars must examine more closely is the means by which community processes contribute to maltreatment. Thus, the question for researchers is not whether investments in communities are an important part of the prevention strategy, but rather what type of investment is most likely to replace what is missing in a given community.

Wulczyn also explores substance abuse and maltreatment recurrence. He points out that substance abuse not only increases the risk that a parent will neglect a child but also appears to affect that child’s experience in the child welfare system: when substance abuse is part of an allegation history, decisions affecting the child tilt in favor of deeper involvement with the system. Patterns of recurrence mirror those already described. Base rates of recurrence are about 9 percent but are higher for infants when allegations involve substance abuse and when children received services following the initial report.

Wulczyn stresses that much more research remains before analysts understand the mechanisms that underpin these persistent patterns—knowledge that is essential to designing sound interventions.