Journal Issue: Preventing Child Maltreatment Volume 19 Number 2 Fall 2009
Trends in Child Maltreatment
The availability of state data on maltreatment reports and investigations enables researchers to follow trends in reported maltreatment. Indeed, it is now possible to construct an accurate estimate of the reported number of American children maltreated per thousand children going as far back as 1990, although estimates from the early 1990s are somewhat less reliable than more recent estimates because state participation in NCANDS was more limited then than it is today. As figure 1 shows, the overall rate of reported maltreatment (of all types) in 2006 was 12.3 per thousand children, a rate consistent with that reported in 2002.39 The peak in maltreatment rates as reported by state child welfare agencies—15.3 reports per thousand children—occurred in 1993 and was about 14 percent higher than the rate reported for 1990. Over the next six years, maltreatment rates dropped nearly 30 percent, reaching 11.9 per thousand in 1999. After 1999, rates drifted slightly upwards, averaging about 12.2 reports per thousand from 2000 through 2006.
Trends with respect to specific maltreatment types follow the general pattern, with some important differences (see figure 2). Rates of physical abuse, the second most common type of maltreatment, dropped from 3.6 per thousand in 1995 to 2.1 per thousand in 2005. Neglect, the most common maltreatment type, declined just 4 percent over the same period and increased somewhat after 1999. Sexual abuse also declined, with most of the drop coming between 1995 and 2000. After 2000 rates of sexual abuse remained unchanged.
David Finkelhor and Lisa Jones were initially skeptical about the decline in maltreatment rates from the early 1990s through the first part of the current decade.40 Noting the continuing view of analysts that official reports are unreliable when it comes to estimating the true incidence of maltreatment, they doubted that changes in funding levels, staff reductions, and shifting standards could account for the observed change in maltreatment rates.41
They concluded, instead, that the declines are likely real, particularly the drop in sexual abuse.42 They noted that data from a variety of other sources including juvenile victimization and self-report data on sexual assaults all moved in the same direction over the same period. In addition, from 1993 through 1999, child poverty rates fell substantially, from just under 23 percent in 1993 to slightly below 17 percent in 1999, a period that coincides with the most dramatic decline in maltreatment rates.43 In short, a variety of data suggest that general social conditions were improving and that falling maltreatment rates are more or less indicative of the times.
As for why maltreatment declined, Finkelhor and Jones are somewhat more circumspect.44 A number of co-occurring social trends—lower poverty rates, dramatically fewer births to teenagers (births to teens per thousand teenagers) from 1990 through 2005, and a drop in drug use (for example, crack cocaine)—all point to reductions in maltreatment, although the precise connection to maltreatment rates is not necessarily clear-cut. Marianne Bitler and Madeline Zavodny present evidence that maltreatment may have dropped because fewer unwanted children were born and unemployment rates were lower.45 Finkelhor and Jones also raise the possibility that psychopharmacological treatment of depression among women could be having a positive impact, but that issue has not been sufficiently well studied.