Deaths From Child Abuse

I think all of us would agree that a single child dying from abuse is too many. However, it is a serious and under-reported problem, especially in the US. The BBC News has the story.

First the numbers:

Over the past 10 years, more than 20,000 American children are believed to have been killed in their own homes by family members. That is nearly four times the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The child maltreatment death rate in the US is triple Canada’s and 11 times that of Italy. Millions of children are reported as abused and neglected every year.

Part of the answer is that teen pregnancy, high-school dropout, violent crime, imprisonment, and poverty – factors associated with abuse and neglect – are generally much higher in the US.

Further, other rich nations have social policies that provide child care, universal health insurance, pre-school, parental leave and visiting nurses to virtually all in need.

In the US, when children are born into young families not prepared to receive them, local social safety nets may be frayed, or non-existent. As a result, they are unable to compensate for the household stress the child must endure.

It’s not looking very good for the US is it? Texas is the worst state to be a child, Vermont the best.

In looking at key indicators of well-being, children from Texas are twice as likely to drop out of high school as children from Vermont. They are four times more likely to be uninsured, four times more likely to be incarcerated, and nearly twice as likely to die from abuse and neglect.

In Texas, a combination of elements add to the mix of risks that a child faces. These include a higher poverty rate in Texas, higher proportions of minority children, lower levels of educational attainment, and a political culture which holds a narrower view of the role of government in addressing social issues.

Texas, like many other traditionally conservative states, is likely to have a weaker response to families that need help in the first place, and be less efficient in protecting children after abuse occurs.

A report by the Public Health Agency of Canada outlines the scope of the problem north of the border.

An estimated 235,315 child maltreatment investigations (38.33 investigations per 1,000 children) were conducted in Canada in 2003. For nearly half the investigations (49%, or an estimated 114,607 child investigations) reports of maltreatment were substantiated by
the investigating worker (18.67 investigations per 1,000 children).

Despite the level of abuse, there was a relatively small number of deaths.

There were 33 homicides committed against children under the age of 12 in 2003, the lowest number in over 25 years. Of these victims, 14 (or 42%) were under one year of age.

Of the 27 solved homicides against children, 23 were killed by a parent: 9 by a father, 4 by a step-father, 10 by a mother and 1 by a step-mother (in one incident, both parents were accused). In addition, 2 children were killed by their day-care provider and 2 by a stranger.

The numbers listed for 2006 are not exactly equivalent, but they show a similar trend.

In 2006, there were 60 homicides committed against children and youth under the age of 18 across Canada.

36 of these homicides of children and youth were committed by family members in 2006, compared to 16 committed by non-family members (including acquaintances and friends) .

The most important fact in all of these numbers is that the perpetrators are primarily family members.

Between 1997 and 2006, 56% of children killed by a family member were killed by their fathers ( both biological and step-fathers), 33% by their biological mothers, and the remaining 10% by other family members including step-mothers, siblings, grandparents, cousins or other extended family.

Infants are at a much higher risk.

Between 1997 and 2006, about one-quarter (26%) of children and youth killed by a family member were infants (under the age of one year). Baby boys tend to be at somewhat greater risk than baby girls. During the most recent 10-year period, the rate of baby boys killed by a family member averaged 35 per million male infants, compared to 27 per million female infants.

Given the stats from other countries and the US, I think it is reasonable to suggest that providing support for families is the primary way to battle this problem. Even for those children who are not directly killed, childhood abuse can lead to premature death. Research has shown that abuse can permanently affect the developing brain and lead to higher incidences of anxiety, suicide, and depression in later life, and throughout the lifespan. A study published  JAMA in 2001 discusses this link.

The lifetime prevalence of having at least 1 suicide attempt was 3.8%. Adverse childhood experiences in any category increased the risk of attempted suicide 2- to 5-fold.

The numbers discussed above are only for wealthy nations. Countries that we would expect to put a high priority on children. However, not every government has the same priorities. The US in particular is well known for their anti-abortion campaigning, but there is very little effort placed upon supporting these children once they are born. Even though the deaths are much lower in Canada, we still have a long way to go to match the best countries on the list. This is an issue that deserves much more public attention and debate.


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