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UW Researcher: 1 In 8 Children At Risk Of Maltreatment, Rate Higher For Minorities

Wilfredo Lee
AP Photo
Children from an after school program in Miami participate in a candlelight vigil in April commemorating National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

It's the kind of case that walks into the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center maybe once a week:

Imagine a single mother, trying to hold down multiple jobs to hold her family together, turning to a neighbor for help taking care of her kids while she works. But that neighbor ends up assaulting one of her children.

And then the neighbor "gives [the child] the message, 'If you tell anybody, I won't be able to help your family anymore, you'll be taken out of your home and your mom won't believe you,'" said King County Sexual Assault Resource Center's executive director Mary Ellen Stone.

It's an archetypal story, says Stone, and the family's economic inequality is key to what put the child at risk.

That's one of the lessons a team of researchers, including a University of Washington researcher, hopes to highlight in new research that found that documentable cases of child neglect and abuse of all kinds may have a more profound impact on society than previously assumed.

Estimate: 1 In 8 Children In U.S. Victimized

Researchers estimate one in eight children in the U.S. will suffer some form of maltreatment — emotional, physical or sexual abuse — by age 18. They synthesized eight years of national data to arrive at this conclusion. Any single annual count, researchers say, shows only one in 100 children suffer from some kind of maltreatment that Child Protective Services can substantiate with evidence.

"The takeaway message that we, as a society should, pay attention to is that child maltreatment is much more common than the data can capture and it is more common than previously thought," said Mary Quinlan, who leads the Children's Advocacy Center of Pierce County at Mary Bridge Children's Hospital.

Higher Rates For African Americans, Native Americans

But the rates of child maltreatment in the African-American and Native-American communities are higher. By age 18, the researchers found one in five black children and one in seven Native American children suffer from maltreatment.

UW associate professor Hedy Lee, who worked with researchers from several institutions on the paper, says social inequality explains a great deal why poor children are more likely to suffer maltreatment.

"They often come from parents who do not have the kinds of social and economic supports necessary to be able to care for their children properly," Lee said. "We need to think about the social context in which parents and their families live and are embedded that might increase stress and also reduce abilities to cope with family difficulties."

Figure May Be Higher Than 1 In 8

Abuse experts caution the figure of one in eight children might be understating the problem; researchers only counted cases where Child Protective Services had been alerted and substantiated the abuse claims with evidence.

But self-reported statistics can reflect higher rates of child maltreatment. For instance, one commonly cited figure holds that one in three women and one in five men will be sexually assaulted before they turn 18. (Other estimates say one in four women and one in six men.)

Lee acknowledges the criticism, saying it's possible the research team's one-in-eight-children count is too low. It's difficult to get accurate counts, she says, because the response to child maltreatment relies on someone alerting authorities in the first place.

"Things have had to be reactive because [Child Protective Services] is reacting to reports of maltreatment," said Lee. "I think that individuals in the social services arena — researchers and practitioners alike — are looking towards ways of thinking about preventative programs that can support parents and families so maltreatment doesn't occur in the first place."

Independent of her research, Lee says other experts have shown how services for poor families, ranging from parenting classes to visits at home from health care professionals, can help prevent child maltreatment.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.