By: Janine Cerutti
Each year, April marks National Child Abuse Prevention Month. However, throughout the year, thousands of researchers, social workers, policy makers, advocates, and survivors across the United States strive to help children suffering from or at risk of child abuse. When it comes to child abuse prevention, the primary goal is to create and implement effective strategies to stop child abuse from ever occurring. As a research group that studies the effects of early life adversities on later mental health risk, we wanted to dedicate this Said and Dunn post to raise awareness and encourage prevention efforts for child abuse and neglect.
The Child Maltreatment National Report from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services estimates that a staggering 674,000 children experienced abuse or neglect in the United States in 2017, the most recent year of reporting—that’s a rate of 9.1 per 1,000 children. Consistent with prior years, the majority of these children suffered from neglect (74.9%), followed by physical abuse (18.3%). In 2017 alone, an estimated 1,720 children died of abuse and neglect.
Unmistakably, the most tragic outcome of child maltreatment is death. However, children who are abused and neglected also suffer from immediate physical injuries as well as short-term and long-term effects on cognitive, emotional, and behavioral development. Child maltreatment has been shown to have widespread effects on general mental and physical health later in life, including increasing risk for mental disorders, substance misuse, suicide, and cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, neuromusculoskeletal, pulmonary, and inflammatory diseases. Child abuse and neglect is therefore a major public health issue.
Prevention and early detection are key to avoiding the detrimental consequences of child maltreatment and to ensuring that all children can grow up in safe and nurturing environments.
But how do we prevent child abuse and neglect and mitigate its negative consequences?
Prevention strategies and techniques haven’t been as effective as one would hope in lowering the national maltreatment rate. Part of the difficulty of preventing child abuse and neglect is figuring out who is most at risk and when, in order to optimally intervene before abuse begins. We want to share with you just two (of many) recent research studies that aim to answer these crucial questions.
The American Journal of Public Health published a study in their May 2019 issue in which researchers from Tufts University conducted a randomized trial to investigate whether a newborn home visiting program reduced recurrence of child maltreatment in child protective services (CPS) reports. A total of 704 first-time young moms were randomly assigned to either a home visiting group or to a control group, who were referred to other services and parenting resources. They found that the home visiting program reduced the recurrence of CPS maltreatment reports by 32% and increased the length of time between initial and additional CPS reports. These results provide evidence for a feasible intervention that may help an at-risk population and builds on similar results reported by the Nurse-Family Partnership.
In a study published in the December 2018 issue of JAMA Pediatrics, Dr. Melissa Bright and colleagues investigated the association between school report card release dates and rates of state child welfare agency-verified incidents of child physical abuse. Their study found that the release of report cards on Monday-Thursday was not associated with increased incidence rates of child physical abuse the same day or the day after the release. However, the incidence rate of physical abuse reports increased by nearly 4-fold on Saturdays after a Friday report card release. These findings offer an easy, actionable policy strategy for school districts that may reduce the rate of child physical abuse linked to report cards.
One of our long-term goals in the Dunn lab is to translate discoveries about causal mechanisms underlying mental health risk and resilience into population-based prevention strategies that promote brain health. This National Child Abuse Prevention Month, studies like these remind us how important it is to invest in prevention strategies that are creative, evidence-based, and carefully consider who is most at risk and when. There is rarely ever one clear, all-encompassing solution to solving a major public health issue––but, together, we hope that research and policy into child maltreatment will save children’s lives and reduce the burden and suffering caused by mental disorders.
For more resources, see below to learn more about child abuse prevention:
Prevent Child Abuse of America: https://preventchildabuse.org/category/latest-activity/
Program for early intervention: https://www.childfirst.org/about-us
Thinktank data: https://www.childtrends.org/