Discussing the perils of American society is certainly a sobering topic but no topic is more sobering than that of child abuse. Largely considered one of the most heinous crimes, child abuse is a far larger problem than most realize. And the problem may be worse than statistics indicate because many cases are not reported in the first place. Some studies indicate that cases are underreported by as much as 50%.

Each year, approximately 3 million instances of child abuse, involving 6 million children, are reported to authorities in the United States. The US has one of the worst child abuse records among industrialized nations - reports of child abuse are made every ten-seconds. Between four and seven children die from child abuse per day across the country. Of the children that die from such abuse, 80% are under the age of four and about 80% of the cases implicate at least one parent as a perpetrator. About 686,000 cases, or 10 full modern football stadiums, of child abuse investigations were substantiated in 2012 alone.

Child Maltreatment, according to the Center for Disease Control, represents four types of abuse: physical abuse; sexual abuse; emotional abuse; neglect.

"Physical abuse is the use of intentional physical force, such as hitting, kicking, shaking, burning or other show of force against a child."

"Sexual abuse involves engaging a child in sexual acts. It includes fondling, rape, and exposing a child to other sexual activities."

"Emotional abuse refers to behaviors that harm a child's self-worth or emotional well-being. Examples include name calling, shaming, rejection, withholding love, and threatening."

"Neglect is the failure to meet a child's basic needs. These needs include housing, food, clothing, education, and access to medical care."

Among the 686,000 substantiated cases, approximately 28.3% of the cases were considered physical abuse cases, 20.7% were sexual abuse cases, 10.6% were emotional abuse cases, and 24.7% were neglect cases. Sadly, about 30% of victims of child abuse will become perpetrators and abuse their own children.

Child maltreatment creates devastating consequences for the abused and for society, in general. Victims of child abuse report increased health problems and a higher rate of mental health issues than the general population. One study found that children who reported at least six adverse childhood experiences lived two decades shorter than those who reported none. Such victims also have an increased propensity to suffer from ischemic heart disease (ISD), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), liver disease, and other chronic health conditions.

Aside of the increased risk for health issues, victims of child abuse suffer from higher rates of mental health issues and addictions. One study indicates 80% of victims of child abuse(at 21 years of age) meet criteria for at least one psychological disorder. Victims report higher levels of depression, are more likely to attempt suicide, abuse drugs, and are more likely to suffer from intimate partner violence. Almost two-thirds of people in treatment for drug abuse report being abused neglected as children. Victims are also likely to have multiple sexual partners, suffer from sexually transmitted diseases, and be exposed to sexual activity at an early age.

Victims of child abuse are 59% more likely to arrested as a juvenile, 28% more likely to be arrested as an adult, and 30% more likely to commit violent crimes. Overall, such victims are nine times more likely than the general population to be involved in some type of criminal activity. 36% of adult women prisoners and 14% of male prisoners were abused as children, which is twice the rate seen among the general population. Experts contend the latter estimate likely under-represents the true percentage of male child abuse victims due to their propensity to fail to report the abuse.

A 2008 study estimates the lifetime economic toll of child abuse and neglect to be in the range of $124 billion, for new cases alone. This estimate includes "lifetime estimates of lost worker productivity, health care costs, special education costs, child welfare expenditures and criminal justice expenditures."

Several factors, including substance abuse, domestic violence, poverty, and mental health issues, increase the likelihood that child neglect and abuse occurs. Parents who abuse drugs or alcohol are three times more likely to abuse their children and four times more likely to neglect their children.

The trend of child abuse in the United States has progressively gotten worse since 2000, although numbers have slightly improved since the height of the Great Recession. Child fatalities in 2000 were 3.6 per day compared to 4.5 per day in 2012. In 2009, child fatalities per day were 4.8. Several initiatives by both grassroots organizations and government entities aim to reduce the propensity for child abuse to occur. Initiatives also include ameliorating the impact of child abuse and neglect on the victims.

For more information on child abuse and neglect, click on the links and sources listed below.


Center for Disease Control

CDC Fact Sheet

CDC Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study

Children's Safety Network

Image credit: Steve White