• April 2007
  • Vol. 8, No. 3

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Understanding the Decline in Child Maltreatment

Overall rates of child maltreatment and child victimization, with the exception of neglect, have declined since the early 1990s. A recent study examined this decline to determine whether the trends reflect a true decline in child maltreatment rather than statistical anomalies, explore why the rates of neglect are not consistent with other indicators, and suggest further areas of research for the development of public policy.

This study found evidence that declining child maltreatment rates do reflect an actual trend. Data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System were analyzed and found to be consistent across all categories. In addition, these data parallel research findings on other child welfare indicators, which show decreases in the numbers of teen parents, teen suicide, runaways, and children living in poverty. The numbers are corroborated by similar findings from the National Crime Victimization Survey. Research suggests that rates of neglect may also be declining, but expansion of the definitions of neglect has resulted in more cases constituting neglect than in the past.

The study examined a variety of possible explanations for the decline in maltreatment; three stood out as likely factors that warranted further research and exploration:

  • Economic prosperity. The 1990s were an era of economic improvement, increases in wages, better job opportunities, and fewer children living in poverty. While many agree that prosperity and antipoverty measures help protect children, we lack knowledge about which specific economic forces and policies (e.g., welfare reform, employment opportunities, tax incentives, etc.) result in greater child safety.
  • Increased agents of social intervention. Throughout the 1990s there were increases in the numbers of police, social workers, child protection workers, and mental health workers, as well as increased efforts in child abuse prevention and education.
  • Pharmacological intervention. Psychiatric medications became more available and affordable to the general population, alleviating the effects of depression, despair, and poor impulse control.

Of interest to child protective services workers is the evidence that their presence and efforts have likely contributed to the declining rates of child maltreatment. Further research is needed to identify effective practices to maintain or expand their role within the child welfare system.

"Why Have Child Maltreatment and Child Victimization Declined?" by David Finkelhor and Lisa Jones, was published in the Journal of Social Issues, Volume 62(4), and is available for free download from the Crimes Against Children Research Center website:

www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/CV137J.pdf (236 - KB)

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