Child Abuse Rises When Economy Sags: Study

MONDAY July 16, 2012 -- The housing crisis that has left so many people without a permanent home may have worsened another serious problem: child abuse. As mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures loom, the rates of child abuse leading to hospitalization also increased, according to new research.

Between 2000 and 2009, the rate of child abuse requiring hospital admission increased by 3 percent a year for every 1 percent increase in the 90-day mortgage-delinquency rate. The rate of traumatic brain injury suspected to be caused by child abuse increased 5 percent a year for every 1 percent increase in the mortgage-delinquency rate, according to the study.

"On the community level, we need to recognize that losing a home is very stressful, and we need to let families know that it's OK to ask for help," said the study's lead author, Dr. Joanne Wood, assistant professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "We need to provide them links to resources where they can get help."

Results of the study will be published in the August issue of the journal Pediatrics. The study was released online July 16.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, rates of child abuse declined dramatically, according to background information in the study. Some theorized that the decrease was likely due to a thriving economy.

Other recent research, however, has suggested that the rates of child abuse are rising. One study published in the October 2011 issue of Pediatrics found that the rates of abusive head trauma in children went from nine per 100,000 children to 15 per 100,000 children between 2004 and 2009. A second study, presented at the American Association of Neurological Surgeons meeting in April 2011, found that the rates of abusive head trauma during the recession had doubled in children 2 years old and younger.

Wood said she initiated the study because she heard concerning reports from her colleagues that they were seeing an increase in children being admitted to the hospital due to abuse.

Wood and her colleagues reviewed data from 38 hospitals across the United States included in the Pediatric Hospital Information System database. The data was then linked to data on unemployment, mortgage foreclosures and mortgage delinquencies in each hospital's geographic area.

The researchers looked for physical abuse in children under 6 years old and traumatic brain injuries in children under 1 year old that weren't caused by motor vehicle accidents. Wood said these injuries likely stemmed from abuse, but that abuse couldn't be confirmed. Both types of injuries were serious enough to require hospitalization.

Overall, the rates of child abuse and traumatic brain injury admissions increased by 0.79 percent and 3 percent, respectively, from 2000 to 2009, according to the study. This increase occurred during a period when all-cause injuries in children decreased by 0.8 percent per year.

When the researchers compared the admission rates with local economic data, a clear trend emerged. In families whose housing situation was insecure -- either because they were behind on their mortgage or had lost their home to foreclosure -- child abuse was far more likely.

"As someone who takes care of children who've been abused, I can say that stress is often a contributing factor in abuse," Wood said. "Often it's not just one particular factor, but an accumulation of factors that leads to abuse."

Another expert talked about causes. "Child abuse occurs across all classes and all races, but when you have fewer resources and fewer support systems, child abuse becomes more likely," said Dr. Stephen Ajl, director of pediatric ambulatory care at the Brooklyn Hospital Center and medical director of the Jane Barker Brooklyn Children's Advocacy Center in New York City.

"This study focuses on housing and stability and its relationship to child abuse," Ajl said. "I think the more we highlight the factors that contribute to child abuse, the more power the argument gets that we really need to do something to prevent these things that precipitate child abuse."

Ajl said parents who are feeling financial or other stresses should reach out for help.

"Your children are not where your frustrations should be taken out," he said. "Walk away for 10 seconds. Stop take a deep breath."

Ajl said it's important for people who see or suspect abuse to report it to the authorities.

"People don't always want to get involved, but if you see abuse, don't walk away," he said.

More information

If you're a parent who needs help, you can talk to counselors at ChildHelp anonymously and at no cost. Call 800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453).

Posted: July 2012


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