Child Abuse and Neglect: A Public Health Problem?

In order for children to thrive and learn, they need to grow up in a safe, nurturing, and stable home. Unfortunately, that is not always what happens. Approximately 800,000 children were found to be victims of abuse and neglect in just one year and many more cases go unreported. 

Commonly referred to as “child maltreatment”, this includes all types of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and neglect. It can to occur in families of all races and socio-economic standings, according to EDC’s Sally Fogerty. 

“Child maltreatment is usually a learned behavior but it can be related to extreme family stress or dysfunction due to multiple reasons,” Fogerty explains. Some factors associated with increased risk of abuse include a family history of violence, substance abuse, poverty and chronic health issues. 

To begin assisting states with taking a more preventative public health approach to this issue, EDC’s Health and Human Development Division is participating in the Public Health Leadership Initiative. This 3-year joint project with the CDC Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is examining what state health departments do, and what roles they should be playing in the prevention of child maltreatment.   

“Over the past 5 to 10 years there’s been this increased effort to move upstream to prevent child maltreatment before the initial abuse occurs,” says Fogerty, who is EDC’s project lead. “We are trying to ascertain whether we can get to these families and children before they’re even identified as ‘at risk’ and referred to state services the first time.” This will involve boosting the factors that have been identified as protecting children from abuse and neglect—which includes concrete support for families in times of need; children’s healthy and appropriate social and emotional development; and parental resilience, social connections and knowledge of parenting and child development. 

The first step of the project was to conduct an environmental scan to find out if states across the country saw child maltreatment as a priority, and what they are currently doing in this area.  Surveys were sent to public health departments in every state, including the District of Columbia. 

The results of the survey were surprising.  Not only did they get a 100% response rate, but the majority of the states affirmed that child maltreatment is a public health concern, and felt that child maltreatment was in line with their state health department priorities.    

These results are encouraging to Fogerty, “They demonstrate that states have identified the prevention of child maltreatment as an important issue to focus on. And even in the presence of the H1N1 flu, this issue is not getting overlooked.” 

Many states indicated that they have programs, staff, or collaborative relationships in place between state agencies which can serve as building blocks for further programming. The next step will be to visit 5 geographically diverse states and study in-depth what they are doing.   

“Abuse is still a fairly hidden part of life so having people recognize child maltreatment as an issue is a first step,” says Fogerty. “Through this project we hope to help states take a more proactive approach which means focusing on efforts that will create and support strong families.”