Crime & Justice

USC study challenges traditional data: points to higher rates of child abuse

Research from the Children’s Data Network at USC found approximately one in 20 children in California are victims of substantiated abuse or neglect before they reach their fifth birthday.
Research from the Children’s Data Network at USC found approximately one in 20 children in California are victims of substantiated abuse or neglect before they reach their fifth birthday.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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New research from the University of Southern California's Children’s Data Network shows that approximately one in 20 children in California are victims of substantiated abuse or neglect before they reach their fifth birthday.

The study separately found that about 1 in 7 California children are reported to county Child Protective Services agencies over suspected abuse before they reach age 5. County social workers must determine if suspected abuse is substantiated.

Researchers from USC's School of Social Work studied records from children born in 2006 and 2007, linking the birth records with statewide Child Protection records over a five-year period. It found a dramatically higher rate of substantiated abuse than traditional child abuse data, which is compiled annually and includes all children under age 18. 

Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, for example, has consistently shown that about 1 in 100 children in the US are victims of substantiated abuse. State data generally mirrors the national percentage. This new research shows much higher occurrences of substantiated abuse -  1 in 20 - because it is a cumulative five-year period and is focused on young children who are known to be the most vulnerable to child abuse.

In the report, authors explained their methodology, writing "Annual rates understate the number of children who are involved with the child protection system throughout their early years. When children are followed from birth through age 5 – we see that the cumulative rate of children who are born in our state and are later involved with the child protection system is roughly triple annual rates of children reported, substantiated and placed in foster care."

Daniel Heimpel, a child advocate and executive director of the non-profit group Fostering Media Connections said this study should serve as a wake-up call to county officials.

"By looking at a child's life span for five years, you are able to see with greater detail and clarity whether or not they came into contact with the child protection system," he said.

The study, authored by Dr. Emily Putnam-Hornstein, also examined demographic and familial factors associated with higher rates of child abuse. It found higher rates of abuse in families with no paternity established at birth, a mother under age 30, and/or in families on public medical assistance.

Heimpel said this research can be used to help county social workers know where to direct voluntary services, to ensure that families most at-risk get the help they need before an abuse incident ever occurs.

"Being able to understand what the adverse risk factors for subsequent for child maltreatment are, is incredibly important if you are trying to offer voluntary services to families who have a heightened risk profile," he said. "The opportunity is to better know which families are at heightened risk, and with that information you can start to make decisions about where to direct scarce resources."