Incidence and Demographics

In the United States, between 800,000 and one million children are identified as abused or neglected each year as a result of reports to child protection agencies. Between three and five children die from fatal maltreatment each day, and homicide by parents is a leading cause of trauma-related death for children under four years of age. Between one half and two thirds of child maltreatment cases are neglect. Children under three years of age have the highest rates of victimization. Victimization rates are similar for males and females, with the exception of child sexual abuse, in which approximately three to four times more girls than boys are involved.

There is limited data on incidence and prevalence of child maltreatment cross-culturally. While the available evidence suggests that child maltreatment occurs, or has the potential to occur, in all societies, the differential distribution is difficult to estimate. Definitional issues discussed above increase the difficulties in making valid cross-cultural or cross-national comparisons. Despite increasing international awareness, child abuse and neglect are often difficult to recognize or make sense of in the small populations often studied by anthropologists. Because child maltreatment is a low base rate behavior, it may be rare in a small population during a single year of fieldwork. Rare cases that seem at odds with more general cultural patterns, then, may not find their way into the literature. Additionally, it often is difficult to estimate the incidence or prevalence of child maltreatment in societies with high infant and child mortality rates due to disease or malnutrition.

In the United States, there is controversy about whether there are differential rates of child maltreatment across ethnically diverse populations. Questions remain as to whether a higher proportion of reports in poor ethnic minority populations is due to stresses associated with poverty leading to maltreatment or due to increased scrutiny by public welfare agencies leading to higher reports.

A major difficulty is that categories of "race" or ethnicity are not consistently disentangled from socioeconomic status. Both official report and self-report data indicate that impoverished families are at increased risk of child maltreatment. Because ethnic minority groups are at the greatest risk of poverty, they then appear to have a disproportionate incidence and prevalence of child maltreatment. Additionally, poor and ethnic minority families are more likely to be reported for child abuse and neglect than are European American families even if the severity of the incident is equivalent. Several studies have found that socioeconomic class and ethnicity are the best predictors of whether an incident is considered maltreatment and reported. This pattern has been found in New Zealand as well as in the United States.

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