When I set out on my journey to recovery in 1997, my world seemed so very small. It was only in the few years prior that I started to share my experiences with others. Even though I learned I wasn’t alone in these experiences, I still felt very isolated by the stigma, secrecy, and silence that surrounded child abuse – child sexual abuse and incest in particular.

Soon, I started looking into the data to see how many lives are touched by abuse in some form, and the numbers were astounding. People needed to know what was really going on, so I created my first pie chart and posted the statistics on my site. Twenty years later, the numbers are still staggering, and the stigma, misunderstanding, and silence are still too prevalent. So here, we will delve into the facts and data to gain a clearer picture of what is happening in our communities.

What Is Child Abuse?

Neglect is failure to provide for a child’s basic needs. Neglect may be:

  • Physical (e.g., failure to provide necessary food or shelter, or lack of appropriate supervision)
  • Medical (e.g., failure to provide necessary medical or mental health treatment)
  • Educational (e.g., failure to educate a child or attend to special education needs)
  • Emotional (e.g., inattention to a child’s emotional needs, failure to provide psychological care, or permitting the child to use alcohol or other drugs)

These situations do not always mean a child is neglected. Sometimes cultural values, the standards of care in the community, and poverty may be contributing factors, indicating the family is in need of information or assistance. When a family fails to use information and resources, and the child’s health or safety is at risk, then child welfare intervention may be required.

Physical abuse is physical injury (ranging from minor bruises to severe fractures or death) as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting (with a hand, stick, strap, or other object), burning, or otherwise harming a child. Such injury is considered abuse regardless of whether the caretaker intended to hurt the child.

Sexual abuse includes, but is not limited to, activities by a parent, caretaker, or other person with greater power, such as fondling a child’s genitals, penetration, incest, rape, sodomy, indecent exposure, and exploitation through trafficking or the production of pornographic materials.

Sexual abuse is defined as “the employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of any child to engage in, or assist any other person to engage in, any sexually explicit conduct or simulation of such conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct; or the rape, and in cases of caretaker or inter-familial relationships, statutory rape, molestation, trafficking, or other form of sexual exploitation of children, or incest with children.”

Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth. This may include constant criticism, threats, or rejection, as well as withholding love, support, or guidance. Emotional abuse is often difficult to prove and, therefore, CPS may not be able to intervene without evidence of harm to the child. Emotional abuse is almost always present when other forms are identified.

Source Citation:
What is Child Abuse & Neglect Factsheet published by the Child Welfare Informaton Gateway

How Many Children Are Abused?

In 2015, 6.0 million children were reported to the Department of Family & Children Services as possible victims of abuse. Of those children:

  • 2.9 million (rounded) were investigated
  • approximately 638,000 (rounded) were confirmed to have been victims of at least one type of abuse
  • 29.5% had previous cases of confirmed abuse
  • 14% were victims of multiple types of abuse
  • 500,000 additional children received an alternate response, meaning abuse/neglect types were not reported as investigations were deferred in favor of services.

While these numbers are staggering, they are far from accurate. Thousands of abuse cases cannot be substantiated due to a lack of evidence. Many parents “hop” residences, counties, and states – making it difficult for DFCS to keep accurate records. Many parents are also very good at hiding abuse during the initial investigation period. Other instances of abuse go unreported due to the taboos and secrecy surrounding abuse, especially in instances of sexual abuse. Additionally, in cases where the child is being harmed by someone outside the home and the parents are not at fault, DFCS may not be involved.

Donut chart representing types of child abuse substantiated in 2015.

* Percentage reflected is greater than 100% due to data representing children listed in multiple categories.

While the number of substantiated victims has decreased since the 1990s, much of that decrease can be attributed to a shift to alternative responses in which victims are not identified. The percent of substantiated reports for each type of abuse has not changed more than a few points over time, however.

Data Source:
Maltreatment Types of Victims, 2015 from the Child Maltreatment Study 2015

Breaking the Cycle…

A statement in the 2008 Child Maltreatment Study struck a chord with me as an adult survivor:

“For many victims, the efforts of the CPS system have not been successful in preventing subsequent victimization. Through the Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSR), the Children’s Bureau has established the current national standard for the absence of maltreatment recurrence as 94.6 percent…”

In 2015, the rate was at 70.5%, which is well below the target. If the system that is meant to protect our most vulnerable children is not able to put safeguards in place to prevent child abuse from recurring, changes must be made in the way that we, as a society deal with and educate others about abuse.

Where Do We Go From Here?

With so many abuse cases that are never substantiated or reported, it only stands to reason that these children will often grow up without the guidance and support they need to recover from the trauma of their experiences. Oftentimes, this creates a cycle of abuse that will be repeated through the generations to follow ~ until someone steps in to stop it.

Educating yourself on the signs and symptoms of abuse, learning how to document and report abuse, and helping to create support networks for families in crisis are the first steps to helping stop current and prevent future abuse. You can learn more about how to help by visiting many of the sites posted on Butterfly Wing’s Links page.