As children’s hospitals across the country report an increase in severe physical child abuse cases over the past decade, a new study from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia ties this increase to the struggling economy.
Evaluating data from 38 children’s hospitals, researchers at CHOP’s policy lab found that severe abuse cases such as fractures or head injuries went up by almost 1 percent per year between 2000 and 2009. The report says that regions where physical child abuse increased also saw a rise in home foreclosures, suggesting a connection between economic stress and abuse.
The study is the first to link foreclosures and increased physical abuse of children, according to Joanne Wood, a CHOP pediatrician and researcher.
She says the findings do not mean that abused kids actually came from families whose homes were being foreclosed.
“But I think it does suggest that in communities where homes are being foreclosed on and families are stressed, that there may be an increased risk of abuse and that we may be able to, at the community level, do a better job of connecting at-risk families to help support them before they end up in the child welfare system,” she said.
Wood says poverty and economic stress are known risk factors in child abuse, and home foreclosures often represent the end point in a long economic struggle. The study did not find a connection between unemployment and increased child abuse cases.
Wood says the new findings are sparking productive conversations between pediatricians and policy-makers on how to “better use data to understand what is happening to children, and better target our resources so that we can help prevent child abuse,” she said.
The CHOP findings contradict national data from child protective services agencies, which have reported a decline in physical child abuse over the last decade.
Wood says this discrepancy could stem from different methods of reporting child abuse.
In order to be counted in this study, a physician had to determine that the injury had been caused by abuse, so Wood says the real increase in abuse cases is likely higher because suspected abuse was not counted.
The 38 hospitals reported a total of 11,822 physical abuse cases over the 10-year period.