Academic journal article Violence and Victims

Child Maltreatment over Two Decades: Change or Continuity?

Academic journal article Violence and Victims

Child Maltreatment over Two Decades: Change or Continuity?

Article excerpt

The increasing reports of child maltreatment during the last two decades have precipitated discussions about the degree to which these figures represent an increase in reporting or a true growth of child abuse and neglect. Using reports to child protection agencies over a 20-year period in an Indiana county, analyses suggest that there is a stability in characteristics of alleged perpetrators and victims and in the patterns of mistreatment. Shifts in the substantiation rates offer little insight for this issue, but it may be argued that the growth in reports reflects a genuine increase of abusive and neglectful behavior. Implications for abuse and neglect rates are explored.

The emergence of child abuse as a social problem is usually traced to the legal and social changes that developed during the 1960s concerning the treatment of children. Initial responses to public acknowledgment of abuse in most states included mandatory reporting laws for medical personnel to ensure early identification and protection of victims. With the passage of the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974, mandatory reporting systems were extended and were united with the existing welfare programs (Nelson, 1984) thereby legitimating neglect as an appropriate concern. One effect of these changes was a dramatic increase in reports of abuse and neglect, from about 6,000 in 1967 (Gil, 1970) to over 600,000 in 1978 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1980) to an estimated 1,900,000 in 1985 (American Humane Association, 1987).

Unfortunately, the degree to which these increases in reports reflect greater reporting of previously unreported cases or are an indication of an increase in abuse or neglect is unknown. This paper is directed toward specifying the conditions under which this question may be answered and will offer data that challenge the idea that the increase is due only to more reporting of known cases.


Any effort to provide data about the frequency or incidence of child abuse and neglect rests on definitions used to identify cases and on methods of gathering data. There are essentially three basic ways to obtain information about child abuse: (1) self-reports by a participant, either victim or perpetrator, (2) total unevaluated reports made by nonparticipant observers to legal or social service agencies without special investigation by a professional, and (3) substantiated reports of maltreatment by agencies or persons designated to investigate the complaints made to them. Each of these approaches has merit as a source of data, and each has both strengths and limitations when used as a measure of actual maltreatment levels.

Self-Reports of Physical Abuse

Self-reports of physical abuse, whether by perpetrator or victim, typically focus on specific acts of violence directed toward a child. Using such criteria, Straus and his associates reported that 3.8% of all children (1.5 million) in the United States in the mid-1970s were victims of violent acts such as kicking, biting, or punching (Gelles, 1978; Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980). A telephone restudy in 1985 found that although total levels of violence involving all forms, from throwing something at a child to using a gun or knife, remained high, serious violence-kicking, hitting, beating up, or use of gun or knife-had declined (Straus & Gelles, 1986). Self-reports by victims also have been used in cases of sexual abuse, with early estimates of about 25% of women in various samples of prisoners or college students having been victimized in some way (e.g., Gagnon, 1965; Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin, & Gebhard, 1953; Landis, 1956). More recently, 9 to 19% of a college student sample in New England have claimed to be victims of some form of unwanted sexual activity (Finkelhor, 1979).

Unfortunately, when self-reports do specify the physical acts involved, there is little consensus about what constitutes abuse, legitimate punishment, or misunderstood behavior. …

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