In November 2000, a San Jose man was riding in a female coworker’s car when he thought he heard a child moaning. According to Sergeant Steve Dixon of the San Jose Police Department, the man “looked in the back seat. There was no one there. He looked at her [his coworker]. She looked very nervous. She began talking very loudly. He heard the moaning several times. She turned up the radio, apparently to drown out the sounds.” The man later called the police, and the woman was arrested on suspicion of child endangerment after her two sons, ages five and seven, told authorities that their mother would sometimes lock them in the trunk of her Honda Civic when she went to work. In describing this incident, Dixon stated, “It’s almost unbelievable.”
Indeed, what is perhaps most shocking about this story is that it is only “almost” unbelievable. Due to the frequency with which one hears of child abuse cases—even cases much more serious than children being locked in the trunk of a car—the incident is frighteningly believable.
Statistics suggest that child abuse is not a rare occurrence. According to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information, a resource office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there were 2,806,000 reports of possible child maltreatment in 1998. About one-third of these (34 percent) were “screened out,” and about two-thirds (66 percent) were investigated. Of those investigated, about 540,000 (29.9 percent) resulted in a finding of “either substantiated or indicated child maltreatment.”
The clearinghouse estimates that in 1998 903,000 children were victims of maltreatment, defined as “children who are found to have experienced or be at risk of experiencing substantiated or indicated maltreatment.” This number includes 1,100 children who died of abuse and neglect. Of these 903,000 victims, over one-half (54 percent) experienced neglect, about one-fourth (23 percent) suffered physical abuse, and 12 percent were victims of sexual abuse. The remaining 11 percent were subjected to psychological abuse and medical neglect in roughly equal numbers. The vast majority (87 percent) were maltreated by one or both parents.
Advocates for abused children point to these and other statistics to support their argument that child abuse is a serious problem in America—although some insist that the problem is much more widespread than these numbers suggest. For example, Jim Hopper, a research associate at Boston University School of Medicine, asserts that the majority of child abuse victims are not counted in official statistics because “most abused and neglected children never come to the attention of authorities.” Hopper claims that sexual abuse is especially unlikely to be reported to authorities because “there may be no physical signs of harm, there is always intense shame, and secrecy is often maintained, even by adults who know of the abuse, for fear of destroying a family.” For these reasons, Hopper concludes, “the statistics on ‘substantiated’ cases of child abuse and neglect collected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are not indicative of actual rates of child abuse in the United States.”
Others argue that the numbers actually create the impression that the problem is more severe than it actually is. Child abuse activists often cite the fact that there are about 2.8 million child abuse reports each year—an increase of about 41 percent since 1988. However, as previously stated, more than half of such reports are either screened out or found to be unsubstantiated. Moreover, the large increase since the late 1980s is largely the result of new laws that require certain professionals—such as social workers and teachers—to report every suspected case of child abuse. Since these professionals are shielded from litigation for making unsubstantiated reports, while at the same time face severe punishment if they fail to report substantiated abuse, they have an incentive to report even the most questionable cases. Douglas J. Besharov and Jacob W. Dembosky, writing in Slate magazine, attribute the increase in reports to a “growing reportorial sensitivity of professionals.” They suggest that “professionals who become more sensitive to possible abuse, or more adept at noticing it, would make more reports . . . even if the actual incidence had not risen.”
While experts debate the accuracy of the statistics, few dispute the harm that child abuse can cause. While some children die of neglect and abuse, most victims survive with psychic scars that stay with them throughout their lives. As stated by the National Council on Child Abuse and Family Violence, “Abuse robs children of the opportunity to develop healthy, trusting relationships with adults, contributes to low self-esteem, and impairs healthy psycho-social development. Indeed, the effects of childhood abuse often last a lifetime.” A problem with such potentially devastating consequences deserves thoughtful scrutiny. To that end, the authors of Child Abuse: Current Controversies take a close look at many of the contentious debates that surround this issue, including the severity of the problem, its causes, and how best to prevent it. Throughout these pages, contributors grapple with the challenge of protecting society’s most vulnerable members.