Child Abuse Underreported, but Questions Linger

Child abuse in high-income countries is widely underreported, according to a recent study — though some critics doubted the research as well as proposed solutions.

The British medical journal The Lancet reports that an eight-year study found up to 16 percent of children suffer physical abuse, and roughly the same amount endure neglect or emotional abuse.

The journal, collaborating with the Royal College of Pediatrics, found that only one-tenth of abuse cases are confirmed and addressed. Experts in an Australian ABC radio interview suggested that even one in ten was a conservative estimate — and social-service professionals acknowledged that overwhelmed, understaffed child protection agencies lack the resources to deal with so many cases.

The staggering abuse statistics and a dearth of solutions left several news sources asking questions.

In an editorial, The Independent in Britain decried the broad, subjective definition of maltreatment in the study, which included teenage sex and inaccuracies that often accompany self-reports of abuse.

Australia’s Herald Sun said their national numbers reveal one fifth of child abuse complaints are unsubstantiated, thus wasting precious resources, and that investigating abuse can be “traumatic” to the child.

Moreover, some childcare professionals question whether victims of abuse are safer at home or in flawed, under-funded state programs.

By the time children reach legal age, Lancet reported, up to 30 percent of girls and 15 percent of boys experience some type of broadly defined sexual abuse.

Families are often adept at hiding abuse, victims general don’t speak up, and teachers and doctors may be reluctant to contact authorities without overwhelming evidence.

In one study, about 400 doctors reported only 90 of 1500 suspected cases of abuse.

As remedies, The Lancet called for enhanced training, screening and guidelines for parents and professionals. Herald Sun editorialists suggested better housing initiatives, economic policies and substance abuse programs for desperate parents.

Experts said society may feel abuse-effects long-term, as victims are more likely to be obese, promiscuous, violent offenders, or learning-disabled.

Indeed: The Los Angeles Daily Times reported that L.A. county registers 160,000 child abuse reports per year, and that victims are nearly 60 percent more likely to be arrested as juveniles.

–Lauren Riggs/


“Child Abuse Is Widely Under-Reported”
MedPage Today, December 4, 2008

“Child Maltreatment”
The Lancet Journal, December 2, 2008

“Child abuse prolific in wealthy nations”
ABC Radio, December 3, 2008

“Child abuse ‘underreported'”
Chatham Daily News, Ontario Canada, December 3, 2008

“Statistical improbability”
The Independent, December 4, 2008

“City attorney announces child abuse prevention campaign”
Los Angeles Times Daily News Service, December 9, 2008

“One in five child abuse complaints are false: report”
Herald Sun, December 11, 2008

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