Child Maltreatment May Actually Be Declining

Recent data show declines in many indices of child victimization.

Posted Aug 11, 2014

The news has been full of headlines lately that suggest that children today experience more abuse and maltreatment than ever. Stories of relentless bullying, pedophiles prowling the internet, and high profile accounts of child abuse and kidnapping certainly illustrate the ever present dangers of our world. But are things really worse now compared to the past? In addition to these horrific crimes, there have also been targeted public health campaigns against problems such as bullyling and child abuse and more children than ever are engaged in mental health treatment.

A recent study from JAMA Pediatrics examines changes in the rate of youth victimization from 2003 to 2011. Random telephone surveys were conducted in 2003, 2008, and 2011 of 2,030, 4,046, and 4,107 households, respectively, using the same questionnaire that examined a number of child maltreatment domains such events of abuse, violence, or other forms of victimization that occurred in the past year. The researchers were interested in changes in victimization rates from 2003 to 2011 and also probed the 2008-2011 interval which included the most recent economic recession.

To the surprise of many, the rate of victimization significantly dropped from 2003 to 2011 for slightly over half of the variables studied, including rates of bullying, assault victimization, sexual victimization, as well as youth perpetrating acts of violence and property crime against others. The overall rate of child maltreatment during this period dropped by 26 percent. Declines were also observed for the period between 2008 and 2011, although not as dramatically. For no variables did the rate significantly increase. Furthermore, most of the observed trends were widespread and did not pertain just to certain groups based on age, gender, or other demographic variables.

The study is far from perfect and did not assess families with children under 2 years of age. Nevertheless, their results are consistent with several others that document that many indices of child mental health are improving, despite headlines to the contrary. While the authors could not determine why these rates are declining, some potential candidates were mentioned. One of them was the presence of direct efforts on the part of many organizations to reduce child victimization. Also mentioned by the authors is the frequently maligned increase of psychiatric treatment that has occurred over the past couple of decades as people recognize that some of the bullies and parents and other individuals who are at risk of harming children meet criteria for psychiatric illness and aren’t “just” being bad.

While clearly there is much more work to be done, these numbers are encouraging and need to be given the same media attention as the negative headlines. 


@copyright by David Rettew, MD

Image courtesy of Vlado and

David Rettew is author of Child Temperament: New Thinking About the Boundary Between Traits and Illness and a child psychiatrist in the psychiatry and pediatrics departments at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.

Follow him at @PediPsych and like PediPsych on Facebook.