Every five hours a child dies from abuse or neglect in the US.
The latest government figures show an estimated 1,770 children were killed as a result of maltreatment in 2009.
A recent congressional report concludes the real number could be nearer 2,500. In fact, America has the worst child abuse record in the industrialized world.
The BBC’s Natalia Antelava investigates. (VIDEO)
Sixty-six children under the age of 15 die from physical abuse or neglect every week in the industrialized world. Twenty-seven of those die in the US – the highest number of any other country.
Even when populations are taken into account, Unicef research from 2001 places the US equal bottom with Mexico on child deaths from maltreatment.
In Texas, one of the states with the worst child abuse records, the Dallas Children’s Medical Center is dealing with a rising number of abused children and increasing levels of violence.
Meanwhile, the Houston Center is expanding its services to deal with the rising problem of child sex abuse.
The doctor’s experience
Inside a Houston help center
Emma Thompson was just four years old when she was beaten to death in 2009. Her injuries included broken ribs, a bloodied lip, widespread bruising and a fractured skull. She had also been raped.Her mother and her mother’s partner have been jailed over the abuse. But Emma’s father, Ben, believes his daughter was let down by everyone around her.
(Video) ‘Everybody missed the signs’
Who’s to blame?
Just like Emma Thompson, hundreds more children fall through the cracks of the child protection system. Some blame overworked investigators and inefficient management, while others say it’s the federal government’s drive to keep families together that is the problem.
But child protection officials in Texas, a state with one of the highest total number of child deaths from abuse and neglect in the US, say such cases are complicated and difficult to assess – especially when a child’s guardians are hiding what is really going on.
The Child Protection Challenge
How to stop it
In Washington, politicians are beginning to recognize what some now describe as a “national crisis”.A congressional hearing in July heard from experts in the field about what can be done to prevent deaths from child abuse.
A national commission is being set up to coordinate a country-wide response.Many believe home visits to new parents by qualified health professionals, preparing them for the difficulties of family life, are key to that strategy.
(video) Teaching parents to be parentsTeenagers describe the challenges of having children young
Abused children are 74 times more likely to commit crimes against others and six times more likely to maltreat their own children, according to the Texas Association for the Protection of Children. For this reason, experts believe it is in the US government’s as well as society’s interest to ensure children are protected from abuse.
Each and every citizen, they say, has a responsibility to help break this cycle of violence.
Design: Mark Bryson. Production: Franz Strasser, Bill McKenna, Lucy Rodgers and Luke Ward.
Millions of children are reported as abused and neglected every year
Why is the problem of violence against children so much more acute in the US than anywhere else in the industrialized world, asks Michael Petit, President of Every Child Matters.
Over the past 10 years, more than 20,000 American children are believed to have been killed in their own homes by family members. That is nearly four times the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The child maltreatment death rate in the US is triple Canada’s and 11 times that of Italy. Millions of children are reported as abused and neglected every year. Why is that?
Part of the answer is that teen pregnancy, high-school dropout, violent crime, imprisonment, and poverty – factors associated with abuse and neglect – are generally much higher in the US.
“The sharp differences between the states raises the question of an expanded federal role” Michael Petit – Every Child Matters
Further, other rich nations have social policies that provide child care, universal health insurance, pre-school, parental leave and visiting nurses to virtually all in need.
In the US, when children are born into young families not prepared to receive them, local social safety nets may be frayed, or non-existent. As a result, they are unable to compensate for the household stress the child must endure.
In the most severe situations, there is a predictable downward spiral and a child dies. Some 75% of these children are under four, while nearly half are under one.
Geography matters a lot in determining child well-being. Take the examples of Texas and Vermont.
Texas prides itself in being a low tax, low service state. Its per capita income places it in the middle of the states, while its total tax burden – its willingness to tax itself – is near the bottom.
Vermont, in contrast, is at the other extreme. It is a high-tax, high-service state.
Mix of risks
In looking at key indicators of well-being, children from Texas are twice as likely to drop out of high school as children from Vermont. They are four times more likely to be uninsured, four times more likely to be incarcerated, and nearly twice as likely to die from abuse and neglect.
Source: Univ of Houston, TexProtects
- $6.25 billion (£4.01bn) spent in 2007 on direct and indirect costs dealing with after-effects of child abuse and neglect
- $0.05 billion (£0.03bn) budgeted in 2011 for prevention and early intervention
In Texas, a combination of elements add to the mix of risks that a child faces. These include a higher poverty rate in Texas, higher proportions of minority children, lower levels of educational attainment, and a political culture which holds a narrower view of the role of government in addressing social issues.
Texas, like many other traditionally conservative states, is likely to have a weaker response to families that need help in the first place, and be less efficient in protecting children after abuse occurs.
The sharp differences between the states raises the question of an expanded federal role.
Are children Texas children first? Or are they first American children with equal opportunity and protection?
A national strategy, led by our national government, needs to be developed and implemented. For a start, the Congress should adopt legislation that would create a National Commission to End Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities.
Nearly half the child fatalities in 2009 were children under the age of one
And no children’s programmes should be on the chopping block, federal or state. Children did not crash the US economy. It is both shortsighted economic policy and morally wrong to make them pay the price for fixing it.
But instead as the US economy lags, child poverty soars, and states cut billions in children’s services, we are further straining America’s already weak safety net.
Inevitably, it means more children will die. The easy answer is to blame parents and already burdened child protection workers. But easy answers don’t solve complex problems.
And with millions of children injured and thousands killed, this problem is large indeed, and it deserves a large response.
Michael Petit is the president of Every Child Matters. He served as the state of Maine’s human services commissioner, and as deputy of the Child Welfare League of America.
Related Internet links:
Justice for Children
Every Child Matters
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites
17TH OCTOBER 2011 – 23:21
Virgil – Thank you for the full report. My guess is that DC isn’t a state and Nevada has a whole host of other religious issues that would make counting impossible. It is legal for a man to marry multiple underage wives of which he is related. Doesn’t happen in any other state, at least not legally. Wyoming and Montana barely have 100,000 children in them, so statistically not significant.
17TH OCTOBER 2011 – 22:51
we in the uk need to worry about staying under torie leadership any longer, sorry to knock the yanks but were starting to see steps towards private healthcare like the us where the poor are left behind and the lowering of funds into social services with money going elsewhere bit like texas ey
Karen Spears Zacharias
17TH OCTOBER 2011 – 22:48
Once again the BBC proves why it’s a news source I turn to as a journalist. Here you are doing the story that America journalists shy away from. For the past five years, I’ve been at work on a book about this issue. [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator] I applaud Natalia Antelava & BBC for the courage in addressing this national shame.
17TH OCTOBER 2011 – 22:48
contd No part of the world is free from this horror, but some parts of the world have far less abuse of children. It makes sense to discover possible reasons why this might be so; those countries with higher stats might then learn from this & be able to do so much more to protect their vulnerable children.
17TH OCTOBER 2011 – 22:37
@ 56 Why on earth would anyone jeer at the spectre of child abuse, whether it takes place in the USA, UK or on the Indian subcontinent?
By comparing figures across the world & looking at factors implicated such as poverty, educational levels, aswell as care provision, steps can be taken to reduce child abuse in areas where it is high, improving the lives &mortality of children who live there.
17TH OCTOBER 2011 – 22:33
bit of an eye opener
think its a piece about the surprise that a country like the us has these problems were others are maybe known about
17TH OCTOBER 2011 – 22:27
I would like to see the statistics on children killed who are living with both their Biological parents vs those with non biological parents especially people referred to as partners in the article. I think living arrangements contribute to this most heinous of acts.
17TH OCTOBER 2011 – 22:10
Where is China in this report or India??
17TH OCTOBER 2011 – 21:55
This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.
17TH OCTOBER 2011 – 21:40
I am not saying there isn’t a problem with violence against children in the US. In fact I agree it is ridiculously commonplace. But reading this on a BBC website smacks of the pot calling the kettle black. Hardly a day goes by on the UK section of this website without news of a kid getting killed in the UK.
17TH OCTOBER 2011 – 21:24
Why is it that Europeans take tragedies such as this and use them to jeer other countries? It’s very strange and somewhat perverted behavior. A normal person would feel horror and sadness at such a thing happening to children, yet the Europeans use it more as a way of saying “Ha, knew things were better over here all along.” Really sad way of behaving.
17TH OCTOBER 2011 – 21:06
Once you start helping these kids, you can’t stop. They will truly motivate you. I always say that they deserve not just good care, but the BEST care we can give them as a community. One more thing on perp stats. There is a type of abuse that used to be called Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, now called Medical Child Abuse. Mothers are almost exclusively the perpetrators in that case.
17TH OCTOBER 2011 – 20:57
as a student social worker this piece really galvanises me to get out there and make a difference in the lives of kids, although i’m going to have to get past the gut wrenching reaction it provokes in me first…
17TH OCTOBER 2011 – 20:58
You are welcome for the info. There are certain scenarios where it is “classic” to have a male perp (unrelated male living in the household as a risk for sexual abuse). If we think about the stressors that influence abuse and neglect (poverty, single parent, lack of social support, young age) and who the primary caretakers are, it’s no wonder that moms are more common in overall numbers.
17TH OCTOBER 2011 – 20:44
Thanks for the info – although I’m not as informed on the subject as I’d like to be (and as you are obviously are!) I was surprised in what I’d read how women were more likely to be abusive than I’d thought; and I was also shocked to read how some feminists simply deny that female abuse occurs, insisting it’s virtually exclusively inflicted by men.
17TH OCTOBER 2011 – 20:38
The perpetrators are parents 75% of the time, with mothers as the most common at 1/3, both together at 1/5 and just dads at around 1/5. This is likely because mothers tend to be caring for the kids more and so have more access. The only exception is child sexual abuse where the abusers are overwhelmingly male at 90%.
17TH OCTOBER 2011 – 20:36
Reply to question about geneder of perp and vics. In US, overall girls and boys are victimized at the same rate. Girls are higher for sexual abuse and boys are slightly higher for physical abuse. Neglect, though, is the number one type of abuse and occurs in equal numbers of boys and girls.
17TH OCTOBER 2011 – 20:26
Parental rights far out way the children needs. I am personally aware of children placed in good foster homes, then removed and placed back with their abusive family.
The second issue is Right to life vs Right to choice, both should focus their resources on unwanted pregnancy. That would cut down on abortions and unwanted babies.
Comment number48. rich
17TH OCTOBER 2011 – 20:22
17TH OCTOBER 2011 – 20:01
Supreme Court refused to take on any responsibility for child abuse, because, wrote Chief Rehnquist in DeShaney v. Winnebago County, 1989, “A state’s failure to protect an individual against private violence” was not a denial of the victim’s rights as the state…”played no part in their [dangers to the child]creation, nor did it do anything to render him any more vulnerable to them.” Joshua died