Child abuse and neglect still occur at epidemic rates in the U.S. In 2019, one in seven children experienced it in some form, and more than 1,800 died as a result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For many of us, this is difficult to grasp, since so much awareness has been given to this issue for decades. From high-profile media reports to long-running television dramas, it’s a topic that’s been highlighted and advocated for decades, including a national annual Child Abuse Prevention Month, which we recently observed in April.
Yet, problems continue at staggering rates. According to the Children’s Bureau, more than 4.4 million referrals involving more than 7.9 million children are made to child protection agencies each year. Every 10 seconds an incident is reported, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Astoundingly, nearly 98,000 of those cases involve children under age 1.
In addition to the short-term effects, victims often experience lingering issues for years and even decades after their initial incidents. For example, the American Society for the Positive Care of Children reports that abused children are far more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors as tweens and teens, making them 25% more likely to experience teenage pregnancies and much more susceptible to contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
Substance abuse is often at the root. More than 86,000 children were removed from their homes in 2019 because at least one parent had a drug issue, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and substance abuse was one of the top two problems exhibited by families in 81% of reported child abuse cases.
Of course, the pandemic hasn’t helped. At the onset, experts correctly anticipated a rise in domestic abuse. However, a largely unexpected byproduct has been a rise in cyberbullying and online exploitation, because children are spending so much more time at computers in virtual learning settings. Moreover, experts also believe many cases are now being underreported.
As a pediatric surgeon, this is heartbreaking to witness. My colleagues and I are quick to take action when we see or even suspect that a child is in danger. We train our staff to look for and recognize warning signs, and understand how to quickly and safely report possible abuse.
You can, too. Local organizations like the Family Justice Center and Erie County Coalition Against Family Violence are available if you suspect a child is in danger. There are also national resources like the Child Welfare Information Gateway and the CDC, or you can call the National Child Abuse Hotline, toll-free: 1-800-4-A-CHILD or 1-800-422-4453.
Dr. Kathryn D. Bass is a pediatric surgeon and director of the Pediatric Trauma Center at Oishei Children’s Hospital.