A child’s exposure to violence, crime and abuse can lead to serious consequences for their health and well-being that can last long into adulthood.
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), there were an estimated 600,000 victims of child abuse and neglect across the United States in fiscal year (FY) 2021.
Most victims of child abuse experienced neglect, accounting for 76% of all cases. Physical abuse was reported in 16% of cases, while sexual abuse was reported in 10.1% of cases. Additionally, 0.2% of cases involved sex trafficking. Girls were abused more often (8.7 per 1,000 girls in the population) than boys (7.5 per 1,000).
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, a time to recognize the importance of families and communities working together to prevent child abuse and neglect.
What Is Child Abuse?
Child abuse is when an adult hurts a child or teen by making that youth feel worthless, initiating sexual contact with them, or not providing adequate food, care or shelter.
Child abuse can happen to all types of kids and in all types of families. It is rarely a single event. Instead, child abuse occurs with regularity and the abuse can become more severe over time.
Most often, a parent, family member, caretaker or someone close to the family is the perpetrator of child abuse. According to the HHS report, most individuals who committed child abuse in 2021 were the victim’s parents (76.8%).
Each state has its own definitions of abuse and neglect based on the following standard put forth in federal law identifying a set of acts or behaviors that define child abuse and neglect:
Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation, or an act or failure to act, which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.
Responding to Child Abuse
Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs) coordinate the investigation, treatment and prosecution of child abuse cases.
The Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) supports CACs through the Victims of Child Abuse (VOCA) program by providing funding for the national membership organization and subgrants to CACs across the country.
In FY21, OJJDP awarded more than $43 million in VOCA funding.
For law enforcement, investigating child abuse is a critical and sensitive issue affecting children’s safety and well-being nationwide. Law enforcement personnel often have difficulty determining if a child’s injury is accidental or deliberately inflicted.
To help law enforcement differentiate between physical abuse and accidental injury, OJJDP published Recognizing When a Child’s Injury or Illness Is Caused by Abuse, which outlines the critical questions to ask when making this judgment. Additionally, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has supported a series of research projects characterizing pediatric injuries, modeling injury risk and building an evidence base to help determine the likelihood of abuse as the cause of injuries in children.
The Office for Victims of Crime has developed Child Victims and Witnesses Support Materials to help child and youth victims. These resources teach children how the justice system works, what their rights are, the roles of the different practitioners they’ll meet and how they can cope with the difficult feelings they might have. There are also tips for children who must testify to help them prepare for going to court.
In February 2023, OVC grantee Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, Connecticut, released a final report on their Child Safety Forward initiative, which aims to reduce fatalities or near-death injuries due to child abuse or neglect. The project was led by a parent engagement work group, that developed a comprehensive educational guide called "From Pain to Parenting," which parents will implement in Hartford's neighborhoods through training sessions in safe and welcoming spaces.
To improve the judicial process for child abuse and neglect cases with the goal of increasing safety, permanency and well-being outcomes for children, OJJDP supports the Implementation Sites Project. OJJDP also funds numerous other projects, programs and training that are critical to intervening in and investigating child abuse and neglect cases.
Long-Term Effects of Child Abuse
Children who are exposed to violence are more likely to experience failure in school, depression and substance use.
Results from research supported by NIJ have also shown that childhood abuse increases the risk of crime in adulthood by promoting antisocial behavior during adolescence, followed by forming relationships with antisocial romantic partners and peers in adulthood.
The challenges become more complex for youth who have been both victims of abuse and engaged in delinquent acts, as they often enter the juvenile justice system without a strong family support system.