Thursday, February 4, 2010

Child abuse is way down (don’t tell anyone, or they might stop putting so many kids in foster care)

I was surfing the web earlier this week when what should I suddenly come across but the Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, commonly known as NIS-4.

These studies are a huge deal among child welfare researchers and advocates – especially the advocates who like to use the inflated numbers to push for ever more investigators to take away ever more children. This is only the fourth such study since 1980. So normally these studies are released with huge fanfare. But not this time. NIS-4 just turned up a few days ago in an obscure corner of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website.

And I think I know why: The news was too good.

The study shows a big drop in child abuse since the last study, ( which was based on data collected in 1993) – just when groups like Every Child Matters are trying to use hype and hysteria to divert scarce funds into hiring more child protective services investigators to investigate more families and take away more children.

And now that the word is out, there's been some pretty frantic spin. One researcher said the decline is due in part to what he termed a "troop surge" – meaning the big increase in CPS workers since 1993. But this study looks at the equivalent of reports to CPS agencies, which, of course, occur after a child supposedly has been abused. So that can't explain a decline in actual child abuse.

Of course the big trade association for child welfare agencies, the Child Welfare League of America, credits "awareness" campaigns – because, of course, we were totally unaware of child abuse in 1993.

The real reason for the big decline is pretty obvious, and while it's great news for children, the reason, and the decline itself, are bad news for the fear-mongers.

Because of this surprising development, I'm delaying that post I promised on the sham of "accreditation." I expect to post that on Monday.

Instead, here's the opening section from NCCPR's analysis of NIS-4. You'll find the full analysis, and a link to the full study, at


A huge study of child abuse, commissioned by the federal government, that many in the child welfare community have been eagerly anticipating for years, has arrived – to almost no fanfare. It just sort of sneaked onto the internet on January 28, courtesy of an obscure division of the Department of Health and Human Services. It's called the Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, commonly known as NIS-4. It's available online here.

One possible reason why it's gotten so little attention: The study finds that child abuse is down – way down. And while that's great news for children, it's terrible news for the foster-care industrial complex, the agencies that need a steady supply of foster children to stay in business, and their allies. These are the latter-day version of those who, in the 19th century, proudly called themselves "child savers."

After all, with groups like Every Child Matters spreading hype and fomenting hysteria in an effort to divert billions more federal dollars into hiring child abuse investigators, the last thing they'd want everyone to know is that there is a lot less child abuse than there used to be.

The study found this significant decline in child abuse even though this study measures not actual maltreatment but rather the guesses of key people in a sample of communities about children they suspect might be maltreated, or might be at risk of maltreatment sometime in the future. In other words, what this study labels actual cases of child abuse are the equivalent of "reports" alleging maltreatment to child protective services (CPS) agencies – and only about one-quarter of such reports actually hold up when they're investigated.

The study also found this significant decline despite some breathtakingly-broad definitions of "abuse," including things like sending a child to bed without his supper and being - no kidding - "overprotective." In addition, all spanking can be defined as physical abuse. Any of these things makes a child "abused" or "neglected" if the person reporting the case to the researchers, called a "sentinel," believes they caused harm or the risk of harm. And "harm" can be no more than the child feeling fearful, feeling depressed or having nightmares for two days in a row.

The report also is more evidence that, while the obscenely high rate at which CPS agencies take away children and throw them into foster care is related to many things, actual child abuse is not one of them. The study looked at child maltreatment at the end of 2005 and the beginning of 2006 and showed that there was far less child abuse then than in 1993. (Both studies used the same methodology and definitions.) But in 1993, an estimated 226,000 children were taken from their parents and thrown into foster care. In 2005, when there was far less actual child abuse, the number was 307,000, the highest number on record.


The report is still another indication that the best use of scarce child welfare dollars is on prevention and family preservation – not on hiring more people to investigate less actual abuse.

As for the numbers in the study itself, inevitably news accounts are likely to focus on the really big ones. [Though the Associated Press story yesterday used the data with great care.]

But it takes a mountain of hype, and absurd definitions of maltreatment, to get to those numbers. The huge numbers in this study include any case in which any so-called "sentinel" guesses that a child might have been harmed, or might be at risk of harm by going to bed without his supper, doing too many chores, having an overprotective parent etc.

Dig down through that mountain of hype to the molehill of truth and what this study really found is that, when it comes to the kinds of cases people think of when they hear the words "child abuse" – cases that do serious harm to a child - a very generous estimate suggests that there are probably about 281,000 of them in this country every year. (The methodology for this calculation is explained later in this analysis.)

On the one hand, that's a very high raw number. It's roughly equal to the entire population of Buffalo, New York. On the other hand, it means that, in any given year, 99.6 percent of America's children are not victims of what the public commonly thinks of as child abuse.

That has huge implications. When you're looking for 281,000 seriously abused children among the 74 million Americans under age 18, you're looking for needles in a haystack. That means we need better ways to find the needles instead of spending even more billions of dollars to try to vacuum up the haystack - at enormous cost to the children who get swept up by mistake. It also means the numbers commonly used to stampede us into phony solutions and running roughshod over innocent families are dangerous nonsense.

The NIS-4 findings are even more significant when read in conjunction with another recent study done by the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Texas, and discussed on this blog here. (The discussion includes a link to the full study.) This study dealt with child abuse fatalities. It found that none of the traditional CPS interventions - screening in more reports, investigating more cases, taking away more children - had any impact on reducing child abuse fatalities. But more prevention and more efforts to curb poverty and teen pregnancy do reduce such fatalities.

The two studies together provide overwhelming evidence that it would be a huge waste of money to plow more scarce resources into Child Protective Services investigations when the same money can save more children's futures, and even their lives, when invested in prevention and family preservation.