The Fourth Federal National Incidence Study on Child Maltreatment released in 2010 reports a 19 percent reduction in the overall rate of child maltreatment since the 1993 study. Good news, to be sure. However, a longer perspective and closer analysis are needed in order to place these gains in context.
The rate of child maltreatment today is 75 percent higher than the rate reported in the first national incidence study in 1980 and 16 percent above the rate in the second study in 1986. Whatever gains have been made since the third study in 1993 are modest and limited to a measurable reduction in sexual abuse and some forms of physical abuse. The rates of child neglect--the most widespread form of maltreatment--have climbed sharply and steadily since the first national incidence study in 1980.
In other words, only minimal gains have been made in our collective ability to protect vulnerable children from fatal and severe physical abuse, and no gains are evident in protecting children from most forms of neglect.
We can draw important lessons from the reduction in sexual abuse, which can inform our efforts to reduce other forms of child maltreatment. Three interrelated factors converged to help reduce child sexual abuse during the 1990s, and can be reactivated to reduce other forms of maltreatment today.
First, there was broad acceptance of societal norms that hold that children have the right to be protected from sexual abuse--even by such authority figures as clergy and teachers. Children were encouraged to confide in a trusted adult if they were experiencing inappropriate or uncomfortable sexual contact from an adult. Teachers and others who work with children were encouraged to be alert to signs of sexual abuse. Perpetrators began to be energetically prosecuted.
Second, acceptance of this principle was conveyed through pervasive public awareness campaigns. Programming in school districts across the country and on children's television, as well as philanthropic and corporate-sponsored efforts, reinforced the message that we have a shared responsibility for protecting children.
Finally, all of this activity represents a universal rather than a targeted approach to reducing child sexual abuse. It did not rely on identification of and intervention with high-risk populations, but rather on the broadest possible application of simple principles.
If we are committed to bringing down the rates of child maltreatment today, we must identify what parental behaviors constitute abuse and neglect. We must craft unambiguous messages to the general public, and especially to new parents, identifying harmful behaviors and reinforcing parental responsibility for fostering their children's healthy development and learning. And we must make certain that these messages are widely disseminated. The vigorous public awareness child abuse prevention campaigns so prevalent in the 1980s need to be revitalized.
There is ample evidence that such strategies can succeed. Near-universal use of seatbelts in automobiles, reduction in smoking rates, and the decrease in traumatic brain injury from shaken babies all demonstrate that public education coupled with prudent public policies can alter behaviors. Societal change is possible. Through partnerships among school systems, church groups, advocacy organizations and philanthropic and corporate-responsibility organizations, we can make parents and those who work with children more keenly aware of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors toward children. We can make the responsibility for protecting children a shared responsibility. And we must.