• How many children get assaulted?

    See-what-children-feel-like-stop-child-abuse-8860789-295-321Before reading further, stop and ask yourself the question in the title. Be specific: what proportion of children experience violence in a given year? What proportion of adolescent girls have been raped in their lifetimes?

    David Finkelhor and his colleagues looked at data from the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, a 2011 US national survey about the experiences of children aged 0-17 years. The survey was collected through telephone interviews with kids 10-17 and with caregivers for younger children. And, yes, this means that the rates of assault are likely under-reported for the younger kids.

    What they found was that

    Two-fifths (41.2%) of children and youth experienced a physical assault in the last year, and 1 in 10 (10.1%) experienced an assault-related injury. Two percent experienced sexual assault or sexual abuse in the last year, but the rate was 10.7% for girls aged 14 to 17 years. More than 1 in 10 (13.7%) experienced maltreatment by a caregiver, including 3.7% who experienced physical abuse.

    There is no perfect way to measure the incidence of the exposure of children to violence. It’s possible that respondents may have under- or over-stated their experience. The response rate for the survey was 40%. This is good for a modern survey, but clearly the results could have been affected by selection bias.

    Nevertheless, these results are distressing if they are even roughly correct. I know something about this literature and I was still surprised. There’s lots to say about what we might be able to do to reduce children’s exposure to violence and the research that needs to be done to prove that we can reduce it. The first step, however, is to get this fact clearly in mind: Physical and sexual assaults are common experiences for American children.


    • The problem with statistics like these is that they turn one helicopter families into two helicopter families. I was blessed with older siblings, so the number of days in the year I was assaulted, many times with injury, frequently exceeded the number of days I wasn’t. And for good measure, the days I wasn’t assaulted I often witnessed somebody else being assaulted. Strange, though, I grew up and never knew I was a victim. This isn’t to make light of the depressing statistics regarding child abuse, but I suspect we’d have a better response to actual child abuse if it wasn’t lumped together with every other unfortunate childhood experience. Here are the statistics from the referenced study: assault with no injury or weapon: 36.7%; assault with weapon or injury: 14.9%; sexual victimization: 6.1%; child maltreatment: 10.2%; dating violence: 1.2%; witnessing assault: 9.8%; witnessing community assault: 19.2%.

      • Robert,
        I am not sure that I understand your point. Are you sure that your life wouldn’t have been even better if you hadn’t been assaulted to the point of injury?

        • Much of domestic violence, including child abuse, is attributable to poverty, the absence of opportunities, despair. Overstating child abuse directs attention (and resources) away from its cause; focus on the cause and the consequences will take care of themselves. Many years ago I represented a dedicated physician who specialized in pediatric orthopaedics. His large orthopaedic group often made him the focus of their advertising, even though he was the lowest paid partner in the group. My job was to convince the group to increase his pay. What I learned surprised me: roughly half his cases were Medicaid, and all his surgical cases were inpatient (outpatient being too risky for children). In other words, he was the lowest producer in the group. Why were half his cases Medicaid? Because roughly half the children in our large metropolitan area were Medicaid-eligible. Half! I wasn’t successful in getting an increase in my client’s pay and he moved on to a well-known medical clinic in another city devoted to the care of children. His pay didn’t increase but his job satisfaction did. And since then the percentage of children in my area living in poverty has increased, and increased significantly. And so has child abuse.

          • I think we are on the same side here. It is true and important that poverty is a cause of child abuse. This is, as you and I both believe, an important reason to seek to eliminate poverty, particularly for young families with children.

            Having said that, there is unfortunately plenty of child abuse in other social strata.

            In any event, I do not think that resources devoted to child protection — which are not large — detract from efforts to reduce poverty.

    • I presume his point was that the study conflates various types of assault. A fifth grader pinching a sibling and producing a bruise may count as assault (not sure about injury) but it’s not the same as the same kid being beaten by an adult.

      One of my kids will hit her younger brother if he steps into her room without an invitation, so when he’s bored, he opens her door, sticks his foot in, grins, then runs away. Sometimes, her retaliation produces a bruise, but it’s hard to argue that this behavior, however undesirable, is what most of us think of when we talk about assault and injury.

      I’d be more positive if we had the resources to put into counseling parents and kids, about bickering and hitting each other, but usually prevention efforts seem focussed on criminalizing behavior.

      I also feel that when you conflate minor and major issues, as they study does when they lump flashing and groping in with rape under “sexual victimization,” you get people dismissing the serious issue of rape, with being flashed. It’s easy to picture the statistic as a result of parties thrown by HS students where too much beer, too little judgement result in flashing incident where dozens of girls are “sexually victimized.” Keggers out of control are so much easier to contemplate than the idea that some children get raped.

      Also, people feel deceived when they see a horrifying statistic, such as 10% of children are raped and discover the real number is much smaller (2.4%). It helps them dismiss the 2.4%.

    • The stress of poverty has an effect on child violence, true, but don’t delude yourself, rich people hit their kids too. In fact, having been a lawyer working with abused and neglected children, I am surprised that the results aren’t higher. After all, think about this: in every state it is legal to hit your child. Legal. It is illegal to do the same to another child or an adult.

      You are free to hit the one human dependent upon you for food, shelter, and clothing. Children are still thought of as a parent’s possession, a thing. Is it any wonder that the bridge from a gentle spanking (try a gentle spanking or another person’s kid and see if you get away with it; never mind that there is no such thing as a gentle beating, an oxymoron) to a savage beating.

      We should all be ashamed for allowing this. Each and every one of us.

      • Something to think about:
        In Favor of Flogging</a.
        Torture Kids Instead

        Corporal punishment is not automatically worse than other forms of punishment call me a stupid no good idiot but I think that psychological abuse can be just as bad. So unless you want to get rid of punishment all together abuse is possible. It seems to me that it is the attitude and self-control of the person administering discipline that is important and if the person administering discipline is out of control a law against spanking will probably not help in many cases.

        BTW when I was in college some folks from my University did a study comparing RI (I went to URI) where spanking was legal with Sweden where it was not and found no difference in levels of abuse.

        Abuse is a very bad thing but wrongly targeting a solution will not help.

    • I would have thought that number assaulted in a given year would have been higher and the number raped would have been lower. I was assaulted often by bullies in school (and I am not that wimpy).

      As Arnold Kling has said many times the null hypothesis in education is very difficult to beat therefore IMHO the first job and focus of school teachers and administrators should be to reduce violence and bullying among the students. It seems a much more tractable problem.

      IMHO we need to start to think about these issues differently, same with healthcare. We also need to understand what bad voters people are and how bad our politicians are. Politicians keep promising to make our children smarter but they fail to keep the typical student from being assaulted in school over a period a few years.

    • This is an important discussion. The issue of what counts as an assault is controversial in all forms of violence research.

      I don’t think corporal punishment is ever appropriate. As elboku notes, if I struck you or your child, it would be a battery.

      But you do not need to agree with me to find value in Finkelhor’s study. Presumably we all agree that assault leading to injury is never okay. Nor is any form of sexual assault. Those rates are broken down in the tables and they are distressingly high.

      Finally, as I have blogged about previously, the US has one of the highest rates of child death due to parental maltreatment in the developed world.

      • Legally, an assault/battery is any unwanted touching of your body by another (done purposely and/or recklessly). In short, if you didn’t want to be touched, it is technically an a/b. The legal reasoning behind that is that you have an inalienable right to control who/what touches your body.

        For some strange reason, our modern society has not seen fit to extend that to children and their parents. We still adhere to the long held belief that children are property to do with as a parent sees fit. Or as Bill Cosby so famously put it when discussing in a monologue how he deals with his misbehaving children: ” I tell them I brought you into this world and I can take you out and make many more who look just like you.” Sadly, too many parents take that as reality and not the hyperbole/irony Cosby intends.