The Scope, Nature, and Causes of Child Abuse and Neglect

Published date01 November 2020
Date01 November 2020
AuthorSarah A. Font,Kathryn Maguire-Jack
26 ANNALS, AAPSS, 692, November 2020
DOI: 10.1177/0002716220969642
The Scope,
Nature, and
Causes of Child
Abuse and
969642ANN The Annals of the American AcademyThe Scope, Nature, and Causes of Child Abuse and Neglect
Child maltreatment is a complex problem affecting mil-
lions of children in the United States every year. This
article examines existing knowledge on the scope,
nature, and causes of child abuse and neglect. First, we
review the discordant definitions and conceptualiza-
tions of child maltreatment and consider the implica-
tions of broad and narrow definitions for the size and
scope of the child welfare system and for child safety.
Second, we provide an assessment of the quality and
comprehensiveness of existing data for understanding
the incidence rates and trends in child abuse and
neglect. Third, we review theory and evidence on the
causes of child maltreatment, with particular attention
to whether and how social policy can reduce its preva-
lence. Last, we provide recommendations for improv-
ing the use of data and scientific evidence in child
welfare policy and systems.
Keywords: child maltreatment; child welfare system;
risk factors; measurement; data
Over the past several decades, states have
developed and expanded their child
welfare systems with growing federal oversight
to effectively prevent and respond to child mal-
treatment. Over this same period, research and
data to understand child maltreatment has pro-
liferated. Yet core questions remain unanswered:
How many children experience maltreatment
today? How much have rates changed over time
and why? How effective are existing systems
in identifying children in need of protection?
Sarah A. Font is an assistant professor of sociology at
the Pennsylvania State University. Her research focuses
on the policies and practices of the child welfare system
and the experiences and outcomes of system-involved
Kathryn Maguire-Jack is an associate professor of social
work at the University of Michigan. She studies child
maltreatment prevention with a focus on understanding
contextual risk and protective factors. She has expertise
in program evaluation and public policy.
What policies are most effective for reducing child maltreatment? These ques-
tions evoke important social values about the scope and size of government; roles
of federal, state, and local governments; children’s rights; and parental autonomy.
In this article, we review these debates and, where possible, we draw on available
research and data to make recommendations about how to move forward. We
begin with a review of how child maltreatment is defined—in federal policy, in
states’ civil and criminal statutes, and in research—and explore the implications of
broadening or narrowing definitions. Beyond definitions, we then describe the
difficulties and limitations associated with estimating rates of child maltreatment.
To this end, we draw on numerous population-level or nationally representative
survey datasets to compare estimates of the incidence and prevalence of child
maltreatment. These comparisons highlight the extent to which official statistics
on victimization (based on confirmed reports to child protective services [CPS])
underestimate exposure to abuse and neglect among U.S. children. Underestimates
of child maltreatment rates may lead to an underinvestment in resolving this prob-
lem. We then turn to a discussion of the causes of child maltreatment, with special
emphasis on factors that may be malleable through social policy changes. Last, we
provide recommendations about how investments in data and research can be
leveraged to inform policy reforms, improve the child welfare system, and better
protect children from abuse and neglect.
Scope and Nature of Child Maltreatment
This section reviews definitions of child maltreatment, describes approaches to
measuring maltreatment, and reviews existing estimates of the incidence and
prevalence of child maltreatment.
What is child maltreatment?
Child maltreatment has a range of definitions, with variability across and within
countries; between civil and criminal statutes; and across legal, lay, and academic
perspectives. Further, variability in measurement reflects differences in defini-
tions, standards of evidence, and sources of information. In the United States, the
Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), originally passed in 1974
(P.L. 93-247), provides the federal definition of child maltreatment: “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 fail-
ure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.” This definition
encapsulates a fairly broad range of actions and inactions that can be defined as
child maltreatment but narrows the focus to perpetrators in caregiving roles.
Typically, the child welfare system focuses on maltreatment perpetrated by indi-
viduals who are responsible for the child, consistent with the primary mandate of
child safety. The child welfare system receives and investigates allegations of child
maltreatment through CPS and provides in-home and foster care services to

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