1 in 8 U.S. children will become victim of serious abuse or neglect

Children in Miami participate in a candlelight vigil commemorating National Child Abuse Prevention Month. A new study estimates that 12.5% of American kids suffer a documented case of abuse or neglect before turning 18.
(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)

About 1 in 8 American children will experience some form of maltreatment serious enough to be confirmed by government authorities, new research shows.

Slightly more than 2% of kids are victimized during their first year of life, 5.8% are mistreated before their fifth birthday, and 12.5% experience some form of abuse or neglect before they turn 18, according to a study published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics.

“Confirmed child maltreatment is common, on the scale of other major public health concerns that affect child health and well-being,” the study authors wrote.


The estimates are based on data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System Child Files, which identified nearly 5.7 million children who suffered documented cases of neglect or physical, sexual or emotional abuse between 2004 and 2011. (The true count of victims is believed to be much higher, since most cases never make it to government officials.)

Researchers from Yale University, USC, UC Berkeley, Columbia University and the University of Washington used that data to extrapolate the cumulative risk that American children would become victims of these types of maltreatment before they reached adulthood.

African American children were found to be the most at risk, with 20.9% of them projected to suffer abuse or neglect by the time they turned 18. The study authors offered a vivid way to put that 1-in-5 risk into perspective: “Black children are about as likely to have a confirmed report of maltreatment during childhood as they are to complete college,” they wrote.

Next on the list of vulnerability were Native American children, with a 14.5% cumulative risk of abuse or neglect. They were followed by Latino kids, with a 13% cumulative risk, the researchers found.

An estimated 10.7% of white children will suffer maltreatment before reaching adulthood – slightly below the nationwide average. Children of Asian or Pacific Islander descent were found to have the lowest risk, at 3.8%, the study authors reported.

Gender also seems to play a role. By a margin of 13% to 12.1%, girls are more likely than boys to suffer abuse or neglect during their childhood, the researchers found. Though the difference was small, it was statistically significant, they reported.

Abuse and neglect are bad enough on their own, but they’re also linked to other serious physical and mental health problems, the researchers noted. Studies have found that people who were victimized during childhood go on to have higher rates of obesity and HIV infection. They’re also more likely to attempt suicide and to die prematurely.

Over a lifetime, the costs stemming from childhood abuse or neglect add up to $124 billion per year in the United States alone. That’s in the same ballpark as what the country spends to treat stroke victims or patients with Type 2 diabetes, according to a 2012 study in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect.