Effects of child abuse and neglect, if untreated, can last a lifetime, study finds

September 12, 2013

In the first major study of child abuse and neglect in 20 years, researchers with the National Academy of Sciences reported Thursday that the damaging consequences of abuse can not only reshape a child’s brain but also last a lifetime.

Untreated, the effects of child abuse and neglect, the researchers found, can profoundly influence victims’ physical and mental health, their ability to control emotions and impulses, their achievement in school, and the relationships they form as children and as adults.

The researchers recommended an “immediate, coordinated” national strategy to better understand, treat and prevent child abuse and neglect, noting that each year, abuse and neglect costs an estimated $80 billion in the direct costs of hospitalization, law enforcement and child welfare and the indirect costs of special education, juvenile and adult criminal justice, adult homelessness, and lost work productivity.

“Child abuse and neglect is a serious public health problem which requires immediate, urgent attention,” said Anne Peter­sen, a professor at the Center for Human Growth and Development at the University of Michigan who chaired the research committee for the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council of the National Academies. “The consequences can last into adulthood, with significant costs to the individual, to families, and to society.”

The report, produced at the request of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found that while rates of physical and sexual child abuse have declined in the past 20 years, rates of emotional and psychological abuse, the kind that can produce the most serious long-lasting ­effects, have increased. Rates of neglect have held fairly steady. Researchers said they do not know why.

“That’s why we make that a research priority in our recommendations,” said Lucy Berliner, a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work and a committee member. “We need to understand better the reasons behind these trends.”

Berliner said the committee is proposing a coordinated strategy, because it found so much variation among states, in how abuse and neglect are defined and how local officials are trained to respond to it. “Some states had dramatic, 100 percent increases in cases of neglect,” she said. “And others had 100 percent decreases. That speaks to the complexity of the problem.”

Every year, child-protection agencies receive 3 million referrals for child abuse and neglect involving about 6 million children, the report found, though with unreported instances, the actual number is probably much higher, the researchers said. And, the report noted, about 80 percent of the children in investigated abuse and neglect cases are not removed from the home.

Child victims are equally likely to be male or female, the report found. The majority are younger than 5. About 80 percent of the perpetrators are parents, the vast majority biological parents. More than half of the perpetrators are female.

Angela Diaz, director of the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center and another committee member, said the report found three risk factors that increased the likelihood of child abuse: parental depression, parental substance abuse and whether the parents had been abused or neglected as children.

The researchers did not find an association between rates of abuse and times of economic hardship such as the recent Great Recession.

“Researchers found relationships that were hard to make sense of: increases in child abuse in relationship to mortgage foreclosure but not to unemployment rates,” Berliner said. “It’s not all that straightforward. After welfare reform in the 1990s, there was a concern that as people lost their benefits, that would cause a spike in child-abuse referrals. Instead, that was a period of the greatest reduction in child-abuse referrals.”

While so much remains a mystery about the causes of abuse, and why some children respond to treatment and recover and others do not, the researchers said advances in brain science in the past 20 years show just how devastating and long-lasting the effects of abuse can be on the structure and the function of the brain.

Research has found that abuse and neglect can influence the amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates emotions, particularly fear and anxiety. Abuse also has been shown to change how the prefrontal cortex functions, the part of the brain responsible for thinking, planning, reasoning and decision making, which can lead to behavioral and academic problems.

But there is hope, researchers said.

“The effects seen on abused children’s brain and behavioral development are not static,” said committee member Mary Dozier, chairman of child development at the University of Delaware. “If we can intervene and change a child’s environment, we actually see plasticity in the brain. So, we see negative changes when a child is abused, but we also see positive brain changes when the abuse ends and they are more supported. Interventions can be very effective.”

Brigid Schulte writes about work-life issues and poverty, seeking to understand what it takes to live The Good Life across race, class and gender.
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