Thursday, September 22, 2011

Recession Caused Increase in Child Abuse?

According to a new report, an increase in child abuse, primarily in infants, is linked with the recent recession, the Daily Mail reported today. The study examined 422 abused children from mostly lower-income families, in 74 counties in four states. According to lead author Dr. Rachel Berger of Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh, the results confirm an increase in the number of shaken baby cases and other forms of brain-injuring abuse.

According to the report, the number of traumatic brain injury cases in the counties studied increased from about 9 cases per 100,000 children in pre-recession years to nearly 15 per 100,000 kids during the recession. Unemployment rates in the counties studied also rose during the five-year study, as did the number of children on Medicaid. Therefore, they conclude, increases in child abuse are linked to the recession.

Hold the Press—Recession Does Not Necessarily Cause Child Abuse
The problem is that the increase is only correlated with the recession and could be coincidental. Insurance and employment information was not reported for the abused children in the study. Those who were abused may very well have lived in economically stable families who still had jobs and insurance, but who happened to live in economically depressed counties. Furthermore, the study did not look at relatively prosperous counties to see if they also had increases in child abuse. It may be that child abuse is on the rise throughout the country, among all income groups.

Another problem is the assumption that poor people are more likely to abuse their children. The sad fact is that child abuse occurs among all income groups, including sexual, physical and emotional abuse. It may turn out that affluent parents are just better at covering their tracks. The fact that the study looked only at economically stressed communities belies this bias, and it undermines its credibility. Likewise, its author undertook the study in response to anecdotal evidence from her hospital, in order to confirm her suspicions that poor, unemployed, stressed out people were increasingly abusing their kids. Thus, there was also a confirmation bias inherent in the study.

One might also question the assumption that stress somehow causes otherwise gentle parents to suddenly go ape shit on their kids. Traumatic brain injuries do result from spankings that have gone awry. If a parent is morally opposed to corporal punishment and diligent about avoiding it, why would they suddenly start hitting when their finances got bad? Certainly stress could weaken one’s resolve and self-control, but if hitting wasn’t already in their repertoire to begin with, why would it suddenly appear under stress?

Of course child abuse is a terrible tragedy, especially traumatic brain injury (TBI) abuse, which comes primarily from shaking babies or swinging, dropping or throwing them, and often leads to death or permanent brain damage. The increase, however, may have nothing at all to do with the recession. There is a greater public awareness of TBI, particularly in light of considerable recent media coverage of school sports-related concussions among teenagers and TBI in Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. It may be that hospitals are paying closer attention to TBI as a result of the heightened public awareness and they may be keeping better records of TBI cases than they did in the past.

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