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Incidence of serious injuries due to physical abuse in the United States, 1997 to 2009

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Studies have shown that child abuse can have long-term effects on both victims and society. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, such experiences can be associated with negative psychological and behavioral consequences for the victim well into adult life. Societal consequences include the costs associated with the child welfare and criminal justice systems, as well as the indirect costs associated with a loss of productivity due to underemployment.

National data from child protective services agencies (CPS) have shown a 55% decrease in the incidence of substantiated cases of physical abuse from 1992-2009. However, no study has previously tracked the occurrence of serious injuries due to physical abuse. A 2012 study from Yale University published in Pediatrics, “Incidence of Serious Injuries Due to Physical Abuse in the United States: 1997 to 2009,” analyzes national data from hospitalized children detailed in the Kids’ Patient Database, which provides a sample of hospital discharge information. The study’s findings strongly challenge data patterns from U.S. child protective services.

The study’s findings include:

  • The incidence of serious injuries due to physical abuse of children under the age of 18 increased by 4.9% over the period between 1997-2009. The incidence increased from 6.1 per 100,000 children in 1997 to 6.4 per 100,000 children in 2009.
  • For children under the age of 1, the incidence increased by 10.9%, from 56.2 to 62.3, per 100,000 children over this period. For the older children between the ages of 1 and 18, there was a decrease of 9.1%, from 3.3 to 3.0 per 100,000 children.
  • “The length of stay for the hospitalizations of children with abusive injuries did not change over time (mean 7.2 days in 1997 vs. 7.1 days in 2009). In contrast, there was a substantial increase in the incidence of deaths during the hospitalization in the abuse group. In 1997, the incidence of children dying due to abusive injuries was 0.25 per 100,000 children, and this increased to 0.36 per 100,000 children in 2009.”
  • A major demographic change in the group of abused children over time was that the percentage of cases coming from families on Medicaid increased substantially, from 59% to 74%.

The authors conclude that “the results indicate that there has been no major decrease and, in fact, a small, but statistically significant increase in the incidence of hospitalizations of children with serious injuries due to physical abuse from 1997 to 2009.” Given that government data showed a decrease in the incidence of child abuse in the 1990s, the authors question the accuracy of that data and express “concerns that some of this decrease may be due to changes in reporting of cases to CPS agencies and changes in which cases get investigated by CPS and which cases are actually substantiated as physical abuse.”

Tags: youth, children, safety, crime

    Writer: | Last updated: November 29, 2012

    Citation: Leventhal, John M.; Gaither, Julie R. "Incidence of Serious Injuries Due to Physical Abuse in the United States: 1997 to 2009," Pediatrics, November 2012, Vol. 130, No. 5. doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-0922.

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    Analysis assignments

    Listen to the issue-related NPR segment "Judge Beats His Daughter.... Abuse or Discipline?"

    1. What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?

    Read the full study titled "Incidence of Serious Injuries Due to Physical Abuse in the United States: 1997 to 2009."

    1. What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?