Child Maltreatment Trends: A Persistent Picture of Young Survivors and Neglect
The abuse or neglect of any child is a tragedy, and the encouraging news from the latest data in the KIDS COUNT Data Center is that the annual number of confirmed child maltreatment victims in the United States decreased by almost 100,000 from 2015 to 2021. The rate of child maltreatment also declined from 9 to 8 confirmed victims of abuse or neglect in every 1,000 kids under age 18. The data show that young children continue to be at greatest risk of abuse or neglect. Of the more than 585,000 confirmed victims in 2021, over two-thirds (70%) were between birth and age 10.
These data, which come from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, only include children who came to the attention of authorities through reports of maltreatment, so the actual number of abused or neglected children may be higher.
By far, the most common type of child maltreatment is neglect — when a child’s basic needs are not met, such as food, housing, clothing, etc. — with 76% of victims experiencing neglect in 2021, similar to previous years. Neglect often is tied to the effects of poverty, making it a priority to strengthen and support families in need. Other common types of maltreatment include physical abuse (16% in 2021), sexual abuse (10%), emotional abuse (6%) and medical neglect (2%).
The Consequences Are Serious, But Maltreatment Can Be Prevented and Addressed
Young survivors of maltreatment can experience both immediate and long-term physical, emotional and behavioral problems. Abuse or neglect, especially when chronic, can disrupt healthy development and result in lifelong effects on health, mental health and overall well-being.
Child maltreatment is preventable and its effects can be mitigated with effective treatment and trauma-informed services. Unfortunately, just over half (54%) of child victims received services in 2021, fewer than in previous years, indicating that a substantial number of children likely have unmet needs.
Efforts to prevent abuse and neglect must continue to involve multiple sectors working together to reduce risk factors and strengthen protective factors among individuals, families, and communities. Societal factors, such as providing an adequate social safety net and high-quality child care, also are critical in supporting families and ensuring that children’s needs are met.
State Trends in Child Maltreatment
From 2015 to 2021, Pennsylvania consistently had the lowest child maltreatment rates in the country, with 2 confirmed victims in every 1,000 kids in 2021. Washington and New Jersey also achieved this low rate in 2021. At the upper end, Maine, Massachusetts, and West Virginia had the highest rates in 2021, at 17 per 1,000.
In line with the national trend, nearly half (23) of states saw decreases in their rates of child maltreatment from 2015 to 2021. Georgia had the largest drop in this period, from 11 to 4 in every 1,000 kids. Kentucky’s rate dropped considerably in recent years, as well, from 23 per 1,000 in 2018 to 15 in 2021.
At the same time, some states saw marked increases in their rates during 2015–2021, including North Carolina (from 3 to 9 confirmed victims in every 1,000 kids), and Montana (from 8 to 13 per 1,000, with a peak of 16 in 2018–2020).
States vary in their child welfare policies and practices, so it is important to learn about the context of each state’s system when interpreting these trends. Stakeholders can use these data as a tool to raise questions, identify and address aspects of each system that could be strengthened, track progress and ultimately improve outcomes for children and families.