Long-term study complicates understanding of child abuse

Sexual abuse, neglect get reported more if parents were maltreated as kids

Official reports of child abuse may overestimate the tendency of such maltreatment to run in families. Parents who were abused themselves as kids are more likely than nonabused parents to be reported to authorities after having sexually abused or neglected their own children, a new study finds. Yet child protective service agencies should not assume that child abuse and neglect only or mostly occur when parents have histories of maltreatment, researchers conclude in the March 27 Science.

Psychologist Cathy Spatz Widom of City University of New York and colleagues interviewed 649 Midwestern, mostly blue collar or poor participants three times, in their late 20s, late 30s and late 40s. Of that number, 358 suffered documented abuse or neglect as children. Widom’s group also interviewed 697 of the participants’ biological children, all at least 8 years old. Finally, the investigators checked child protective services records for each participant.

About 21 percent of previously abused adults were reported to child protective services when they had abused or neglected one of their own kids, as were almost 12 percent of nonabused adults.

In study interviews, greater proportions of children of abused parents reported sexual abuse and neglect than did their peers with nonabused parents. While this finding suggests abuse does make parents more apt to repeat that behavior with their children, selective reporting of abuse to authorities underestimates the abuse risk for kids with nonabused parents, the researchers conclude.

To the researchers’ surprise, roughly equal percentages of abused and nonabused parents’ kids reported having been physically abused during childhood.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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