When a child is found to be seriously or fatally abused, the perpetrator is often found to be a male caregiver. But a new study using data from pediatric emergency rooms provides powerful evidence of the correlation between caregiver characteristics and the likelihood of abuse.
The new study is the first to compare caregiver features among children with injuries due to abuse to those with accidental injuries. The article was published in the Journal of Pediatrics, and a summary is available online on the Science Daily website. The authors used data on 1615 children under four who were brought to a pediatric emergency department. Overall, 75% of the injuries were classified as accidents, 24% as abuse and 2% as indeterminate.
The differences between the likelihood of abuse versus accident among different groups of caregivers are striking. Abuse was determined to be the cause of injury to only 10% of the children for whom a female was the only caregiver at the time of injury and fully 58% of children who were with a male caregiver when injured. There was a big difference between fathers and boyfriends however; an “alarmingly high” 94% of the children who were alone with the mother’s boyfriend at the time of injury were determined to be abused, as compared to “only” 49% of injured children who were with their fathers at the time of injury.
Analysis of the 83 cases of severe injury (including fatalities) provided even stronger evidence of the connection between male caregivers and abuse. The authors found that “nearly all cases of severe injury in which fathers and boyfriends were present involved abuse, and for fatalities, the fathers and boyfriends were most commonly present as lone caregivers. Mothers were rarely present alone when severe abusive injuries occurred.”
Among female caregivers, one group was more likely associated with injuries and that was babysitters. Fully 34% of the children left alone with babysitters were found to be victims of abuse
The researchers point to several policy implications of their study. First, they highlight the importance of asking who was caring for the child at the time of injury as part of the investigation to determine whether an injury is the result of abuse. Second, they call for abuse-prevention strategies to focus on male caregivers and female babysitters. (Currently, such programs, like shaken baby education, often focus on mothers.)
But the authors do not mention another policy implication that is equally important. Ensuring that all low-income children have access to high-quality early care and education (ECE) is a logical implication of the study.
As I have written in an earlier post, there are many pathways by which ECE can prevent maltreatment. Free, high quality ECE would provide mothers with an alternative to leaving their children with caregivers who are unsuitable to the task–be it boyfriends, fathers, or babysitters. ECE has other child welfare benefits as well. Staff who are trained as mandatory reporters ensures that more adults will be seeing the child and able to report on any warning signs of maltreatment. Quality ECE programs that involve the parents can also improve child safety by teaching parents about child development, appropriate expectations, and good disciplinary practices. They may also connect parents with needed supports and resources in the community and help them feel less isolated and stressed.
Of course the benefits of ECE extend far beyond child welfare in the narrow sense. We are worried about school readiness for low-income children and we know that much of brain development occurs between the ages of 0 and 3. That’s why quality ECE has been such a priority for the early childhood community. But child welfare policymakers have not yet caught onto the importance of ECE as a means of preventing child maltreatment.
An excellent issue brief from the Administration on Children and Families recommends improving access to ECE for families that are already involved with child welfare. That is a great proposal, but the child welfare field is beginning to focus on prevention rather than only treatment. We must explore ways to provide access to ECE among children who are at risk of child abuse and neglect. Expanding access to subsidized child care among lower-income families, because income is so highly correlated with child maltreatment, would be a good beginning.
Prevention is the word of the day in child welfare. A key part of prevention is making sure children spend their time with caregivers who will not harm them.