How and Why Child Abuse Goes Undetected and What We Can Do About It

Taylor Cole,
Spring and Summer Research and Policy Intern


It is important to continue to learn about the incredibly nuanced realities of child abuse in the United States. It is certainly not as straightforward as many would like to think. Reducing child abuse is not a simple ask — it is complicated and confusing, and often the statistical data available does not make things much clearer. There are inconsistencies in the conversation around child abuse, including what it is, why it happens, and how regularly it occurs. It is estimated that only 1 in 10 child abuse cases are confirmed by social service agencies. Inconsistency among reports makes developing effective solutions more difficult. Potential reasons for inconsistencies in child abuse reporting include confusion about what is and is not child abuse or neglect, fear of false reporting, and concerns about the system’s ability to address said concerns. 

Changes in societal norms around the care of children have affected what is considered child abuse or neglect. Many children of the ‘60s, for example, share the common experience of getting spanked as punishment for misbehavior. While the now controversial issue of spanking and other forms of physical discipline are on the decline in part because of studies that have shown physical punishment leads to increased aggression, among several issues, recent surveys have demonstrated that two-thirds of Americans still support spanking as a form of punishment. These days spankings that result in injury and physical abuse seem less common and frowned upon.  

Statistics on Child Abuse and Neglect 

With more than 3 million reports of child abuse yearly in the United States, involving almost 5.5 million children according to Childhelp, it is no surprise that research conducted between 2000 and 2008 found an estimated 4 to 16 percent of children are physically abused each year in the high-income nations, including the US. In the 2019 Maltreatment of Children report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 3.6 million referrals were received by child protective services, of which 61 percent were screen-in (referrals that became reports). In the US specifically, it is estimated that by age 18, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 8 boys will have been sexually abused. 1 in 20 children are physically abused. Children are taught “stranger danger,” even though most abuse occurs within family circles. Neglect is the least discussed form of child abuse, but the most common in “developed countries.” Neglected children are also just as likely to become violent offenders as abused children. 

Children under the age of four and children with special needs are more likely to experience abuse. Caregivers are more likely to abuse children if they have issues with drugs or alcohol, and mental health including depression. If caregivers themselves were abused as children, or are young or single parents, or are raising many children, they are more likely to abuse their children. Poverty, and stresses associated with poverty, including not understanding the needs of their children and not being biologically related to children, also make individual caregivers more likely to abuse children. Family risk factors include interactions with the justice system, lack of community support for the family, relationship violence occurring in the home, and a lack of positive communication styles which lead to high conflict situations.

On top of individual risk factors and family risk factors, there are community risk factors. If children live within communities where there are high levels of violence, crime, poverty, and unemployment, and if children live in communities with easy access to drugs and alcohol, but limited access to educational opportunities, they are more likely to experience abuse. Historically, rises in poverty are coupled with a rise in child abuse. The economic stresses COVID-19 has placed on already vulnerable families and communities will likely increase their risks. 

Gap Between Abuse and Reporting  

The topic of child abuse is delicate, and the situations are complicated. Many children do not name or even understand the abuse they experienced until adulthood.  

According to, 28.3 percent of adults report being physically abused as children; 20.7 percent report being sexually abused; and 10.6 percent report being emotionally abused. There is also some hesitancy among doctors who report roughly 6 percent of child injury cases to protective services, despite having concerns about potential abuse approximately 10 percent of the time. 

Between the standard belief that families belong together and the harsh reality that systems that are designed to protect children, like the foster care system, are themselves riddled with abuse, there is fear of false reporting, which is significant in the decision-making process. Dealing with Child Protective Services and/or police is incredibly stressful to all involved, despite best intentions, especially if a case of abuse or neglect is not found. 

 The Opportunity 

70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have encountered the child welfare system. While 1 in 17 youth enter foster care, Black and Indigenous children are 1 in 9 and 7, respectively. Children in foster care are four times more likely to commit suicide; nearly half of girls in foster care become pregnant by age 19; and half of foster youth will not graduate high school. As these statistics illustrate, this system is not working.   

In 2018, Congress passed the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) in hopes of drastically changing child protection in favor of keeping families together. Now, states have different requirements for the $8 billion set aside by the federal government to prevent child abuse. Changes include funding for parenting classes, mental health counseling, and treatment for substance abuse, while also increasing restrictions on putting youth into group homes.

This bill will not fix everything and some are concerned that it will do more harm than good by increasing stress on already overtaxed state systems. On the other hand, it provides child welfare professionals the opportunity to redesign their approach to decrease the number of children who are taken out of their homes and communities. It is still too soon to analyze the impacts of the bill. Important items not included in the bill include job training, transportation assistance, clinical services, and home visiting. Children and youth advocates are calling for these gaps to be filled in the American Jobs Act or other Biden Administration budget and legislative proposals. 

In March of 2019, AYPF held a group discussion with Connecticut and Virginia about the FFPSA and the process of successfully implementing changes. Linda Dixon, an Administrator at Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families (DCF), discussed in this webinar the significance of DCF’s commitment to strengthening relationships with communities and families, to decrease the numbers of youth in need of care from the department. Carl Ayers, Director of the Division of Family Services at the Virginia Department of Social Services, spoke about using their workgroups to continue to evaluate evidence-based programs in Virginia and respond to feedback on current foster care programs. 

Recommendations by the CDC for Reducing and Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect 

The five recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are:

  • Strengthen economic supports to families
  • Change social norms to support parents and positive parenting
  • Provide quality care and education early in life
  • Enhance parenting skills to promote healthy child development
  • Intervene to lessen harms and prevent future risk.  

Strengthen Economic Supports to Families 

Considering the historic connection between increased economic stress and increased reporting of child abuse, it is worth considering focusing our resources on reducing economic stressors for parents. Most recently, there have been more cities implementing pilot programs like the one in Jackson, Mississippi. The Magnolia Mothers Trust program started in December 2018 and provides 20 low-income Black mothers with a stipend of $1,000 a month. Three-quarters of those who participated were able to provide three meals daily to their families and paid off $10,000 in debt.

The women described themselves as happier, less stressed, and more hopeful. In 2020, the program expanded to 110 mothers. Considering the positive effects universal basic income (UBI) has on access to food and improvements in mental, emotional, and physical health, UBI can help mitigate the risk factors that lead to child abuse.  

Change Social Norms to Support Parents and Positive Parenting    

It is essential that, within the U.S. and across the world, shame be removed around imperfect parenting and inequality in parenting capabilities. Removing shame can increase the likelihood that parents will seek or accept support available to them and their families. Helping parents improves outcomes for their children and their communities. The CDC recommends promoting public engagement and education campaigns as well as reducing corporal punishment. 

Provide Quality Care and Education Early in Life 

With child abuse more prevalent in families with young children, providing more and better access to quality pre-school education and childcare can effectively engage parents or guardians in positive changes.   

Enhance Parenting Skills to Promote Healthy Child Development   

First-time parents, young parents, and parents without close family support (grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.) may find it more difficult to navigate parenthood and have the tools, skills, and resources to meet their needs. By building community engagement and parent support and engagement programs, communities can protect children and youth and strengthen the parenting skills of inexperienced or stressed parents.  

Intervene to Lesson Harms and Prevent Future Risk   

All cases of child abuse and neglect cannot be preemptively stopped. However, primary care and early intervention can help prevent an escalation of risky behaviors to child abuse and neglect. Additionally, the implementation of behavioral training and treatment programs for parents can effectively break the cycle of physical and emotional abuse.  


Protecting children and youth from abuse and neglect is within our reach if we prioritize education, parent engagement and support, and prevention and early intervention. AYPF also encourages our network to engage with children and youth impacted by child abuse and neglect. Taking the time to listen to their lived experiences and solicit their input about potential solutions can help to improve outcomes. We can make a significant difference in the lives of children, youth, and their families. 


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.