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The poorest children in the U.S. are most vulnerable to child abuse deaths

Apr 24, 2017

About 15 million children in the United States–21% of all kids–live in impoverished families. These kids are at higher risk for negative health outcomes like low birth weight, asthma, obesity and mental health problems.

Growing up poor is also a well-known risk factor for child abuse and neglect. And a recent study suggests that children in poor families also have a higher chance of dying from abuse.

The study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, found more than 11,000 American children from newborn to 4-year-olds died from child abuse from 1999-2014. Fatalities were around three times more likely in the highest-poverty counties in the country than in the lowest-poverty counties. Black children, who are disproportionately impacted by poverty, made up 37% of child abuse deaths. Lead author and pediatrician, Caitlin Farrell, told Reuters:

We think our study should inform public health leaders and local clinicians to be aware that children living in high-poverty communities are really a vulnerable group at increased risk of death due to child abuse.

While researchers aren't clear on exactly why poor kids are at increased risk, University of Oklahoma pediatrician Robert Block suggests it could be due in large part to toxic stress experienced by those living in poverty. He wrote in an editorial:

The stresses related to poverty (food insecurity, poor education, unsafe neighborhoods often involving gun violence, access to jobs) can create a frustration level for parents that results in fatal maltreatment of their children. ‘That’s how I was raised,’ has been heard nationally after high-profile child maltreatment cases reached the press. Finding a way to provide parenting education to folks who are increasingly worried about rent payments, food, finding a job, recovering from addictions, suffering from a low level of education, and other challenges is a daunting task.

Last week, the Michigan League for Public Policy released its 2017 Kids Count in Michigan Data Book. The rate of confirmed victims of child abuse and neglect in the state rose by 30% from 2008, according to the report.

While most families with low incomes are not more likely to abuse or neglect their children, living in poverty causes many hardships that can impact the ability of caregivers to provide basic needs. This is especially true as the state continues with policies that weaken the safety net for families, like asset limits to receive food assistance and tight eligibility levels for child care assistance.

Confirmed victims of abuse/neglect 2015
Credit Michigan League for Public Policy

Farrell notes the American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have stepped up efforts to prevent child abuse injury and death, and she hopes this new analysis will help further those efforts. Farrell told Reuters:

We hope our study can serve as a catalyst for researchers to further explore the complex relationship between community poverty and child abuse,” Farrell said. “Ultimately, this information is needed for policymakers, public health officials and clinicians to enact effective prevention strategies.