How prevalent is child maltreatment?

Content warning: child maltreatment and sexual assault statistics.

If you work with children, chances are you’ll meet kids who have experienced maltreatment. Child maltreatment includes abuse — physical, sexual, and emotional — and neglect. All 50 states have laws that protect children against maltreatment.

Although all states have their own specific laws about what constitutes maltreatment, the definition in federal law is:

Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act, which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.

One way reachers study areas like child maltreatment is by putting numbers to the size of the problem. We call this the prevalence. Prevalence is often described in two different ways: yearly prevalence and lifetime prevalence. Yearly prevalence is straight forward: this is roughly the amount of children who experience maltreatment in any given year. Lifetime prevalence is the number of children who experience maltreatment at any time in their lives. For children, this usually means from birth to 18 years old.

So how prevalent is it? The honest answer is that researchers do not know for sure. Rather, they use a variety of research techniques to make informed estimates. Currently, two large-scale methods are used: 1) looking at data from state child protective services agencies and 2) doing nationally representative survey research.

Looking at child protection agency data

Each year, the Children’s Bureau of the US Department of Health and Human Services releases a report that compiles state level agency data so that readers can get information about the national prevalence. The current report describes data from 2015. This report states:

  • State child protective services agencies across the US received 4 million referrals involving 7.2 million children.
  • Of these children, 683,000 were found to be victims of maltreatment — including 1,670 fatalities.
  • 75% of these children were neglected, 17.2% were physically abused, and 8.7% were sexually abused.
  • About 148,000 of the children found to be victims of maltreatment were placed into foster care.
  • Children under one year of age have the highest prevalence (24 in 1,000) and this generally declines as children age with the lowest prevalence being for 17 year olds (3 in 1,000).

This national data by year is useful, but to get the full picture we also want to understand the lifetime prevalence. A 2014 article in JAMA Pediatrics used a collection of yearly child protective services agency data to estimate lifetime prevalence. The authors calculated that 1 in 8 children in the US will experience abuse or neglect that is substantiated by a state child protective services agency by the time they are 18.

While there are still more ways to examine the above data to gain other details, using a different method — nationally representative surveys — also provides yearly and lifetime prevalences.

Looking at the survey data

The National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV) is a government sponsored, nationally representative survey. By asking a representative group of 4,000 young people ages 0–17 and their caregivers, the researchers can examine both yearly prevalence and lifetime prevalence. The most recent version of this survey took place in 2014 and is described in this article published in JAMA Pediatrics. The authors estimate:

  • In the year prior, 15.2% of youth experienced at least one type of maltreatment assessed in the study: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, or custodial interference / familial abduction.
  • The lifetime prevalence for the 14–17 year old age group of experiencing any of the above categories for maltreatment was 24.5%.

The survey included many additional types of violence exposure beyond caregiver child maltreatment. For example, 21% of all youth had a lifetime exposure to a sexual offense. 12.9% of 14–17 year old girls had experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetimes.

A second nationally representative survey is the Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-4), which is conducted periodically by the US Department of Health and Human Services. The most recent study collected data from 2005–2006. This survey is unique in that it measures abuse and neglect on two different standards: The harm standard and the endangerment standard. The harm standard is stringent in that it requires ‘demonstrable harm’ to classify an incident as abuse and/or neglect. The endangerment standard is less strict and captures a larger group of children.

Using the stricter harm standard, the NIS-4 found:

  • 1.25 million children experienced abuse and/or neglect during the 2005–2006 year, which is 1 in every 58 children in the US.
  • 44% of the sample were abused while 61% were neglected.
  • Of children who experienced abuse, 58% (323,000) were physically abused, 24% (135,300) were sexually abused, and 27% (148,500) were emotionally abused.

When the less strict endangerment standard was used, NIS-4 found:

  • Nearly 3 million children were abused and/or neglected during the 2005–2006 year, which is about 1 in every 25 children in the US.

Child maltreatment is a major public health problem in the United States. For more resources, visit The National Center for Child Traumatic Stress and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


If you believe a child is in danger, call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1–800–4-A-CHILD / 1–800–422–4453 or your state child protective services agency. Help for survivors of sexual violence is available from RAINN via their website or their hotline at 1–800–565-HOPE / 1–800–656–4673.

Published by Erik Reinbergs, PhD

Postdoc in School Psychology

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