Child Abuse and Neglect Are Associated with County-level Socioeconomic Hardship and Drug-Related Offenses

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Child abuse and neglect are nationwide concerns. However, these problems happen more in some areas than others. A study was conducted to identify county-level socioeconomic and crime factors associated with disparities in substantiated abuse and neglect in Tennessee. The researchers found that both socioeconomic hardship and drug-related offenses increased the risk of child maltreatment.

The study included annual data for all 95 counties in Tennessee from 2004 to 2016. For each county, the researchers had the rates of child abuse and neglect cases that had been reported to child protective services and were substantiated—that is, the agency had determined that the child had most likely been abused or neglected. The data also included the race and ethnicity of children living in the county, the percentage of births to unmarried women, the teen birth rate, and the percentage of children in families receiving financial support from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In addition, crime rates for each county were available.

As the researchers predicted, substantiated child abuse and neglect over the 12-year period was higher for counties with higher rates of teen births and births to unmarried women. Counties with higher crime rates, particularly drug-related offenses, also had a greater risk of child maltreatment over time. Children receiving TANF and SNAP benefits were also found to have an increased risk of abuse and neglect. Compared with other racial/ethnic groups, the study found that counties with higher percentages of African American youth were associated with a lower risk for substantiated child abuse and neglect over time.

Although the study involved only one state and did not prove that these factors cause child abuse and neglect, it did show a pattern of increasing risk from 2008 to 2016 for counties with growing rates of crime, teen births, and births to unmarried women. Therefore, counties with these risk factors may benefit from efforts to prevent child maltreatment. Strategies for preventing child abuse and neglect might include a combination of school-based services and community programs, as well as law and policy initiatives. Future studies could also identify protective familial and neighborhood factors that can help reduce disparities in child abuse and neglect.

Morris, M. C., Marco, M., Maguire-Jack, K., Kouros, C. D., Im, W., White, C., Bailey, B., Rao, U., & Garber, J. (2019). County-level socioeconomic and crime risk factors for substantiated child abuse and neglect. Child Abuse & Neglect, 90, 127–138.

Page updated January 14, 2022