Child Abuse and Neglect - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education

Child Abuse and Neglect


Child abuse and neglect is a serious problem that affects millions of children throughout the United States. Early childhood educators are concerned about child abuse and neglect because they are committed to nurturing the healthy development of children and to helping prevent problems that can impede a child’s ability to fulfill his or her potential. Very young children—a growing number of whom spend significant time in early education and child-care settings—are the most vulnerable to the damaging impact of maltreatment. Early childhood professionals are uniquely well positioned to build relationships with parents and other caregivers, to observe and respond to problems that can place children at risk of maltreatment, and to help families before abuse or neglect occurs. In addition, individuals who work directly with children, including teachers and other staff members in early education programs, are mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse and neglect (see Child Abuse and Neglect, Prevention of). Survey research indicates that awareness of the problem of child maltreatment among early childhood professionals has increased dramatically from 10 percent in the mid-1970s to more than 90 percent today.



Federal legislation—specifically the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) amended by the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003—defines child abuse and neglect as follows:

• Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent of caretaker that results in death, serious physical, or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation.

• An act or failure to act that presents an imminent risk of serious harm.

Each state establishes its own, more specific definition of maltreatment that generally includes standards for physical abuse (e.g., injury caused by hitting, kicking, shaking), sexual abuse (e.g., fondling, indecent exposure, incest, rape), emotional abuse (e.g., behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth), and neglect (e.g. failure to provide adequate food, shelter, medical treatment, or supervision). (National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information).


Scope of the Problem

In 2003, across the United States, child protective services—the public agencies responsible for responding to child abuse and neglect—received 2.9 million reports alleging abuse or neglect involving 5.5 million children. One-third of the reports were “screened out” because they did not meet a state’s standard for maltreatment. State and local child protective services agencies conducted an investigation or assessment on two-thirds of the total number of reports received, and, based on these investigations, 906,000 children were determined to be victims of abuse and neglect in 2003. (This figure represents approximately 1.2 percent of the total population of children in the United States, which was 73,043,506 in 2003 ) Fifteen percent of children who are found to be abused or neglected are removed from their homes and placed in foster care (U.S. Department of Health, 2005).

The rate of victimization per 1,000 children in the national population has dropped from 13.4 children in 1990 to 12.4 children in 2003. Neglect is the most common form of maltreatment constituting 60 percent of substantiated cases, followed by physical abuse (almost 20%), sexual abuse (10%), and emotional abuse (10%). Parents or other caretakers are most frequently the perpetrators of maltreatment (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005).

Abuse and neglect occurs within all racial and ethnic groups: half of all victims are white; one-quarter are African American; and one-tenth are Hispanic. Pacific Islander, American Indian, Alaskan Native, and African American children have the highest rates of victimization. Girls are slightly more likely to be victims (51.7%) than boys (48.3%) (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005).

Victimization is inversely related to age. The youngest children are more likely to be abused and neglected and also suffer the greatest consequences in terms of injuries and fatalities. Children from birth to five years constitute 41 percent of victims of maltreatment. More than three-quarters of the 1,500 children who died from abuse and neglect in 2003 were younger than four years (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005).

Because of the high volume of reports, high staff turnover, and large caseloads, many child-welfare systems struggle to respond to many families’ needs and are often criticized for failing to keep children safe. Because of the number of reports that are screened out, cases that are unsubstantiated, and lack of resources, the majority of families reported for abuse and neglect do not receive services. Many child-welfare systems are trying to improve their ability to assess and serve families and are building partnerships with community organizations in an effort to provide higher quality services to children.


Impact of Maltreatment

Many research studies document the negative impact of abuse and neglect on children, including long-term harm to children’s physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral development. Maltreatment has also been associated with increased risk for poor school performance and learning difficulties, drug and alcohol problems, juvenile delinquency, and adult criminality. For example, the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study reveals a powerful relationship between a traumatic experience in childhood (such as abuse) and physical and mental health problems in adulthood. New brain-imaging techniques reveal that child abuse can cause permanent changes to the neural structure and function of the developing brain. Beyond the individual hardships that result from maltreatment, child abuse, and neglect takes an enormous toll on society as a whole in terms of the tremendous costs associated with expenditures on child welfare, health, mental health, special education, and criminal justice systems, as well as lost wages.

Not all children who are abused or neglected experience these negative outcomes. Many children and families are resilient despite difficult circumstances. For example, children who have been maltreated are five times more likely than nonmaltreated children to become abusive or neglectful parents when they grow up. However, the majority of abused/neglected children, 70 percent, do not maltreat their children when they become parents. Research has shown that the presence of a caring adult who is responsive to a child’s needs can help mitigate the effects of maltreatment and other problems.


Risk Factors

The causes of child maltreatment are complex. Current ecological theories posit that a mix of factors related to the individual child, family, community, and social context can increase or decrease the risk of abuse or neglect. Children with disabilities or special needs, for example, are more likely to be abused. Family characteristics that are linked with child maltreatment include mental health problems, isolation, substance abuse, domestic violence, and lack of parenting skills. Community-level variables that are linked with maltreatment include poverty, which is linked particularly to neglect, as well as high levels of unemployment and violence.


Protective Factors

Through close involvement with young children and frequent contact with parents and other caregivers, early childhood programs can effectively incorporate strategies that promote protective factors in families and guard against maltreatment. Key protective factors include (1) increasing parental resilience, (2) building the social connections of parents, (3) increasing knowledge of parenting and child development, (4) providing concrete support in times of need, and (5) supporting the social and emotional development of children (Horton, 2005).


Responses to Child Abuse and Neglect

Responses to child maltreatment are characterized as forms of primary prevention, early intervention, and, in extreme cases, early intervention and protection. Primary prevention is associated with large scale-efforts aimed at a broad, general audience that seek to raise public awareness and understanding of child abuse and neglect such as public education campaigns (e.g., public service announcements); information provided to all new parents (e.g., materials advising parents never to shake a baby or the “Back to Sleep” campaign), education programs for children (e.g., Safe Touch programs to prevent sexual abuse); and a range of community-based, early education, and social services programs that provide a variety of resources and supports to families.

Early intervention refers to those programs and services that target groups at risk of abuse or neglect such as home visiting programs, parenting classes, self-help groups, and supports for teenage parents. Long-term research studies of the Nurse Family Partnership (a home visiting program that targets low-income, first-time mothers) and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers (an enriched early childhood program with services and supports for parents) are two examples of programs that have proven effective in preventing abuse and neglect. Some researchers also point to the small decline in child victimization rates as encouraging evidence that early intervention and prevention efforts may be having an impact on child abuse and neglect.

Child Protection and Treatment Programs respond to abuse and neglect once it is reported, such as public child protection agencies charged with investigating and responding to allegations of abuse and neglect; child welfare agencies provide family preservation, case management, and foster care services; family and criminal courts handle the legal issues that result from maltreatment; child advocacy centers streamline the interview and evidence-collecting process and provide support to victims and their families; and mental health services such as programs that provide treatment to children who have witnessed violence and help families cope with the aftermath of maltreatment. See also Child Abuse and Neglect, Prevention of; Domestic Violence.

Further Readings: Anda, Robert, and Vincent J. Felitti (2003). The adverse childhood experience study. Available online at; Horton, Carol (2005). Protective factors literature review: Early care and education programs and the prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect. Available online at; National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) (2003). Early Childhood Educators and Child Abuse Prevention: NAEYC’s Perspective, Research Findings, and Future Actions. Washington, DC: NAEYC. Available online; National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information (2005). Available online at; Reynolds, Arthur J., and Dylan L. Robertson (2003). School-base early intervention and later child maltreatment in the Chicago Longitudinal Study. Child Development 74(1) 3-26; Teicher, Martin H. (2002). Scars that won t heal: The neurobiology of child abuse. Scientific American; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families (2005). Child maltreatment 2003. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Francie Zimmerman