Child Abuse Statistics from the NIS-4 Report to the U.S. Congress and the World

About the NIS-4 Statistics on Child Abuse

The National Incidence Study (NIS) is a congressionally mandated, periodic effort of the United States Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). The NIS–1 was mandated by Public Law (P.L.) 93–247 (1974) and collected data in 1979 and 1980. The NIS–2 was mandated under P.L. 98–457 (1984) and collected data in 1986. The NIS–3 was mandated under both the Child Abuse Prevention, Adoption, and Family Services Act of 1988 (P.L. 100–294) and the Child Abuse, Domestic Violence, Adoption and Family Services Act of 1992 (P.L. 102–295). It collected data in 1993. The NIS–4 gathered data in 2005 and 2006 and was mandated by the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003 (P.L. 108-36).

The Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (or NIS-4) is a study based on a nationally representative sample of over 10,971 professionals in 1,094 agencies serving 122 counties across the United States. The study was published in January 2010. Following below are some child abuse statistics gleaned from the NIS-4 findings.


Definitions and Terms To Understand When Reading The Following Child Abuse Statistics

  1. Harm Standard - The Harm Standard was developed for the NIS-1, and it has been used in all national incidence studies. It is relatively stringent in that it generally requires that an act or omission result in demonstrable harm in order to be classified as abuse or neglect. Exceptions are made in only a few categories where the nature of the maltreatment itself is so egregious that the standard permits harm to be inferred when direct evidence of it is not available. The chief advantage of the Harm Standard is that it is strongly objective in character. Its principal disadvantage is that it is so stringent that it provides a view of abuse and neglect that is too narrow for many purposes, excluding even many children whose maltreatment is substantiated or indicated as abuse or neglect by CPS.
  2. Endangerment Standard - The Endangerment Standard was developed as a definitional standard during the NIS-2 to supplement the perspective provided by the Harm Standard. The Endangerment Standard includes all children who meet the Harm Standard but adds others as well. The central feature of the Endangerment Standard is that it allows children who were not yet harmed by maltreatment to be counted in the abused and neglected estimates if a non-CPS sentinel considered them to be endangered by maltreatment or if their maltreatment was substantiated or indicated in a CPS investigation.

The NIS definitional standards specify all the elements that must be met for the child to be countable in the study. These include:

  1. Child’s Age: The NIS includes children whose maltreatment occurs after their birth and before their 18th birthday1.
  2. Custody Status: The NIS includes only abuse and neglect of children living in household settings (dependents of parent(s) or parent substitute(s) at the time of maltreatment)2.
  3. Purposive and Avoidable Acts/Omissions: For maltreatment to count, it must be nonaccidental and avoidable3.
  4. Time of Maltreatment: The maltreatment has to have occurred during the study reference period4.
  5. Severity of Harm: For each form of maltreatment, the Harm Standard specifies a minimum level of harm that must be evident in order for the child to be countable5.
  6. Person(s) Responsible for the Maltreatment: For each form of maltreatment, both definitional standards specify whether the perpetrator must be an adult and how they must be related to the child (parent or other caregiver) in order for NIS to count the maltreatment6. Evaluative coders also assess the degree of evidence for holding the alleged perpetrator responsible for the maltreatment.

Child Abuse Statistics: Incidence of Child Abuse and Neglect

  • An estimated 1,256,000 children would be classified as abused and neglected according to the Harm Standard during the NIS-4 2005-2006 study year. This total reflects an incidence rate of 17.1 children per 1,000 children in the general U.S. population, or to 1 out every 58 children in the U.S. as shown in Figure 1.
  • Compared to the NIS-3 estimates based on data taken in 1993 (23.1 children per 1,000 children in the general U.S. population), there is a "statistically marginal" decrease in the NIS-4 data. This means the estimated change is close to being statistically significant, but does not meet the traditional statistical standard for concluding that the difference is not due to chance factors.
  • Incidence rate of child abuse and neglect from the NIS-4 is 1 out of every 58 kids according to the Harm Standard

    Figure 1

  • Figure 2 shows the estimate of all maltreated children using the Endangerment Standard includes the children who were abused or neglected in any of the categories listed.
  • National Incidence of Endangerment Standard Maltreatment in the NIS–4 (2005–2006)

    Figure 2

  • An estimated 2,905,800 children experienced some form of Endangerment Standard maltreatment during the 2005–2006 study year. This corresponds to an incidence rate of 39.5 children per 1,000, which is equivalent to about 4 children per 100, or one child in 25 in the general U.S. child population as shown in Figure 3. Note: Due to the broader criteria of the Endangerment Standard, it is only natural that more children would be classified as having experienced maltreatment under this standard than the Harm Standard.
  • Incidence rate of child abuse and neglect from the NIS-4 is 1 out of every 25 kids according to the Endangerment Standard

    Figure 3

Child Abuse Statistics: Distribution of Child Abuse and Neglect by the Child's Characteristics

  • Girls were sexually abused about five times more often than boys, according to the stringent Harm Standard.
  • Overall, girls' risk of abuse was 1.3 times that of boys according to the Harm Standard.
  • While the NIS-3 found that boys were more likely than girls to suffer serious harm according to Harm guidelines, the NIS-4 found no significant difference between boys' and girls' rates of experiencing serious harm.
  • The incidence rate of emotional neglect (according to the Endangerment Standard) increased significantly since the NIS-3. It increased more for girls (88%) than for boys (64%).
  • Figure 4 shows that the youngest children (ages 0 to 2 years) experienced Harm Standard maltreatment at a significantly lower rate than children ages 6 or older (8.5 per 1,000 vs. 17.6 per 1,000 or higher). Only the 9-to 11-year-old children do not differ from the youngest group, primarily because their estimated rate is less precise than the rates for other older children (That is, the sampling error associated with their rate is much larger, which may be a random result of the way they came into the NIS–4 sample; their rate varies across the different components of the NIS–4 sample more than the rates of the other older groups.) No other age differences in the graph of overall Harm Standard maltreatment are statistically significant.
  • Age Differences in Incidence Rates for All Harm Standard Maltreatment, Abuse, and Neglect.

    Figure 4

  • The incidence of Harm Standard physical abuse was significantly lower for the youngest children (2.5 per 1,000 children ages 0 to 2 years) compared to children ages 6 to 14 (whose rates were 4.6 per 1,000 or higher).
  • The youngest children (ages 0 to 2) were at significantly lower risk of Harm Standard emotional abuse compared to children ages 6 or older. The incidence rate for children ages 2 years or younger was 0.3 per 1,000 children, whereas for children ages 6 or older the rate was at least 2.4 children per 1,000. Also, children ages 3 to 5 years experienced a significantly lower risk of emotional abuse (at a rate of 1.0 child per 1,000) compared with children ages 12 to 14 years (where 2.7 children per 1,000 were victims). (The estimates for children younger than 9 are less reliable because fewer than 100 sample children are in each of those age categories.)
  • There has been a statistically significant decline since the NIS–3 in the incidence of Harm Standard sexual abuse. This decline was not uniform across age groups. It occurred most among children ages 3 to 11 years and 15 to 17 years (where rates decreased by 42% to 68%). Children in puberty (12 to 14 years old) experienced only a small decline in their risk of Harm Standard sexual abuse (9%). Among children ages 0 to 2, the incidence of Harm Standard sexual abuse increased by 33%. However, this last result is less reliable, since fewer than 100 sample children support the component estimated rates.
  • Changes in the incidence rate of Harm Standard abuse were significantly related to race/ethnicity. The differential decreases were 43% for White children, 27% for Hispanic children, and 17% for Black children.

Child Abuse Statistics: Distribution of Child Abuse and Neglect by Family Characteristics

Parental Employment

  • Compared to children with employed parents, those with no parent in the labor force had 2 to 3 times the rate of maltreatment overall, about 2 times the rate of abuse, and 3 or more times the rate of neglect.
  • Children with unemployed parents had 2 to 3 times higher rates of neglect than those with employed parents.

Socioeconomic status

  • The NIS–4 data combined three indicators into a general measure of socioeconomic status (SES): household income, household participation in any poverty program, and parents' education. Low socioeconomic status households were those in the bottom tier on any indicator: household income below $15,000 a year, parents' highest education level less than high school, or any member of the household a participant in a poverty program, such as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), food stamps, public housing, energy assistance, or subsidized school meals.
  • Figure 5 shows children in families of low SES were also at significantly greater risk of Harm Standard abuse. An estimated 7.7 children per 1,000 children in low-SES families experienced Harm Standard abuse compared to 2.5 per 1,000 children not in low-SES families. The incidence rate for children in low-SES families is more than 3 times the rate for children not in low-SES families.
Differences Related to Family Socioeconomic Status in Incidence Rates per 1,000 Children for Harm Standard Maltreatment in the NIS–4 (2005–2006)

Figure 5

Family Structure and Living Arrangement

  • Family structure reflects the number of parents in the household and their relationship to the child; living arrangement reflects their marital or cohabitation status. Considering both factors, the NIS–4 classified children into six categories: living with two married biological parents, living with other married parents (e.g., step-parent, adoptive parent), living with two unmarried parents, living with one parent who had an unmarried partner in the household, living with one parent who had no partner in the household, and living with no parent. The groups differed in rates of every maltreatment category and across both definitional standards.
  • Children living with their married biological parents universally had the lowest rate of maltreatment, whereas those living with a single parent who had a cohabiting partner in the household had the highest rate in all maltreatment categories. Using the Harm Standard criteria, compared to children living with married biological parents, those whose single parent had a live-in partner had more than 8 times the rate of maltreatment overall, over 10 times the rate of abuse, and nearly 6 times the rate of neglect.
  • Comparable data were available to assess changes since the NIS–3 in maltreatment rates for two groups of children: those living with two parents and those living with one parent. In nearly all categories, the incidence of maltreatment and levels of harm increased since the NIS–3 for children living with one parent but decreased for those living with two parents. The largest decrease for children living with two parents occurred in the rate of Harm Standard sexual abuse, which declined by 61% from its level at the time of the NIS–3.
  • Figure 6 shows the number of children per 1,000 that experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse in each specified family structure. It is clear that the rate of abuse is highest in family structures where the family unit consists of a single parent living with a partner.
Incidence of Harm Standard Abuse by Family Structure and Living Arrangement

Figure 6

Child Abuse Statistics: Distribution of Child Abuse and Neglect by Perpetrator Characteristics

  • The majority of all children countable under the Harm Standard (81%) were maltreated by their biological parents. This held true both for the abused children (64% were abused by biological parents) and for those neglected (92% were neglected by biological parents).
  • Biological parents were the most closely related perpetrators for 71% of physically abused children and for 73% of emotionally abused children.
  • The pattern was distinctly different for sexual abuse. More than two-fifths (42%) of the sexually abused children were sexually abused by someone other than a parent (whether biological or nonbiological) or a parent’s partner, whereas just over one-third (36%) were sexually abused by a biological parent. In addition, severity of harm from physical abuse varied by the perpetrator’s relationship to the child. A physically abused child was more likely to sustain a serious injury when the abuser was not a parent.
  • Biological parents were the most closely related perpetrators for most children who were physically abused (72%), emotionally abused (73%), physically neglected (91%), emotionally neglected (90%), and educationally neglected (94%). In contrast, the most common perpetrators of sexual abuse were persons other than parents or parents’ partners (40% of sexually abused children). Fewer children were sexually abused by a biological parent (37%) or by nonbiological parents or parents’ partners (23%).
  • Children were somewhat more likely to be maltreated by female perpetrators than by males: 68% of the maltreated children were maltreated by a female, whereas 48% were maltreated by a male. (Some children were maltreated by both.) Of children maltreated by biological parents, mothers maltreated the majority (75%) whereas fathers maltreated a sizable minority (43%). In contrast, male perpetrators were more common for children maltreated by nonbiological parents or parents’ partners (64%) or by other persons (75%).
  • The predominant sex of perpetrators of abuse was different from that of neglect. Female perpetrators were more often responsible for neglect (86% of children neglected by females versus 38% by males). This finding is congruent with the fact that mothers (biological or other) tend to be the primary caretakers and are the primary persons held accountable for any omissions and/or failings in caretaking. In contrast, males more often were abusers (62% of children were abused by males versus 41% by females). The prevalence of male perpetrators was strongest in the category of sexual abuse, where 87% of children were abused by a male compared to only 11% by a female.
  • Among all abused children, those abused by their biological parents were about equally likely to have been abused by mothers as by fathers (51% and 54%, respectively), but those abused by nonbiological parents or parents’ partners, or by other, perpetrators were much more likely to be abused by males (74% or more by males versus 26% or less by females).

Child Abuse Statistics: Sources of Recognition for Maltreated Children According to the Endangerment Standard

Sources that Recognized Children Who Experienced Endangerment Standard Maltreatment

Figure 7


Child Abuse Statistics: Overall Summary Graphic for the USA and the World

Summary graphic of child abuse statistics - USA and the world

Summary Picture of Child Abuse Statistics - USA & the World


Related child abuse statistics & data:

NIS-3 Study NIS-4 Study


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1. The NIS classifies acts or omissions that occur during pregnancy as not countable.
2. The NIS excludes institutional abuse and neglect.
3. The NIS excludes problems or hazards that a parent or caregiver could not avoid, due to lack of financial means (where appropriate assistance was not available through public agencies), or the caregiver’s death, hospitalization, incarceration (where it was physically impossible to provide or arrange for adequate care).
4. Study data are annualized using multipliers that assume a specific time period. The restriction on the time of maltreatment ensures that the annualization multipliers apply to the correct basis. For CPS data, CPS has to receive the report during the study reference period and accept it for investigation; for sentinel agencies, the maltreatment itself has to occur during the study reference period.
5. To count a child in the study estimates, the Harm Standard generally requires moderate harm from abuse but serious harm from neglect.
6. For maltreatment to count under the Harm Standard, the perpetrator of abuse must be a parent, parent-substitute, or an adult caregiver; a neglect perpetrator must be a parent or parent-substitute. The Endangerment Standard relaxes these criteria in several respects. It includes situations where adult caregivers other than a parent or parent substitute permit sexual abuse and situations where non-parental minor caregivers perpetrate or permit sexual abuse. In addition, it includes other adult caregivers (besides parents and parent substitutes) as allowable perpetrators of two forms of neglect: inadequate supervision and other physical neglect (such as inadequate food, clothing, shelter, disregard of physical hazards, and other inattention to child’s physical safety and well-being).

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