How Many Children Get Assaulted?

Before reading further, stop and ask yourself the question in the title. Be specific: what proportion of children experience violence in a given year? What proportion of adolescent girls have been raped in their lifetimes?

David Finkelhor and his colleagues looked at data from the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, a 2011 US national survey about the experiences of children aged 0-17 years. The survey was collected through telephone interviews with kids 10-17 and with caregivers for younger children. And, yes, this means that the rates of assault are likely under-reported for the younger kids.

What they found was that

Two-fifths (41.2%) of children and youth experienced a physical assault in the last year, and 1 in 10 (10.1%) experienced an assault-related injury. Two percent experienced sexual assault or sexual abuse in the last year, but the rate was 10.7% for girls aged 14 to 17 years. More than 1 in 10 (13.7%) experienced maltreatment by a caregiver, including 3.7% who experienced physical abuse.

There is no perfect way to measure the incidence of the exposure of children to violence. It’s possible that respondents may have under- or over-stated their experience. The response rate for the survey was 40%. This is good for a modern survey, but clearly the results could have been affected by selection bias.

Nevertheless, these results are distressing if they are even roughly correct. I know something about this literature and I was still surprised. There’s lots to say about what we might be able to do to reduce children’s exposure to violence and the research that needs to be done to prove that we can reduce it. The first step, however, is to get this fact clearly in mind: Physical and sexual assaults are common experiences for American children.

[Originally posted at The Incidental Economist]

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Bill Gardner

Bill Gardner is a psychologist who studies the mental health service system for children. He is a professor of pediatrics at Dalhousie University (Nova Scotia) and the Ohio State University. Bill blogs at Inequalities. Follow him on Twitter at @Bill_Gardner.