Questions often arise amongst professionals concerning the comparison of child abuse statistics. What follows is a discussion of the questions that surround the comparison of such statistics over time, between areas in the UK, and between countries.
A common question is whether child abuse is on the increase, on the decrease or whether the level of abuse is remaining constant. It is very difficult to answer this question due to the nature of the statistics we use to estimate levels of abuse.
Official statistics are published annually and tell us the amount of abuse that is recorded by the authorities during the year. This is the level of the incidence of recorded abuse.
A rise in the level of abuse being recorded does not necessarily mean a rise in the level of abuse being perpetrated. It merely means that more abuse is coming to the attention of the authorities. There may be a number of different reasons for this: improved training would lead to professionals being better at recognising the signs of abuse; a public awareness campaign may lead to more members of the public reporting their concerns; awareness work with children and young people will encourage them to tell someone about what is happening to them. A high profile child abuse case in the media often leads to increased referrals and the authorities being more likely to intervene where there are concerns. In May 2009, for instance, Cafcass reported an increase in care applications by local authorities following the death of Baby Peter. Without further investigation, it is not possible to use the incidence figures by themselves to judge what is happening to child abuse levels.
The NPSCC has published research which looks at trends in statistics over recent years: How safe are our children? (Harker et al, 2013).
Research studies give us an indication of how many people were abused during childhood. This is the prevalence of child abuse. It is very difficult to make use of research studies to tell us what is happening to levels of child abuse. Each study is different, both in the way it is carried out and in the questions that participants are asked.
The definition of child abuse changes over time as society’s attitudes change. So society recognises the potentially abusive nature of some behaviours, which were previously accepted as "reasonable". A survey of the childhood experiences of a national UK sample of adults, aged 18-45 (Creighton & Russell, 1995), found that some 35% said they had been hit with an implement. Only 7% felt that it was acceptable to do that to a child now. Parental behaviours towards children, that are deemed to be unacceptable, are continually evolving within societies.
Although there is national guidance around child abuse and child protection, it is up to local authorities to decide how they interpret this guidance. The proportion of children on the register can vary considerably between different authorities, which suggests that different areas have different thresholds for recording a child as being at risk. How well multi-agency procedures work within different local authorities may also affect the level of child abuse that is recorded.
Another common question is how the levels of child abuse the UK compare to levels in other countries across the world. The biggest problem with comparing statistics internationally is that how different countries measure the prevalence or incidence of child abuse can vary greatly. Most prevalence and incidence studies have been conducted in western countries and there is much less information from other parts of the world. There are also differences in what is understood by the term child abuse, how it is recognised and how it is recorded.
Child abuse is a culturally defined phenomenon. As Kempe (1978) wrote: "the rights of a child to be protected from parents unable to cope at a level assumed to be reasonable by the society in which they reside" (p.263, italics added). What is regarded as "reasonable" changes within and between societies? In a country where a large proportion of the child population is afflicted by malnutrition, a parent's inability to provide sufficient food to their child would not be categorised as neglect on the parent's part.
The most popular analogy used for child abuse is that of an iceberg, where only a portion of the whole is visible. Dividing the iceberg into layers you get:
Layer 1: those children whose abuse is recorded in the criminal statistics of a country
Layer 2: those children who are officially recorded as being in need of protection from abuse, e.g. children subject to a child protection plan in England or substantiated child abuse cases in the USA
Layer 3: those children who have been reported to child protection agencies by the general public, or other professionals such as teachers or doctors, but who have not been registered
Layer 4: abused or neglected children who are recognised as such by relatives or neighbours, but are not reported to any professional agency
Layer 5: those children who have not been recognised as abused or neglected by anyone, including the victims and perpetrator.
Countries vary in the number and size of the layers of the child abuse iceberg that are recognised and reported. According to Kempe (1978), there are six stages to recognising the full extent of child abuse in a country, and addressing the problem. The first stage involves denial that it exists outside a small minority of grossly deviant families, or foreign guest workers with different styles of child rearing, "people not like us". This is followed by stages two to five on the recognition of widespread types of abuse (physical abuse, neglect, emotional abuse and sexual abuse) to stage six, that of guaranteeing each child that he or she is truly wanted and provided for, by parents, community and state. Whilst most developed countries have passed through the stages of recognising and responding to the different forms of child abuse, few, if any, would claim to have reached stage six.
Cafcass (2009) Care statistics continue to rise. Press release 8 May 2009. London: Cafcass.
Creighton, S. J. and Russell, N. (1995) Voices from childhood: a survey of childhood experiences and attitudes to child rearing among adults in the United Kingdom. London: NSPCC.
Harker, L. et al (2013) How safe are our children? London: NSPCC.
Kempe, C. H. (1978) Recent developments in the field of child abuse. Child Abuse and Neglect, 2(4): 261-267.