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Quotes from

Child Abuse

Statistics, Research and Resources

Jim Hopper, PhD, December 2004
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Introduction - Unavoidable Controversies & Biases, in Historical Contexts

When thinking about statistics on child abuse, it is helpful to know that the very idea of "child abuse" is controversial.

Only recently, and only in particular countries and cultures, has the abuse of children come to be seen as a major social problem and a main cause of many people's suffering and personal problems.

Of course children have been abused throughout human history. But for people to think about child abuse as we do now, to create legal definitions and government agencies that can remove children from their homes, and to conduct thousands of research studies on the effects of abuse - these are historically and culturally embedded developments.

Some believe that, for the first time in history, we are beginning to face the true prevalence and significance of child abuse. Others worry that many people have become obsessed with child abuse and deny any personal responsibility for their problems while "blaming" them on abuse and bad parenting. (I believe that each view has some validity.)

Clearly, then, some very large contexts and controversies shape debates about particular issues concerning child abuse.

Statistics on rates of child abuse and neglect are controversial.

All statistics on the incidence and prevalence of child abuse and neglect are disputed by some experts. (Incidence refers to the number of new cases each year, and prevalence to the percentage of people in a population who have had such experiences.)


Complex and subtle scientific issues are involved in studies that generate these statistics.

Even the most objective scientific research is imperfect. At least one or two methods used in any study must be chosen by researchers based on opinions and judgements, not just facts and logic. The objectively best methods available may still have limitations.

For example, there are important controversies about how to define abuse and neglect. This is true for official government studies and any other research study.

The definitions of abuse used in official government studies are based on laws, because government definitions are needed for more than research purposes. They are also needed for purposes like determining whether or not suspected abuse should be reported, investigated, "substantiated" (as actually having occurred), and lead to action by a social service agency or court.

In contrast, independent researchers can use different definitions because they have different purposes than government agencies, like understanding the different effects of mild and extreme emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse.

No matter what kind of study it is, small changes in definitions can result in big differences in statistics on abuse and neglect.

Some bottom lines:

Emotions and moral commitments influence everyone's reasoning and judgement to some extent.

Any experts who claim to be without bias are fooling themselves or trying to fool you.

The contents of this page are influenced by my values, my informed opinions, and my experiences as a researcher and therapist over many years.

This page includes links to Web sites that address these issues and provide statistics, including sites with different statistics and points of view on these issues

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