Study: When economy worsens, so does child abuse

July 17, 2012, 2:39 p.m.

Between 2000 and 2009, for every one-percent increase in the 90-day mortgage delinquency rate, the rate of child abuse requiring hospitalization of a child rose by three percent. (D. Sharon Pruitt/Flickr Creative Commons)

A sagging economy presents deep challenges to many, but a new, unsettling study shows that it affects kids in a particularly violent way.

Research appearing in the journal Pediatrics found that as more and more homes are lost to an unforgiving economy, the rates of child abuse leading to hospitalization increase.

"One of the things we forget as a society is how big a stressor poverty is, and how few resources there are for parents," said Adriana Molina, co-chair of the Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles (VPC). "As the economy goes down, there are bigger and bigger challenges – you start looking at, do I provide food or do I provide activities for the kids?"

Molina says the inability to provide activities for kids, coupled with the stresses of being in need, often results in violence toward the kids of struggling families.

"We don't let the parents know that this is going to get more stressful during this or that time, so they have expectations of their kids that aren't realistic," she said. "And we don't have parents who are supported in learning. People can only parent the way they learned, and one of the things we at the VPC believe is that violence is a learned behavior."

When parents are in a situation that involves stress, a lack of resources and an extended family that itself is often in "survival mode," Molina said, they can't rely on them for support – and so they resort to "what's known to them."

And that can be brutal on the kids. HealthDay reports that between 2000 and 2009, for every one-percent increase in the 90-day mortgage delinquency rate, the rate of child abuse requiring hospitalization of a child rose by three percent. For every one-percent increase in the mortgage-delinquency rate, the rate of traumatic brain injury suspected to be caused by child abuse went up five percent.

"Parenting is stressful," said Molina. "It's stressful all on its own, even in the best of circumstances." And, she added, when those circumstances worsen, it can often be attributed to financial struggle.

"That's why we really look at violence as a public health issue and call on different aspects of society and our communities to support us in being part of the solution," she said.

Molina is also employed at the Children's Institute, a non-profit that treats and works on the prevention of child abuse and neglect. In the period after the recession ended in June 2009, when the economy was still in a deep slump, she says the Children's Institute was doing a program that offered crisis response to domestic violence calls in partnership with the LAPD.

"We definitely saw an increase in the percentage of calls that came in that had kids," said Molina. "Before that time, maybe 40 percent of calls were families that had kids – sometimes more, sometimes less. But in the last couple years, as we're looking at the numbers, it's been more like 60 percent."

But the abuse isn't always so direct. Heather Carmichael is the executive director of My Friend's Place, a non-profit that offers comprehensive care and resources for Los Angeles' homeless youth, and she says she's noticed one trend in particular throughout the economic downturn.

"What happening is families are moving in with families, so what was a single family living in an apartment becomes two families living in an apartment," she explained. When that happens, the older child is often pushed out to "make their way" – and to make room for, say, his pregnant aunt who already has a couple of kids.

That often amounts to effectively putting a young person on the streets, on his or her own, without support nor the means to secure a living wage. Couple that with the difficulty of finding affordable housing in L.A., says Carmichael, and you've got a "pretty vicious cycle."

And if that person's a minor, you've also technically got a form of child abuse.

"If you're under the age of 18, it is your parent or guardian's responsibility to care for you," said Carmichael. "And that means providing shelter and everything that it takes to take care of a child. Somebody comes to us and says, 'I'm 16 years old and my father has kicked me out of the house' – that is considered child endangerment, and that is a report that needs to go to the local authority."

But oftentimes, it's not so clear-cut.

"When we're working with young people who are coming from communities and families that living in poverty and are super stressed, it's not really an intentional 'You must go'," Carmichael said. "That household just becomes so overwhelmed with multiple generations that somebody feels there's not room for them and they're going to pursue a different way." In that way, a teen's exile from her or his house is somewhat self-imposed.

"But it's still the adult or guardian in their life that is responsible for keeping them in safe housing," she added. "So it can get really tricky in terms of a legal mandate."

In March, the county's Department of Child and Family Services received more than 17,400 allegations of child abuse. In May, the latest month for which data was available on DCFS' website, the department received considerably more allegations: just north of 17,900.

A good number of those don't result in further action on the part of the county, but South L.A. is a hotspot for child abuse, said Neil Zanville, who works in DCFS' public affairs office.

"It gets heavy there," he told OnCentral in March. "A lot of our referrals that come to our hotline are generated from South Los Angeles." So much so that in March, the southside alone saw reports of abuse come in at a rate of about 120 new cases per day.

"It's hard enough to deal with an adolescent who's trying to become autonomous and independent and challenging rules and boundaries while well-resourced," said Carmichael, echoing Molina. And the family who doesn't have enough, she said, is in a "really complicated situation."

"If not careful, that tension is often taken out on the people who are closest to you," she said. "And children are vulnerable."

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has fact sheets for both parents and youth on how to cope with the stresses of tough economic times.

Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt via Flickr Creative Commons.

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