In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Child Maltreatment

  • Introduction
  • Definitions and Scope of Child Maltreatment
  • Developmental Outcomes of Child Maltreatment
  • Delinquency, Crime, and Antisocial Behavior as Developmental Outcomes of Child Maltreatment
  • Cycle of Violence
  • Mechanisms that Link Child Maltreatment to Delinquency, Crime, and Antisocial Behavior
  • Methodological Issues
  • Child Maltreatment Internationally

Criminology Child Maltreatment
J. Bart Klika, Ashley Trautman, Emily Stiles, Todd Herrenkohl
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0227


Child maltreatment, which includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, and neglect, is a costly and enduring social problem. Child maltreatment is a global crisis that demands large-scale policy reform and systems-level programmatic changes that are guided by well-designed epidemiologic and etiologic studies. Children who experience abuse and neglect are at risk for a range of adverse outcomes. These include mental and physical health disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, crime, and recurrent violence and victimization. Evidence points to some gender differences in developmental processes that link child maltreatment and later outcomes, although results are complicated by inconsistent design and measurement approaches. One common finding in the research literature is that maltreated boys are at higher risk than maltreated girls for externalizing problems (such as physical aggression), while maltreated girls are at higher risk than maltreated boys for internalizing problems (such as social withdrawal and depression). The literature includes a variety of explanations for these apparent gender differences, but more longitudinal research is needed. Unfortunately, longitudinal studies on developmental consequences of child maltreatment are far less common than cross-sectional, retrospective studies.

Definitions and Scope of Child Maltreatment

Child abuse can be of a physical, emotional, or sexual nature. Some researchers refer to these different forms of abuse as “subtypes.” Subtypes of abuse can co-occur such that a child experiences more than one form of abuse. Neglect is another form of child maltreatment that can co-occur with abuse in some families. Higgins 2004 explains the concept of multi-type maltreatment and the reasons research should account for abuse co-occurrence in developmental studies. Estimates of incidence and prevalence of child maltreatment vary according to data sources used to compile this information. Using different methodologies, Finkelhor, et al. 2013; Sedlak, et al. 2010; and US Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau 2017 provide estimates of child victimization including, but not limited to, child abuse and neglect. Finkelhor, et al. 2016 describes trends in child maltreatment over the past twenty years using administrative data, which show an overall decline in various forms of victimization in that time period.

  • Finkelhor, D., K. Saito, and L. Jones. 2016. Updated trends in child maltreatment, 2014. Durham, NH: Crimes against Children Research Center.

    This report examines the decline in child victimization from 1990 to 2014, with administrative data derived from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS). Declines in physical abuse and sexual abuse are noted and attributed to several factors.

  • Finkelhor, D., H. A. Turner, A. M. Shattuck, and S. L. Hamby. 2013. Violence, crime, and abuse exposure in a national sample of children and youth: An update. JAMA Pediatrics 167.7: 614–621.

    DOI: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.42

    This article provides results of the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV). NatSCEV is a large survey that was conducted in 2011 to examine the incidence and prevalence of different forms of child victimization in the United States, with a sample of 4,503 children and youth. The report provides estimates for child maltreatment and other forms of violence, such as bullying and sexual assault.

  • Higgins, D. J. 2004. Differentiating between child maltreatment experiences. Family Matters 69:50–55.

    This article discusses the importance of examining overlap in subtypes of child maltreatment, including physical abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect due to a high rate of co-occurrence.

  • Sedlak, A. J., J. Mettenburg, M. Basena, et al. 2010. Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS–4): Report to Congress, executive summary. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.

    This is a report of the National Incidence Study (NIS)—a congressionally mandated surveillance effort that tracks the incidence and prevalence of child abuse and neglect. The NIS uses community professionals (sentinels) to estimate child maltreatment rates, and in so doing it captures a higher number of child maltreatment incidents than are found in official record data.

  • US Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. 2017. Child maltreatment 2015. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

    This report provides results of the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS). NCANDS collects and analyzes annual state data on child abuse and neglect, which includes referrals to CPS, screened-in referrals, and substantiation.

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