Child Maltreatment: The latest report

By: Caleb Kimpel, Creative Writer

The Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Children Youth and Families released Child Maltreatment 2015 on Jan. 19. The 26th annual publication in the Child Maltreatment series reflects data provided by all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia through the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, NCANDS.

This data reflects activities of child protective services nationwide, from receiving a referral to providing services to victims. While NCANDS was established as a voluntary program in 1988, states that receive any grant under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act must provide an annual report of key child welfare data.

The latest Child Maltreatment report provides few surprises or exceptional variations from data over the last few years, but it continues to underscore the incredible significance of child protection services in the response to child maltreatment and the extent of child welfare activities across the states.


ACYF estimates there were around 4 million referrals to CPS in 2015, a number that has consistently climbed over time. Of those referrals, involving around 7.2 children, almost three-fifths (58.2%) became reports.

It is important to note that the differentiation between a referral and report is subject to how the reporting state handles communication to child protection authorities. Some states do not record data for calls if they do not warrant a report, some handle every call as a report and/or provide an “alternative response” or “differential response” to low-risk cases.

Historically, legal and law enforcement personnel have accounted for the plurality of reports made, followed closely by education personnel. However, this year, education personnel provided the most reports (18.4%) out of any group, presumably reflecting the proliferation of mandatory reporting laws and mandatory reporter training nationwide —and the incredible work of communities of learners devoted to protecting children from harm.

Education personnel, law enforcement personnel and other professionals — a group that also includes social services personnel, medical personnel, mental health personnel, daycare providers and foster care providers — are the source of a significant majority of child abuse reports year after year, with education professionals alone making more reports in 2015 than alleged victims, alleged perpetrators, parents, relatives, friends, and neighbors combined.

Response times vary considerably from state to state and year to year based on which states report the data and how it is measured. Further, high-priority cases warrant a swifter response than those where there is lower risk, but nationally, it takes CPS around three days to initiate a response to a report.]

Child maltreatment victimization rate via ACY 2017 (Childhelp)

Child maltreatment victimization rate via Children’s Bureau 2017 (Childhelp)

Child Maltreatment Victims

The child maltreatment victimization rate in 2015 stood slightly above 9 victims per 1000 children (9.2), about where it has fluctuated since 2009. That figure represents around 683,000 victims nationwide and includes child maltreatment deaths.

The report includes downward revisions to historical victimization rates that reflect an important change in NCANDS protocol: Cases that receive an alternative response are no longer included in the victim count. This is because more states include AR as part of their child protection arsenal than ever before. Nationally, there was a 54% increase from 2011 to 2015 in the number of children who received alternative response from CPS.

Regardless, the victimization rate should be understood only in light of the fact that it cannot include victimized children about whom no finding of abuse was made by CPS, and that each state establishes its own policies and practices for child protection. It also does not reflect the number of victims found over time, instead portraying a snapshot of a single year’s victims. That is, a new victim remains a victim for his or her whole life, but the child maltreatment victimization rate only represents findings of abuse or neglect in a single year. By age 18, around one in eight children will have been found a victim of maltreatment by CPS at some point in their life.

As has been the case in previous years, girls in 2015 were somewhat more likely to be identified as victims of maltreatment (rate per 1000: Boys, 8.8; Girls, 9.6); and significant racial differences persisted in 2015, in line with previous years (rate per 1000: Asian, 1.7; White, 8.1; Pacific Islander, 8.8; Multiple, 10.4; Native American, 13.8; African American, 14.5).

Likewise, as has been the case in previous years, victimization rates were highest among infants and toddlers (24.2 per 1000 for children under one, 11.8 at one, 11.3 at two), declining through childhood, with a “bubble” around age 13 to 14 (accounted for by the frequency of child sexual abuse against adolescents).

The report also outlines types of maltreatment faced by victims, with almost two-thirds (63.4%) of victims facing neglect, and another ~12% of victims facing neglect and other forms of maltreatment together. In surveys taken later in life, individuals recall much more abuse than NCANDS data presents, but the constraint of the Child Maltreatment report and NCANDS data is that it only presents what CPS documents.

Child maltreatment fatality rate via Children's Bureau 2017 (Childhelp)

Child maltreatment fatality rate via Children’s Bureau 2017 (Childhelp)

Child Maltreatment Fatalities

One of Childhelp’s goals is to protect the five children who die each day because of abuse and neglect: #FiveTooMany

That approximation of the number of daily child maltreatment fatalities is based on information provided to NCANDS and represented in the Child Maltreatment report. In 2015 there were an estimated 1,670 child abuse and neglect fatalities (~4.6 per day), an annual rate of 2.25 per 100,000 children — the highest since 2008.

In 2016, the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities released its final report on the subject. The report accurately notes the lack of a standard, mandated reporting system for child abuse and neglect deaths from state to state.

“We know that the number of fatalities is higher than reported by NCANDS,” the Commission explained in its ultimate report, “Some researchers estimate that the actual number is more than double the NCANDS total, but at least 3,000 children per year.”

Nevertheless, data on child maltreatment fatalities presented in the Child Maltreatment report and in NCANDS remain an important source to understand the intersection of child welfare systems and fatalities that spring from their shortcomings. We could just as easily say #EightTooMany … and the point would remain: Too many children die because of abuse and neglect.

Child maltreatment perpetrators by relationship to victim via Children's Bureau (Childhelp)

Child maltreatment perpetrators by relationship to victim via Children’s Bureau 2017 (Childhelp)

Child Maltreatment Perpetrators

The report also presents the relationship between the child victim and the maltreatment perpetrator(s).

The profile of a child abuse perpetrator according to child protection authorities in 2015 is similar to previous years. While there is no single relationship or marker that defines a child maltreatment perpetrator, the people who spend the most time alone in the closest proximity to children are overwhelmingly most likely to abuse them: their parents.  Age demographics reflect this pattern as well, and the racial demographics closely mirror the racial demographics of victims.


Child welfare systems do more than identify victims and document abuse. They respond to instances of abuse and families need, as well as offer prevention services within communities.

There was a decline in the estimated number of children nationwide who received prevention services from FFY2014 to FFY2015 (from 2.9 million to 2.3 million), but ACYF points to more accurate reporting methodologies rather than a reduction of actual services in that time. These programs are administered on state and local levels with funding made available from the federal government through provisions of the Child Abuse and Prevention Act (CAPTA) and the Social Security Act.

The report notes that there was a change from previous years in the measure of children who received foster care services to better reflect those removed as a result of investigations. 148,262 victims, (22.9% of them) and 58,544 non-victims (2.1% of them) received foster care. The report explains that non-victims are often put in foster care if another child, or other children, in the household were in danger — or if a parent voluntarily surrenders a child who wasn’t a victim to foster care.

According to state reports, 28.1% of victims had some kind of court action taken in their case. Only about half of states reported on the presence of a Guardian ad Litem (in some jurisdictions called Court Appointed Special Advocates) for victims, and ACFY believes it is likely courts appointed representatives for more than the reported 25.1% of victims nationally.

NCANDS also looks at family preservation services and family reunification services in the 5 years leading up to a maltreatment report. Only about half the states reported this data, but they show around 14.5% of victims received family preservation services in those 5 years, and 4.8% of victims had received reunification services.

Reflecting a 2010 change in CAPTA, NCANDS added a new field in 2012 to track victims eligible for and referred to certain early intervention services through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Only about half the states reported this information, with 65.5% of eligible victims being referred to such services. IDEA spells out the rights of children who receive special education and provides for special services to prevent abuse against eligible children. Disability is an established risk factor for child maltreatment.

Take Away

It is important to understand the Child Maltreatment report in the context of overlapping systems of care and overlapping responses to child maltreatment. These data points reflect the activity of child welfare enforcement, but understanding how to keep children safe also demands a look at what we know apart from “the system.”

It is not only CPS (or DCFY or DCS or whatever letters your state has given its child welfare authority) who shape safer communities for kids. It happens in schools and community centers, churches and clubs, and it happens mostly in households.

Making a safer future for kids happens right where you are, and it can happen right now.