The Intersection of Abuse and Neglect and Poverty

May 26, 2010

This article first appeared May 26, 2010, in Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity.

By Rutledge Q. Hutson

Poverty is the single best predictor of child abuse and neglect. This is not to say that most poor parents abuse or neglect their children—indeed the vast majority do not. In 2008, there were nearly 14 million poor children and about three quarters of a million children were found to be abused or neglected after an investigation by authorities. The true incidence of maltreatment is as high as three million children annually—but even that number shows that most poor parents are not abusing or neglecting their children. Nonetheless, poverty and socioeconomic status are consistently the best predictors of child abuse and neglect. In addition, those who experience abuse and neglect as children are much more likely to experience a host of lifelong challenges, including poverty, in their adulthoods.

Undoubtedly, poverty contributes to maltreatment and maltreatment to poverty in a myriad of complex ways. But it is useful to think of three basic pathways:

1. For some, poverty and the lack of resources associated with it prevent parents from adequately caring for their children. Think of the single mother who can find work only during the night shift but cannot afford child care during that time. She must decide whether to leave her children alone so she can work to put clothes on their backs, a roof overhead, and food on the table. She may tuck the children in bed, kiss them goodnight, hope that they do not awaken, and pray that nothing happens before she returns.

2. For others, the stress of poverty may serve as the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Think of the father who has recently lost his job and no longer has the patience to cope with a crying newborn or a defiant toddler, and lashes out by shaking the child for the few seconds it takes to cause permanent brain damage or death.

3. For others, underlying conditions – substance abuse, domestic violence, or mental health issues – may interfere with a parent’s ability both to hold down a job and to care for her children—thus leading to poverty and maltreatment. Think of the mother who was abused as a child and is now in a relationship fraught with domestic violence. She is struggling with depression and using alcohol or drugs in an attempt to cope. All of these factors prevent her from reliably attending work, and therefore she cannot keep a job. She also neglects her children and sometimes lashes out at them emotionally and physically.

What can we do to help these families? For those in the first two pathways, providing access to income supports, quality child care, food assistance, housing assistance, and health care will immediately help ease stress and provide crucial resources that will mitigate the hardship of poverty and prevent maltreatment. Longer term, these families need access to quality education and job training so the parents, and later the children, can find and keep good jobs. For those in the third pathway, we must address the underlying conditions if we are to make any headway lifting the family out of poverty and preventing the children from experiencing abuse or neglect.

In all cases, we must have a continuum of services and supports that address the individual needs of children and families. These services and supports must be coordinated so that families with the greatest challenges do not have to leap through multiple hoops to get what they need. Families should be able to get the range of supports they need whether they turn to their pediatrician, child care provider, school, community center, or social services office. There should be no "wrong door."

Much of the work of creating such an integrated service delivery system must happen at state and local levels. However, federal funding streams and policies can make such coordination and integration easier or harder. Anti-poverty advocates together with child welfare advocates should work to ensure that policies, programs, and funding streams enable, rather than hinder, the creation of a seamless web of supports for poor children and families.


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