Child Abuse Rises in Bad Economy

The recent economic hard times have been difficult for many people. But according to a study conducted by Dr. Rachel P. Berger, the recession has been particularly hard on infants. Berger, who revealed the results of her study on May 8 at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies, said there is a "marked increase in the rate of abusive head trauma among children during the recession compared to beforehand."

Dr. Berger is an assistant professor of pediatrics, working at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. For her study, she looked at infants in four cities: Pittsburgh; Seattle; Cincinnati; and Columbus, Ohio. The study itself looked specifically at abusive head trauma cases among infants at four urban hospitals and only tabulated what the study called "unequivocal" cases. Data was taken from 2004 through the end of 2009, and the number of cases before and after December 1, 2007, (the date presumed to be the beginning of the recession) were compared. What they found was a marked increase in the number of abuse cases. Before the recession, there had been slightly less than five cases of severe head trauma each month. After the recession began, the number rose to more than nine cases each month.

Researchers were unable to provide direct links between factors such as cuts in social services or the unemployment rate of a particular city, despite performing what Berger called "a very sophisticated type of analysis," but despite causal proof, Jay G. Silverman from the Harvard University School of Public Health was not surprised at the findings.

"We've seen at the state and local levels services cut repeatedly over the last two to three years," he said, adding that these cuts "would lead to a smaller percentage of these folks getting what they need, and perhaps leading to greater numbers of these kinds of situations escalating to the point where we're observing more head trauma."

More disturbingly, experts in the field warn that an increase in severe head trauma likely indicates a deeper pattern of abuse, since much child abuse will simply not show up in the emergency room. Silverman said Berger's study "should really be a major public concern."

This increase in abuse has likely already been seen in divorce courts, where child custody battles take place every day. In a custody battle, the court's main concern is with the health, safety and welfare of the child, so anything that could be detrimental to the child is viewed unfavorably. In the case of child abuse, this is often enough to override other positive factors, such as a higher income for the abusive spouse. In fact, an abusive past is often enough to cause the court to limit child visitation or put certain restrictions on it.

If the abuse is deemed severe enough, or if there are patterns of long-term abuse, the courts or child protective agencies may step in and legally terminate that parent's visitation rights. The legal process may even go so far as to terminate their parental rights, and the parent could face criminal charges as well. In most states, the courts require that the intervening agency show "by clear and convincing evidence" that the parent is unfit to be a parent, and that "severing the parent-child relationship is in the child's best interest."

Of course, due to the anger and frustration in many divorce or custody proceedings, it is not uncommon for accusations of child abuse to be thrown around in hopes of currying favor with the judge. It is important to remember that the judge in a highly adversarial child custody case has the ultimate responsibility to determine what placement is in the child's best interests. If you have been accused of child abuse, even if you know the charges are absolutely false, you must treat the accusations seriously. Find an experienced family law attorney to discuss your options.

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