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Journal Issue: Preventing Child Maltreatment Volume 19 Number 2 Fall 2009

Introducing the Issue
Christina Paxson Ron Haskins

Introduction

In 2007, the families of 1.86 million American children were investigated for child maltreatment, and 720,000 children—more than one in every hundred—were identified by state agencies as having been abused or neglected, most often by one of their parents. More than 1,500 children died as a result of maltreatment.1 Not all children who are maltreated come to the attention of the child protection system (CPS) and not all child deaths caused by maltreatment are recorded as such. These high rates of maltreatment are a cause for grave concern. Maltreatment often has profound adverse effects on children’s health and development. It can lead to permanent physical and mental impairments. A large body of research indicates that maltreated children are more likely than others to suffer later from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, poor physical health, and criminal activity.2

After children have been identified by CPS as having been maltreated, their families are likely to enter the child welfare system, a complex web of social and legal services whose purpose is to ensure children’s safety.

The child welfare system in each state typically involves public agencies, such as departments of child and family services, which investigate reports of child maltreatment; private and not-for-profit organizations, which provide services to families; family courts, which make decisions about placing children into foster homes and terminating parental rights; and foster families and group homes, which are paid to care for children who are removed from their homes. The system is expensive. In 2007, state and local public child welfare agencies spent more than $25 billion for case management, administrative expenses, services to families and children, foster care, adoption services, and a variety of administrative and other services.3 Taking into account the costs of hospitalization, mental health care, and law enforcement that stem directly from maltreatment, the total for direct expenses is $33 billion. Of this, a large share is spent on the approximately 500,000 children living in foster care.

In light of the toll that maltreatment takes on child well-being, as well as its high financial costs, the expert contributors to this volume explore the vexing question of how to prevent child abuse and neglect. Although several previous volumes of The Future of Children have addressed child maltreatment, none has focused explicitly on prevention. A 2004 volume examined best policies and practices in foster care. A 1998 volume considered how to protect children from abuse and neglect through improving the child protection system. Much of the material in both these volumes remains relevant today. But because both volumes examined primarily what happens to children and their families after the children are maltreated, neither explored how maltreatment might have been averted before it came to the attention of CPS.

Contributors to the current volume present the best available research on policies and programs designed to prevent maltreatment. They examine the gradual—and still partial—shift in the field of child maltreatment toward a “prevention perspective” and explore how insights into the risk factors for maltreatment can help target prevention efforts to the most vulnerable children and families. They assess whether a range of specific programs, such as community-wide interventions, parenting programs, home-visiting programs, treatment programs for parents with drug and alcohol problems, and school-based educational programs on sexual abuse, can prevent maltreatment. They also explore how CPS agencies, traditionally seen as protecting maltreated children from further abuse and neglect, might take a more active role in prevention.