The Cost and Consequences of Child Abuse
By Robert Schroeder
The recent losses sustained at Penn State University surrounding allegations of sexual abuse by former football coach Jerry Sandusky extend far beyond the football field. Internship offers pulled, corporate sponsorships dropped, alumni giving sure to dip, leadership fired, and future enrollments in question, not to mention the loss of prestige and the cascades of negative news mentions.
Given the immeasurable suffering of the victims and their families, the monetary damages the University faces may seem irrelevant. However, National Louis University's Suzette Fromm Reed, Ph.D., says that dollar figure has the needed shock value to spur the funding of underserviced prevention programs that can mitigate child abuse in its early stages.
Fromm Reed's "The Cost and Consequences of Child Maltreatment," first published in 2001 and updated in 2011, estimates conservatively the annual national public cost of child abuse totals more than $100 billion dollars. From mental health services to child welfare services, hospitalizations, and juvenile justice services, the list and the dollars signs run on and on.
The estimates do not take into account the compounding statistics that many victims of child abuse become child abusers later in life. Furthermore, Reed's calculations only include children "severely" abused; psychologists estimate the number of children abused to be three times larger. It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes an absurdly wealthy village to care for children who need the most help.
"It's a hard argument to make that we need to put money into something before it happens, but if we did, we would be saving at least $107 billion a year," said Reed, an assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. "We need to advocate for more prevention programs to mitigate the cost."
Reed says home visitation programs with parents have successfully lowered rates of child abuse. Some programs involve a medical professional, such as a nurse, visiting with new parents; other programs send other parents to work with new parents to get started raising their child on the right foot. Reed says society has developed an image of child abusers as evil and awful individuals, while child abuse is often committed by parents who are simply stressed. Leading indicators include unemployment, lack of education, poverty and single-parent households.
"We get too stressed out when we don't have the skills or resources to handle it," Reed said. "When we begin to normalize the parent process, all of us could use a little help, and putting abusive parents in that category instead of locking them all up, we will be in a much better position to speak out when we see something like we saw at Penn State."
The folks in charge of the purse strings often need a little more convincing. In 2007, Reed presented her findings to state legislators in New Mexico at a family impact seminar hosted by New Mexico State University. While she found legislators sympathetic to her message, only one senator vowed to run a cost analysis for the state to determine if Reed's model could prove efficacious.
"Speaking to the state legislature, they love the cost angle, but speaking one-on-one, there's the human loss, the cost to the individual," Reed said. "What are we losing as individual human beings capable as a society to give back later on?"
Reed's latest research examines how certain communities with at-risk traits for child abuse—high unemployment, low levels of average education, poverty, and single-parent homes—maintain lower levels of abuse. Her results indicate that social supports in place in a community, even as simple as neighbors banding together to advocate for each other, has a significant impact decreasing rates of abuse.