As the U.S. economy began to tank, the number of abused kids landing in the hospital with severe brain injuries spiked, a new study shows. Anecdotes linking child abuse to the recession have surfaced before, but there had been no hard data to back the connection until now.

“It’s definitely disturbing,” said Elizabeth Gershoff, a psychologist who studies parenting but was not involved in the study.

Although there is no proof that financial hardship itself is what’s causing the uptick in abuse, earlier research has tied parental stress to child maltreatment.

“Living in poverty for parents can be very stressful,” Gershoff, of the University of Texas at Austin, told Reuters Health. “And that in turn leads to harsher parenting.”

 

The new findings, released yesterday in the journal Pediatrics, are based on hospital data on kids under five from Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington.

From 2004 to 2009, there were 422 children diagnosed with what doctors call “abusive head trauma.” The majority ended up in the intensive care unit, and 16 percent died of their injuries. The children’s average age was 9 months old.

In the three years leading up to the crash in December 2007, the rate of abusive head injuries was 8.9 per year per 100,000 kids. After the crash, the number jumped to 14.7 per 100,000.

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