Child abuse tied to housing crisis? New study finds links

A new study in the journal Pediatrics found that when an area's foreclosure rate increased, so did the rate of children admitted to hospitals with abuse-related injuries. Is the housing crisis to blame for a rise in severe child abuse?

AP/David Zalubowski
When foreclosure rates go up, so does the rate of children admitted to hospitals for child abuse injuries. Here, in this April 2010 file photo, a foreclosure sign sits atop a for sale sign in Denver.

Here’s another reason for policy makers grappling with the country’s economic woes to keep a focus on kids:

As the US housing crisis worsened during the 2000s, severe child abuse increased, according to a new study published online this week in the journal Pediatrics.

The study, whose lead author was Dr. Joanne N. Wood of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, found that for every percentage increase in a metropolitan area’s foreclosure rate, the rate of hospital admissions for children who had been beaten increased by 6.5 percent.  And for every 1 percent increase in the 90-day mortgage delinquency rate, child abuse admissions increased 3 percent.

The numbers run counter to other past studies that show an overall decline in child abuse rates – studies that have primarily taken their data from child protective services rather than hospitals.

“This suggests that maybe the problem is not getting better,” Wood told Reuters.

Although researchers acknowledge that they can’t know for sure whether or how the two statistics are linked (social scientists, by the way, tend to look critically at these sort of Freakonomics-style correlations), they say that the findings make sense – both the stress and disruption of home foreclosures may well lead to more abuse.

While researchers found that unemployment rates did not have a similar correlation with abuse admissions, it’s possible, they theorized, that foreclosure and mortgage delinquency rates were more representative of a family’s breaking point. 

Researchers studied the numbers of children admitted to 38 hospitals in the Pediatric Hospital Information System database. They found that between 2000 and 2009, there were approximately 11,800 admissions for physical abuse in children younger than 6 years old – about a quarter of a percentage of the nearly 4.2 million admissions overall.

The worst year was in 2008 – the height of the housing crisis.

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