NEW YORK (Reuters) - As the U.S. economy began to tank, the number of abused children landing in the hospital with severe brain injuries spiked, according to a study.
Anecdotes linking child abuse to the recession had surfaced before, but the current study -- based on hospital data from four U.S. states and published in Pediatrics -- is one of the first to provide hard data to back the connection.
Although there is no proof that financial hardship itself is causing the rise in abuse, earlier research has tied parental stress to child maltreatment.
"It's definitely disturbing," said Elizabeth Gershoff, a psychologist who studies parenting but was not involved in the study.
The study looked at children under five in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington and showed that from 2004 to 2009, there were 422 children diagnosed with what doctors call "abusive head trauma." The majority ended up in intensive care units (ICUs), and 16 percent died of their injuries.
In the three years leading up to December 2007, just around the time of the market crash, the rate of abusive head injuries was 8.9 per year per 100,000 children. After that date, the number jumped to 14.7 per 100,000.
"If what we are seeing is even close to generalizable, that is a lot of excess children," said Rachel Berger, a child abuse expert at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, who co-authored the study.
Berger said she noticed a sharp uptick in the number of children who came to her hospital with head injuries in 2008. From 17 cases per year, it suddenly jumped to 37 in 2008.
"At any given time there was virtually always a baby in our ICU," she said.
The average age of the children in the study was nine months.
In the United States, some 1,800 toddlers come to the hospital with abusive head trauma every year, corresponding to about one in 3,300. But that statistic is certain to leave out many cases, Berger said.
Federal data show a decline in child abuse in 2008, but Berger said those numbers have many limitations, such as a very restrictive definition of abuse.
While it is unclear how to account for the findings, Berger added that fewer resources might have forced mothers to leave their babies with people who don't usually take care of them, such as fathers or male caretakers.
"The number one perpetrators are fathers and male caretakers, very few perpetrators are mothers. It's the people that mothers give their kids to that end up being the perpetrator."
Gershoff said the young age of the children suggests crying might have caused the abuse. If a caretaker shakes a baby violently to make them stop crying, that may lead to "shaken baby syndrome," in which the brain bumps up against the skull and bleeds or becomes damaged.
Gershoff said that babies only cry for five reasons -- because they are hungry, tired, bored, in pain or need a fresh diaper. If dealing with none of that helps, she said it was all right to leave the crib as long as the baby is safe.
"Just taking a break from that sound, walk out and then come back when you have calmed down," she said.
Berger said the government is not doing much to help disadvantaged parents cope with financial hardship.
"We have actually increased their stress by decreasing programs to help infants and young children," she said, noting that there have been cuts in daycare and child benefits.
"When people are stressed in this country, for instance during a hurricane, as a society we provide help to those people. Here we have an economic recession and what happens during that time is we actually pull back," she added.
"We need to really think about what the outcome is going to be when we cut programs that help infants and young children." SOURCE: http://bit.ly/cxXOG
(Writing by Frederik Joelving at Reuters Health; editing by Elaine Lies)