Incidence of Child Abuse Skyrocketed During Recent Recession, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC-led Study Finds

May 1, 2010

The number of cases of abusive head trauma in children has increased dramatically since the beginning of the recession in December 2007, according to a multi-center study led by Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

Results of the study are being presented by lead researcher Rachel Berger, MD, MPH, on Saturday, May 1, at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia. Dr. Berger is a child abuse specialist and researcher at Children's Hospital's Child Advocacy Center.

The study involved 512 patients with abusive head trauma who ranged in age from 9 days to 6 years. It addition to Pittsburgh, the patients were treated at children's hospitals in Cincinnati, Columbus and Seattle.

The number of cases of abusive head trauma (shaken baby syndrome) rose from six per month before Dec. 1, 2007, to 9.3 per month after that date. Researchers collected demographic and clinical data for all cases of unequivocal abusive head trauma before the recession (Jan. 1, 2004, through Nov. 30, 2007) and cases during the recession (Dec. 1, 2007, through Dec. 31, 2009).

"Our results show that there has been a rise in abusive head trauma, that it coincided with the economic recession, and that it's not a phenomenon isolated to our region but happening on a much more widespread level," Dr. Berger said. "This suggests we may need to dramatically increase our child abuse prevention efforts now and in future times of economic hardship."

Of the children studied, 63 percent had injuries severe enough that they had to be admitted to pediatric intensive care units, and 16 percent died.

Dr. Berger said that the impetus for the study was that in 2008, more patients at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC died from abusive head trauma than from non-inflicted brain injury.

"To think that more children died from abusive head trauma than from any other type of brain injury that year is really remarkable and highly concerning," Dr. Berger said.

Dr. Berger and colleagues said a possible reason for the increase in abuse is that important programs such as social services are often cut during a recession and the loss of those programs can increase family stress. An increase in family stress is a known risk factor for abuse, according to Dr. Berger.

In addition to Children's Hospital, other centers participating in the study were Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, Seattle Children's Hospital and Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.