Violence/Physical and Sexual Abuse

Along with childhood neglect, emotional abuse, and the witnessing of violence, childhood physical abuse and sexual abuse are key causal factors in many of the most debilitating and persistent social, medical, and mental health problems experienced by adults. If not recognized and addressed, these childhood experiences lead to a cycle of violence and victimization in adulthood. The traumatization of children in our society remains highly prevalent, underreported, and ignored.


Facts and Discussion Points:

1---The number of children traumatized in the United States in a single year equals the number of combat veterans who served in Vietnam for a decade.1

2---The United States has the highest rate of rape of any country that publishes such statistics: 13 times higher than Great Britain and 20 times higher than Japan.2

3---Approximately 20% of children are sexually abused in some way before they reach adulthood, with this figure cumulating at a rate of about 1% each year.4 The sexual victimization rate is generally considered to be between 20% to 30% for females and between 10% to 20% for males.3-6

4---Girls are about 2.5 to 3 times at higher risk for sexual abuse than boys, although approximately 22% to 29% of all child sexual abuse victims are male.4,7-10

5---Thirty-eight percent of women report at least one experience of incest or extra-familial sexual abuse before age 18; 28% report at least one such experience before age 14. Of these women, 16% were sexually abused by a relative and 4.5% by their fathers.4

6---Girls in high-income families are more frequently victims of incest than girls in lower-income families.4

7---A 1994 survey found 44.8% of African American women, 38% of white women, 25.6% of Latina women, and 21.1% of Asian American women had histories of child sexual abuse.11

8---Persons with disabilities are at 1.5 to 5 times greater risk of sexual abuse and assault than are members of the general population.9 Of the most frequent crimes against people with disabilities, more than 90% are sexual offenses.12,13

9---Three to 10 children per 100 children under the age of 18 experience severe physical abuse.14

10---In 1992, 2.94 million cases of child abuse and neglect were reported in the United States. In the same year, an estimated 1,261 children died from abuse and neglect. An estimated rate of child neglect is 14.6 per 10,000 children.15

11---An estimated 2,000 children (90% under the age of 5) die annually in the United States from maltreatment, the leading cause of injury fatality in this age group.16,17

12---Over 90% of American parents have performed corporal punishment on their children by spanking, slapping, or other physical discipline. The same behavior between adults would be grounds for criminal proceeding.18

13---Twenty-five percent of infants one to six months are hit. This figure rises to 50% of all infants by six months to a year.20

14---In the United States, about 4 million adolescents are victims of serious physical assault, and 9 million have witnessed serious violence during their lifetime.19

15---Each year, at least 3.3 million children in the U.S. witness physical and verbal abuse among adults in their homes—behaviors ranging from insults and hitting, to fatal assaults with guns and knives.20

16---Each year, between 3.5 and 10 million children witness the abuse of their mother. Up to half are victims of abuse themselves.21

17---The number of seriously injured children who are victims of abuse and neglect quadrupled between 1986 and 1993.12 This is not thought to be due to increased reporting but to an actual real rise in incidence.22

18---Between 1986 and 1993 and under a restrictive standard of harm, the following estimates were reported: the number of sexually abused children rose by 83%, the number of physically neglected children rose by 102%, the number of emotionally neglected children rose by 333%, and the number of physically abused children increased by 42%.25

19---Homicide is the third leading cause of death for girls ages 11 to 14 and the second leading cause of death for girls ages 15 to 18.23

20---In inner-city neighborhoods, homicide is the fourth leading cause of death for all children ages 1 through 4, third for youth ages 5 through 14, and second for persons ages 15 through 24.22

21---Child neglect is more commonly reported than physical or sexual abuse and has profound consequences. Research sometimes fragments abuse experiences into distinct categories that do not distinguish the impacts of trauma such as poverty and neglect.24

22---Social discrimination, racism, sexism, and war may be considered culturally supported child maltreatment.25-28

23---One in five school-age children and 1 in 4 preschoolers live in poverty. Extreme poverty and homelessness may indicate ways in which American society withholds support for many of its citizens and indirectly maltreats large numbers of children.29

24---Reports of physical and sexual abuse are significantly lower than actual incidence due to repression, cultural shame, reporter unwillingness or inability to disclose or identify experiences as abusive, and other factors.29,30



1--Public policy for the prevention and early intervention of child abuse and neglect in the United States is necessary to prevent the often severe and disabling neurological, psychological, physiological, and social effects of such abuse.

2--The prevention and/or treatment of interpersonal violence, especially childhood abuse, should be considered an extremely high priority for the behavioral health system as well as other public systems.


Violence/Physical and Sexual Abuse References

1. Perry, B.D., & Pate, J. E. (1994). Neurodevelopment and the psychobiological roots of post-traumatic stress disorder. In L. F. Koziol, & C. E. Stout (Eds.), The Neuropsychology of Mental Disorders: A Practical Guide. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas.

2. Finkelhor, D., et al. (1990). Sexual abuse in a national survey of adult men and women: Prevalence, characteristics and risk factors. Child Abuse and Neglect: The International Journal, Vol.14(1), pp.19-28.

3. Finkelhor, D., Hotaling, G., Lewis, I. A., & Smith, C. (1989). Sexual abuse and its relationship to later sexual satisfaction, marital status, religion, and attitudes. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 4,279-399.

4. Russell, D. D. H. (1986). The secret trauma: Incest in the lives of girls and women. New York, NY: Basic Books.

5. Wyatt, G. E. (1985). The sexual abuse of Afro-American and White American women in childhood. Child Abuse and Neglect, 9, 231-240.

6. Henschel, D., Briere, J., Magallanes, M., & Smiljanich, K. (1990, April). Sexual abuse related attributions: Probing the role of “traumagenic factors.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Western Psychological Association, Los Angeles, CA.

7. Fergusson, D., Lynskey, M., & Horwood, L. (1996). Childhood sexual abuse and psychiatric disorder in young adulthood, I: Prevalence of sexual abuse and factors associated with sexual abuse. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 35:1355-1364.

8. Finkelhor, D. (1993). Epidemiological factors in the clinical identification of child sexual abuse. Child Abuse Negl 17:67-70.

9. Sobsey, D., Randall, W., & Parrila, R. (1997). Gender differences in abused children with and without disabilities. Child Abuse Negl, 21:707-720.

10. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. (1998). Child maltreatment 1996: Reports from the states to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

11. Urquiza, A. J., & Goodlin-Jones, B. L. (1994). Child sexual abuse and adult revictimization with women of color. Violence and Victims, 9(3):223-232.

12. Sobsey, D. (1994). Violence and abuse in the lives of people with disabilities: The end of silent acceptance? p.52.

13. Carmody, M. (1991). Invisible victims: Sexual assault of people with an intellectual disability. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Developmental Disabilities, 17, pp. 229-236.

14. AMA. (1993). Report of the Council on Scientific Affairs.

15. National Victim Center. (1993). Crime and victimization in America: Statistical overview. Arlington, VA: National Victim Center.

16. McClain, P. W., Sacks, J. J., Froehlke, R. G., & Ewigman, B. G. (1993). Estimates of fatal child abuse and neglect, US, 1979 through 1988. Pediatrics, 91:338-343.

17. Ewigman, B., Kivlahan, C., & Land, G. (1993). The Missouri Child Fatality Study: Underreporting of maltreatment fatalities among children younger than five years of age, 1983 through 1986. Pediatrics, 91:330-337.

18. Straus, M. A. (1994). Beating the devil out of them: Corporal punishment in American families. New York, NY: Lexington Book.

19. From studies cited by Future of the Children. In World Mental Health Day: Faces of Violence and Trauma, 2002. Source:

20. Jaffe, P., Wolfe, D., & Wilson, S. K. (1990). Children of battered women. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

21. Edleson, J. (1999). Children’s witnessing of adult domestic violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14(8), 845.

22. Sedlak, A. J., & Broadhurst, D. D. (1996). Executive summary of the Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect. U.S. Department of National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect. U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, and National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.

23. Coyne-Beasley, T., Moracco, K., & Casteel, M. (2003). Adolescent femicide: A population-based study. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med, 157:355-360.

24. R. Mazelis (personal communication).

25. Ayalon, O., & Van Tassel, E. (1987). Living in dangerous environments. In M. R. Brassard, R. Germain, & S. N. Hart (Eds.), Psychological Maltreatment of Children and Youth (pp. 171-182). New York, NY: Pergamon.

26. Gil, D. G. (1987). Maltreatment as a function of the structure of social systems. In M. R. Brassard, R. Germain, & S. N. Hart (Eds.), Psychological Maltreatment of Children and Youth (pp. 159-170). New York, NY: Pergamon.

27. Jones, R. L., & Jones, J. M. (1987). In M. R. Brassard, R. Germain, & S. N. Hart (Eds.), Psychological Maltreatment of Children and Youth (pp.146-158). New York, NY: Pergamon.

28. Reschly, D. J., & Graham-Clay, S. (1987). Psychological abuse from prejudice and cultural bias. In M. R. Brassard, R. Germain, & S. N. Hart (Eds.), Psychological Maltreatment of Children and Youth (pp. 137-145). New York, NY: Pergamon.

29. Molnar, J. M., Rath, W. R., & Klein, T. P. (1990). Constantly compromised: The impact of homelessness on children. Journal of Social Issues, 46, 109-211.

30. Russell, D., Bolen, R. (2000). The epidemic of rape and child sexual abuse in the United States. Sage Publications, Inc.