A Critical Look At The Child Welfare System
Child Abuse Reporting: Extent of Abuse


As of 1996, the national average of unsubstantiated reports was approximately 65 percent.[1]

But even with a founded rate of 35 percent, this would suggest a large number of potentially battered and abused children among the over 3 million annual reports. Thankfully, this is simply not the case.


The American Humane Association compiled data based on reports in 1975. Based on a count of 294,796 reports, only 139,267, 60 percent, were found to have validity.

Significantly, only about 3,000 children, roughly 3 percent of the total number of reports, were found to have suffered burns, scaldings, or major physical injuries.[2]

By 1986, the AHA was able to reliably estimate that over 2 million reports were received by child protective agencies during that year. Of these two million reports, approximately 40 percent were labeled as "substantiated" by child welfare agencies.

However, the findings were much the same as in the earlier survey, with only 2.6 percent of all reports involving severe physical abuse.[3]

Notes Dr. Leroy Pelton, former special assistant to the director of the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services:

Less than three percent of the reports were said to have involved major physical injury, including burns, scalds, severe cuts, and bone fractures, but more than half indicated "deprivation of necessities," including nourishment, shelter, clothing, health care, and supervision.[4]

The state of New York established a Central Register for all child abuse and neglect reports, classifying them as either abuse or maltreatment. Between 1981 and 1990 abuse reports accounted for approximately ten percent of all reports registered.

In 1990, abuse reports accounted for only 8.7 percent of the total, while various forms of maltreatment accounted for 91.3 percent.

According to the New York State Central Register, less than 1 percent of all reports to state child welfare agencies indicated severe physical abuse in 1990.[5]

In 1994, of the 128,111 unduplicated calls recorded by the New York registry, 8.4 percent involved allegations of physical abuse, while the remainder, 91.6 percent, involved various forms of maltreatment.[6]

Assuming results similar to those of 1990, the amount of reports substantiated as involving severe physical abuse is likely to be in the range of less than 1 percent.

These trends continued on into 1995. The New York Department of Social Services reported that 91.7% of all reports were for neglect, which included reports of inadequate provision of food, clothing, shelter, or medical care, as well as lack of supervision or emotional care.[7]

The New York State Registry data may provide a more reliable indication than data from other states, as New York is the only state that requires that all reports must be made to its registry.[8]

Table 1. Allegations Reported by Category, New York (1990)

Source: New York State Central Register reporting highlights, 1974-1990.

Similar trends are to be found elsewhere. In Canada, only 3.2 percent of all reports in 1978 made to the Alberta Child Protection Registry indicated child abuse. Various forms of neglect accounted for the remaining 96.8 percent.

In Quebec, only 2.3 percent of all cases involved child abuse.[9]

But with so few children seriously injured, what would account for the remainder of those reports substantiated?


Pelton points out that there is a wide range of definitions about what constitutes abuse or neglect, making it unclear as to what exactly is being validated when a report is labeled as substantiated.

In 1977, Dr. Pelton sent a letter to various agencies asking them to provide their guidelines. The results of his survey are frightening:

I found that various child protection agency regulations among the states had defined a neglected child as one who has a "foul odor," does not receive "proper care and attention," or whose parent "is found in a disreputable place or associates with vagrant, vicious, or immoral persons," or does not make sure that the child gets to school regularly.[10]
With the definitions of neglect and maltreatment as broad as they are, sometimes the registry operators themselves have difficulty in in determining which cases to pass on for investigation.

In New York state, the Commission on Expenditure Review provided twenty-three hotline operators in three cities a series of hypothetical cases, asking them if they would classify them as maltreatment. The Syracuse and Albany operators chose the same percentage or reports, but they often selected different cases. The operators in Rochester were far more likely to classify cases as abuse than their counterparts in Syracuse and Albany.

In one instance, all of the Rochester workers indicated a particular case as a report of abuse, while seven out of eight Syracuse workers said it was not, while the Albany operators were split with eight saying yes, four no.[11]

If the wide regional variations in substantiation rates are any indication, child protective caseworkers themselves are often at odds as to what constitutes maltreatment.

In South Carolina, for example, one county office confirmed abuse or neglect in 89 percent of reported abuse and neglect allegations, while another county confirmed 14 percent.

The variations are even wider when the broader category of "maltreatment" is alleged. The variations in substantiation rates varied from one county office's determination that no maltreatment allegations were unfounded to another county office's determination that 74 percent of the allegations were unfounded.

State Auditors noted that "the percentage of confirmed allegations among counties varied more than could be explained by outside factors."[12]

While the national unfounded rate is approximately 65 percent, this figure is also widely divergent among the states.

In the state of Virginia, during the period of July 1, 1993 to June 30, 1994, 35,889 reports involving 52,734 children were received by child protective agencies.

After 34,226 investigations were completed, Virginia's child protective agencies had substantiated only 6,560 cases, making for an unfounded rate of 81 percent.

Among the substantiated cases, 52 percent were for neglect, and 12 percent involved mental abuse and other types such as educational or medical neglect.

Of the substantiated cases, 22 percent indicated physical abuse. When referenced against the total number of reports, this figure represents approximately 4 percent of the total.[13]

The state does not distinguish the severity of the physical abuse it substantiates in public reports.

Table 2. Virginia Dispositions by Category: July 1, 1993 - June 30, 1994.

Source: Compiled by Author.

Where does all of this lead us? Roughly back to where we began. Approximately 3 percent of the founded determinations indicating severe physical abuse, with the remainder involving various forms of minor physical abuse, often stemming from alleged excessive punishment; sexual abuse; neglect, such as caretaker absence; with the majority of the cases involving maltreatment, such as "deprivation of necessities" or failure to provide an adequate home environment.[14]

In 1985, the percentage of cases involving major physical abuse was 2.8 percent of the total. By 1985 the figure had slipped to 2.6 percent.[15]

If the more recent New York reporting data is an indication, the percentage of cases involving severe physical abuse, of the variety requiring medical or emergency treatment may have since fallen lower still.

The reality of these figures is reflected in the foster care population, with only 3 percent of the estimated 500,000 children in state care having been placed for reasons relating to physical abuse.[16]

Copyright 1997 - 2002 Rick Thoma

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Last Updated November 16, 2002