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The Link Between the Recession and Child Abuse

January 30, 2012
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The nation's economic woes during the recent recession not only brought struggles and hardship to families, but may have also led to an increase in abusive head trauma, also known as shaken baby syndrome, in children under age 5, according to new research.

Scientific research and anecdotal reports have long shown that economic hardship leads to increases in child abuse. To better understand this link, Dr. Rachel Berger of Children's Hospital Pittsburgh led a team that reviewed medical records of children under age 5 with abusive head trauma. Berger decided to study this type of injury after noticing an increase at her own hospital from late 2007 through mid-2009.

The research involved 422 children in 74 counties across four states - Washington, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky - from 2004 to 2009. The first four years of the study preceded the recession and the last 19 months coincided with it.

The study found that about 65 abusive head trauma cases occurred each year before the recession, compared to about 108 annually during the recession. The average age of children with the injury was 8.9 months; most suffered brain damage and 69 children died, though the death rate didn't rise during the recession.

The number of cases in the counties studied rose sharply, from about nine per 100,000 children in pre-recession years, to almost 15 per 100,000 kids during the recession - a 65 percent increase. The researchers did not find any correlation between unemployment rates in the counties and abusive head trauma.

"Although it is not possible to prove a causal relationship between the [abusive head trauma] rate and the economy with our analysis, we believe the data are compelling enough to influence policy and clinical decisions," the researchers wrote.

They added that this might include increased vigilance for signs of abuse during times of economic stress - similar to the way physicians might pay closer attention to a cough during a pertussis outbreak.

The findings were published online September 19 in Pediatrics.

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