www.thelancet.com Vol 373 January 3, 2009
Child Maltreatment 1
Burden and consequences of child maltreatment in
Ruth Gilbert, Cathy Spatz Widom, Kevin Browne, David Fergusson, Elspeth Webb, Staff an Janson
Child maltreatment remains a major public-health and social-welfare problem in high-income countries. Every year,
about 4–16% of children are physically abused and one in ten is neglected or psychologically abused. During childhood,
between 5% and 10% of girls and up to 5% of boys are exposed to penetrative sexual abuse, and up to three times this
number are exposed to any type of sexual abuse. However, offi cial rates for substantiated child maltreatment indicate
less than a tenth of this burden. Exposure to multiple types and repeated episodes of maltreatment is associated with
increased risks of severe maltreatment and psychological consequences. Child maltreatment substantially contributes
to child mortality and morbidity and has longlasting eff ects on mental health, drug and alcohol misuse (especially in
girls), risky sexual behaviour, obesity, and criminal behaviour, which persist into adulthood. Neglect is at least as
damaging as physical or sexual abuse in the long term but has received the least scientifi c and public attention. The
high burden and serious and long-term consequences of child maltreatment warrant increased investment in
preventive and therapeutic strategies from early childhood.
Maltreatment of children by their parents or other
caregivers is a major public-health and social-welfare
problem in high-income countries. It is common and can
cause death, serious injury, and long-term consequences
that aff ect the child’s life into adulthood, their family, and
society in general. The 2006 WHO report on prevention
of child maltreatment1 drew attention to the need for this
topic to achieve the prominence and investment in
prevention and epidemiological monitoring that is given
to other serious public-health concerns with lifelong
consequences aff ecting children—such as HIV/AIDS,
smoking, and obesity—and it recommended expansion
of the scientifi c evidence base for the magnitude, eff ects,
and preventability of the problem. This Series of four
papers critically assesses this expanding evidence base
with the aim of informing policy and practice relating to
child maltreatment. We focus mainly on high-income
countries and eastern European countries that are in
economic transition, since the problem and systems for
response diff er in low-income and many middle-income
countries. In this fi rst paper of the Series, we aim to
quantify the magnitude of the problem, its determinants,
and consequences. The second charts the evidence
underpinning recognition and response by professional
agencies dealing with children. The third assesses what
works for prevention of child maltreatment and associated
impairment, and the fi nal paper discusses how
consideration of children’s rights could enable a more
coherent and eff ective approach to child maltreatment.
Burden of child maltreatment and defi nitions
Child maltreatment encompasses any acts of commission
or omission by a parent or other caregiver that result in
harm, potential for harm, or threat of harm to a child
Lancet 2009; 373: 68–81
December 3, 2008
This is the fi rst in a Series of
four papers about child
Centre for Evidence-Based
Child Health and MRC Centre of
Epidemiology for Child Health,
UCL Institute of Child Health,
London, UK (Prof R Gilbert MD);
John Jay College, City
University of New York, NY,
USA (Prof C Spatz Widom PhD);
Institute of Work, Health and
Organisations, University of
Nottingham, Nottingham, UK
(Prof K Browne PhD); WHO
Collaborating Centre on Child
Care and Protection, University
of Birmingham, Birmingham,
UK (Prof K Browne);
Christchurch Health and
Department of Psychological
Medicine, Christchurch School
of Medicine and Health
Sciences, Christchurch, New
Zealand (D Fergusson PhD);
Department of Child Health,
School of Medicine, Cardiff
University, Cardiff , UK
(E Webb FRCPCH); and
Department of Public Health,
Karlstad University, Karlstad,
Sweden (Prof S Janson DM)
Prof Ruth Gilbert, Centre for
Evidence-based Child Health and
MRC Centre of Epidemiology for
Child Health, UCL Institute of
Child Health, 30 Guilford Street,
London WC1 1EH, UK
• A substantial minority of children in high-income
countries are maltreated by their caregivers
• Repeated abuse and high levels of neglect mean that for
many children maltreatment is a chronic condition
• Parental poverty, low educational achievement, and
mental illness are often associated with child maltreatment
• Child maltreatment has longlasting eff ects on mental
health, drug and alcohol problems, risky sexual behaviour,
obesity, and criminal behaviour, from childhood to
• Neglect is at least as damaging as physical or sexual abuse
in the long term, but has received the least scientifi c and
• The high burden and serious, longlasting consequences of
child maltreatment warrant increased investment in
preventive and therapeutic strategies from early childhood
Search strategy and selection criteria
We did a comprehensive search of PubMed, Psychinfo, and
Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) for any
systematic reviews or overviews related to child
maltreatment published after 2000 (to June, 2008) and then
scrutinised reference lists of relevant studies. We also
searched PubMed, ERIC, and Psychinfo using additional
synonyms and indexing terms specifi c to each outcome.
Searches on PubMed were enhanced with the related articles
facility for selected studies. Recent psychological abstracts,
child abuse and neglect abstracts, and criminal justice
abstracts were also searched. We searched websites posted by
governments or major advocacy bodies on child
maltreatment for reports on incidence and prevalence rates.
www.thelancet.com Vol 373 January 3, 2009 69
(usually interpreted as up to 18 years of age), even if
harm is not the intended result.2 Four forms of
maltreatment are widely recognised: physical abuse;
sexual abuse; psychological abuse, sometimes referred
to as emotional abuse; and neglect. Increasingly,
witnessing intimate-partner violence is also regarded as
a form of child maltreatment. Consensus defi nitions
place responsibility for safeguarding children from
maltreatment on all caregivers, including teachers,
trainers, or child minders (table 1).2 In practice, however,
80% or more of maltreatment is perpetrated by parents
or parental guardians, apart from sexual abuse, which is
mostly perpetrated by acquaintances or other relatives
Reliable measurement of the frequency and severity
of child maltreatment is not straightforward. We review
three types of studies that measure the frequency of
maltreatment. The fi rst two types are community studies
based on self-reports from victims who are old enough
to comply with surveys, or studies based on parents
reporting severe physical punishment or patterns of
care. The third type involves offi cial statistics from
agencies investigating victims (eg, child-protection
services) or police (investigating victims and off enders).
All these measures have biases and inconsistencies:
thus the prevalence fi gures in panel 1 are presented as a
range of estimates. Despite the uncertainty of these
estimates, the gap between the low rates of maltreatment
substantiated by child-protection agencies and the
ten-fold higher rates reported by victims or parents
underlines the fact that only a few children who are
maltreated receive offi cial attention.25–27 Studies that have
linked self-reports to offi cial statistics for child protection
provide direct evidence of under-reporting to agencies.
One study reported evidence of contact with child-
protection services in only 5% of children who were
physically abused and 8% of those sexually abused.26
Another showed that even children who were being
monitored by agencies reported four to six times more
episodes of abuse than did offi cial records.28
The discrepancies between offi cial statistics and com-
munity studies are even more substantial when
examined by age at maltreatment. National statistics
from child-protection agencies in the UK and USA
show an inverse relation between rate of reports and
age for all categories of maltreatment apart from sexual
abuse, which is stable across the age range.3,7 Opposite
trends have been noted for self-report or parent-report
studies in the UK and USA for physical, sexual, or
psychological abuse, whereas the prevalence of neglect
seems to remain relatively constant.20,27,29 Explanations
for these diverging trends include increased risks of
under-reporting by parents of younger children, and
underdetection of maltreatment by child-protection
agencies in older children.
Although self-reports or parent reports are probably
closer to the true, unobserved rate of maltreatment than
are offi cial reports to agencies, they might still be
underestimates. Biases in self-reports of sexual abuse
have been investigated, although problems such as
Any act of commission or omission by a parent or other caregiver
that results in harm, potential for harm, or threat of harm to a child.
Harm does not need to be intended
Intentional use of physical force or implements against a child that
results in, or has the potential to result in, physical injury
In the USA, 82% of substantiated cases were perpetrated by parents or other caregivers3
Includes hitting, kicking, punching, beating, stabbing, biting, pushing, shoving, throwing, pulling,
dragging, shaking, strangling, smothering, burning, scalding, and poisoning. 77% of perpetrators were
parents according to US fi gures for substantiated physical abuse3
Penetration: between mouth, penis, vulva, or anus of the child and another individual. Contact:
intentional touching directly or through clothing of genitalia, buttocks, or breasts (excluding contact
required for normal care). Non-contact: exposure to sexual activity, fi lming, or prostitution. For
substantiated cases in the USA in 2006, 26% of perpetrators were parents and 29% a relative other than
a parent.3 Parents form a smaller percentage (3–5%) of perpetrators of self-reported sexual abuse4
Can be continual or episodic—eg, triggered by substance misuse. Can include blaming, belittling,
degrading, intimidating, terrorising, isolating, or otherwise behaving in a manner that is harmful,
potentially harmful, or insensitive to the child’s developmental needs, or can potentially damage the
child psychologically or emotionally. Witnessing intimate-partner violence can be classifi ed as exposure
to psychological abuse. 81% of substantiated cases in the USA were perpetrated by parents3
Sexual abuse*Any completed or attempted sexual act, sexual contact, or
non-contact sexual interaction with a child by a caregiver†
Intentional behaviour that conveys to a child that he/she is
worthless, fl awed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or valued only in
meeting another’s needs. In the UK, the defi nition includes harmful
parent–child interactions which are unintentional: “the persistent
emotional ill-treatment of a child such as to cause severe and persistent
adverse eff ects on the child’s emotional development”5
Failure to meet a child’s basic physical, emotional, medical/dental, or
educational needs; failure to provide adequate nutrition, hygiene, or
shelter; or failure to ensure a child’s safety
Includes failure to provide adequate food, clothing, or accommodation; not seeking medical attention
when needed; allowing a child to miss large amounts of school; and failure to protect a child from
violence in the home or neighbourhood or from avoidable hazards. Parents make up 87% of
perpetrators of substantiated cases in the USA3
Most frequently the perpetrator is the man in heterosexual couples, but there is growing recognition of
violence infl icted by women. One community survey reported unanimous agreement that punching,
slapping, or forcing a partner to have sex should be regarding as intimate-partner violence, but there
was less consensus about emotional or economic abuse
Any incident of threatening behaviour, violence, or abuse
(psychological, physical, sexual, fi nancial, or emotional) between
adults who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members,
irrespective of sex or sexuality
*Defi nitions are based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report 2008, with modifi cations in italics.2 †Includes substitute caregivers in a temporary custodial role (eg, teachers, coaches, clergy, and relatives).
Table 1: Defi nitions of child maltreatment
www.thelancet.com Vol 373 January 3, 2009
forgetting, denial, misunderstanding, and embarrassment
also apply to other forms of maltreatment.30 All these
problems are likely to lead to the under-reporting rather
than over-reporting of sexual abuse of children.25,31,32
Test-retest studies have shown modest to moderate
agreement between successive self-reports by young
adults of sexual or physical abuse several years later
(κ coeffi cient 0·4–0·6) and good agreement is shown for
all types of victimisation several weeks later.25,27,33 One
study using latent class methods estimated that reported
rates of child sexual abuse were roughly half the true but
Studies measuring physical abuse in young children
use parent reports of physical violence, whereas parent
or adolescent self-reports can be used in older children to
yield similar estimates.25,27 Comparison between offi cial
statistics and parent-report studies within a country
suggest that only a small proportion of these cases are
investigated by child-protection services (panel 1). For
example, a systematic review in the UK estimated that
around one in 30 children who were physically abused by
parents (yearly prevalence 9%) were investigated by
social-welfare services responsible for child protection,
and only one in 250 children who were physically abused
were monitored in accordance with a child-protection
Measurement of sexual abuse relies on retrospective
self-report studies of episodes that are recalled years later
by adolescents or adults. Between 5% and 10% of girls
and 1% to 5% of boys are exposed to penetrative sexual
abuse during childhood, although fi gures that include
any form of sexual abuse are much higher (panel 1).
These estimates are supported by results of a
meta-analysis of worldwide studies of variable quality
and methodologies,20 but they probably give a lower limit
of the true rate of sexual abuse because of under-
Few studies have examined the prevalence of
psychological abuse. Results from large population-based,
self-report studies in the UK and USA showed that 8–9%
of women and about 4% of men reported exposure to
severe psychological abuse during childhood.16,17 Similar
fi gures have been recorded for psychological abuse in the
past year in boys and girls (10·3%).15 Higher rates have
been reported in eastern Europe by similar measures
Measurement of neglect in the community is diffi cult,
partly because there are many aspects of omission or lack
of provision of care that are harmful or could place a
child at risk of harm.34 UK and US studies noted that
between 1·4% and 10·1% of children or their mothers
reported persistent absence of care or instances in which
a child was hurt because of insuffi cient supervision
(panel 1). Neglect has received little attention from
self-report and parent-report studies despite being the
most frequent category of child maltreatment recorded
by child-protection agencies (panel 1).3,7
Children who witness intimate-partner violence can be
harmed psychologically by witnessing the experience or
by being caught up in the violence. The reported
prevalence of witnessing intimate-partner violence
during childhood ranges from 8–10% in Swedish children
aged 15–16 years, who were surveyed in 2000 and 2006,
Panel 1: Burden of maltreatment—prevalence of maltreatment in the past year per
child population or cumulative prevalence during childhood
• 1·50% of children were estimated to have been referred to social services for abuse
(excluding neglect and intimate-partner violence);6 the rate for all social welfare
referrals for children (<18 years) in 2007 was 4·96% per year7
• 0·84% of all social welfare referrals were estimated to have been investigated for
abuse;6 2·77% of children were investigated in 2007
• 0·30% of children started on a child-protection plan in 2007 (previously child
protection registration);7 reports according to primary reason were: neglect 44%,
physical abuse 15%, multiple 10%, psychological abuse 23%, and sexual abuse 7%
• 4·78% of children were investigated in 20063
• 1·21% of children were substantiated in 2006; primary reasons were: neglect 60%,
physical abuse 10%, multiple 12%, psychological abuse/unknown 11%, and sexual
• 2·15% of children were investigated in 20038
• 0·47% of children remained suspicious8
• 0·97% of children were substantiated; primary reasons were: neglect 38%, physical
abuse 23%, psychological abuse 23%, and sexual abuse 9%
• 3·34% of children were referred in 2002–039
• 0·68% of children were substantiated; primary reasons were: neglect 34%, physical
abuse 28%, psychological abuse 34%, and sexual abuse 10%
Self-reported maltreatment or parent-reported perpetration
• 3·7–16·3% (5–35% cumulative) of children per year experienced severe parental
violence or worse, which is likely to place child at risk of harm; typically included
studies classifi ed hitting with fi st/object, kicking, biting, threatening/using a
knife/weapon as severe violence (review includes studies in UK, USA, New Zealand,
Finland, Italy, and Portugal);10,11 slapping, hitting, and grabbing were classifi ed as
minor violence and are not counted in the fi gures shown here
• 12·2–29·7% is the yearly prevalence of physical abuse for Macedonia, Moldova, Latvia,
• 24–29% is the cumulative prevalence of physical abuse for Siberia, Russia, and
• 10·3% is the yearly prevalence of psychological abuse (verbal abuse by adults or told
not wanted; US study)15
• 4–9% is the cumulative prevalence based on categories consistent with severe
emotional abuse (studies in Sweden, USA, and UK)16–18
• 12·5–33·3% is the yearly prevalence of severe or moderate psychological abuse
reported for four eastern European states (Macedonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and
(Continues on next page)
www.thelancet.com Vol 373 January 3, 2009 71
to 24% reported in a survey of 8600 adult members of a
US health maintenance organisation.18,24 The risk of other
forms of child maltreatment for witnesses of intimate-
partner violence is 30–60%.35,36
Children who are exposed to one type of maltreatment
are often exposed to other types on several occasions or
continuously. How frequently this abuse occurs is
underestimated by offi cial reports because recording of
more than one type of maltreatment is often discouraged
by child-protection agencies and offi cial reports often do
not capture the chronology of exposure over time.
However, retrospective self-report studies consistently
show that some children are exposed to more than one
type of maltreatment.3,7,15,16,37 This pattern is emphasised
by detailed examination of narratives in US child-
protection reports of 519 cases of maltreatment, in which
high rates of multiple types of maltreatment were
reported (36–91% depending on the classifi cation used)
with emotional abuse rarely occurring alone (1·2%).38
Exposure to multiple types of abuse contributes to high
rates of repeated referrals
services—eg, 22% of children with substantiated
maltreatment in the US were re-reported within
24 months,39 with similar rates in the UK (24% within
27 months) and in eight European countries (7–33%).40–42
Factors that consistently aff ect re-reporting to agencies
are primarily ongoing risk factors in the child (such as
disability or chronic medical disorders), in the parent
(such as alcohol misuse), indices of social adversity (such
as low income, contact with services), and multiple or
chronic maltreatment, particularly neglect.43 Re-report
can also indicate increased surveillance.27,39,42–46
Much less is known from self-report studies about
patterns of maltreatment for more than one child in a
family. However, an analysis of child-protection referrals
in the UK showed that maltreatment was restricted to
one specifi c child, who was more likely to be abused
physically or sexually, in 44% of 310 index cases.
Referrals of multiple siblings (56% of cases) were linked
to neglect or psychological abuse. Parental diffi culties
and family stressors—such as family confl ict and
separation, drug or alcohol misuse, or family
criminality—were associated with maltreatment of all
children in the family (37%).47
Throughout childhood, maltreatment by parents or
other caregivers merges with other forms of victimisation.
In a nationally representative study, Finkelhor and
colleagues27,48 noted that the 22% of children aged
2–17 years who had four or more types of victimisation in
the previous year—including physical, sexual, or
psychological abuse; neglect; or exposure to crime,
assault, witnessing intimate-partner violence; or peer or
sibling victimisation—were much more likely to be
victimised the following year than were those who had
fewer types of victimisation, and to have the most serious
victimisations and most
symptomology. Evidence from several studies suggests
that children who are exposed to one type of maltreatment
are at high risk of other types and of repeated exposure
over time, and that the frequency of exposure is correlated
with the severity of maltreatment.16,24,48,49 For a few children,
maltreatment is a chronic condition, not an event.
Determinants of maltreatment
Characteristics of the victim
Understanding what characteristics of parent–child
relationships place children at increased risk of
maltreatment within a family is complex and beyond the
scope of this review. Girls have a higher risk of being
sexually abused than do boys, although rates of other
types of maltreatment are similar for both sexes in
high-income countries.3,7,20,50 In low-income countries,
girls are at higher risk for infanticide, sexual abuse, and
neglect, whereas boys seem to be at greater risk of harsh
Disabled children are at increased risk of maltreatment,
although whether their disability is a cause or consequence
is uncertain.52–54 A record-linkage study in the USA showed
a cumulative prevalence of any maltreatment in 9% of
non-disabled children and in 31% of disabled children.52
The overall prevalence of any recorded disability was 8%,
but a quarter of all maltreated children had a disability.
Characteristics of the parents and community
Identifi cation of the separate eff ects of parental charac-
teristics on the risk of child maltreatment is challenging
(Continued from previous page)
• Cumulative prevalence of any sexual abuse: 15–30% for girls and 5–15% for boys;
cumulative prevalence of penetrative sexual abuse: 5–10% for girls and 1–5% for boys
(any sexual abuse includes non-contact, contact, or penetrative abuse); fi gures are
taken from population-based studies in developed countries (Australia, New Zealand,
Canada, and USA)4,19
• Similar results were derived in a meta-analysis by Andrews and colleagues20 of studies
worldwide (93 for boys and 143 for girls): estimates of childhood prevalence rates
were: non-contact sexual abuse (3·1% boys, 6·8% girls); contact sexual abuse
(3·7% boys, 13·2% girls); penetrative sexual abuse (1·9% boys, 5·3% girls); and any
sexual abuse (8·7% boys, 25·3% girls)
• 1·4–15·4% is the incidence15,21 (6–11·8% cumulative childhood prevalence17,22) of
persistent absence of care or provision likely to place a child at risk of harm (eg, not
enough food, no medical care when needed, no safe place to stay,15 serious absence of
care,17 or in maternal reports—child hurt because of lack of supervision,21 self-report
and maternal-report studies from USA and UK)
Witnessing intimate-partner violence*
• 10–20% is the yearly prevalence estimates based on a review of US community studies
by Carlson.23 Few recent studies have been undertaken
• 8–25% is the childhood prevalence of witnessing intimate-partner
violence—cross-sectional surveys of adolescents and adults18,24
*This category is not included in child-protection reports, therefore not listed in fi rst part of panel.
www.thelancet.com Vol 373 January 3, 2009
since many factors are inextricably clustered. Poverty,
mental-health problems, low educational achievement,
alcohol and drug misuse, and exposure to maltreatment
as a child are strongly associated with parents maltreating
their children. The extent to which each of these risk
factors is causally related to the occurrence of
maltreatment is hard to establish. Risk factors might
aff ect the child diff erently depending on the type of
maltreatment and might also be linked to the adverse
consequences of maltreatment. The ecological model
conceptualises maltreatment as multiply determined by
forces at work in the individual, in the family, and in the
community and culture, and suggests that these
determinants modify each other. Thus, parental risk
factors can be modifi ed by the environment and
community.55 Nevertheless, some relationships can be
generalised. First, income and parental education are
risk factors for child maltreatment, although their
importance varies with the type of maltreatment.17,22,43,56,57
Second, socioeconomic inequalities are especially steep
for deaths from child abuse.58 Third, in the USA, there is
controversy about the extent to which ethnic diff erences
in allegations and substantiation of maltreatment, and in
deaths from injury due to maltreatment, are explained by
sociodemographic characteristics.48,59–61 However, ethnic
diff erences in the overall risk of maltreatment are largely
explained by sociodemographic characteristics, apart
from for children of mixed or multiracial heritage who
have an increased risk.22 Fourth, although a clear pathway
exists by which parental drug and alcohol problems can
cause child maltreatment in individual families, evidence
for a causal link within populations is less certain.
However, substance misuse is undoubtedly a common
factor in incidents involving both spouse and child
Last, the community environment seems to have a
small to moderate eff ect in addition to family and
individual characteristics. A UK cohort study63 reported
that individual strengths distinguished resilient from
non-resilient children who were exposed to physical
abuse under conditions of low but not high family and
neighbourhood stress, which was manifested by high
crime and low social cohesion, and informal social
control. Similarly, a systematic review64 reported that 10%
of the variation in child health and adolescent outcomes,
including maltreatment, was explained by neighbourhood
socioeconomic status and social climate.
Changes over time
Evidence suggests that physical and sexual abuse are
decreasing in some settings. In the USA, substantiated
reports of sexual and physical abuse have fallen by
around 50% from the
(webfi gure 1),27,50,65 with a similar trend in England
(webfi gure 2).7 These decreases are probably accurate
estimates since they are present across both types of
abuse with no preponderance of equivocal cases. No
analysis of trends in Europe has been done, despite
clear evidence, at least in Sweden, of a reduction in
acceptance and occurrence of parental violence towards
children since the 1960s (fi gure).18 Further research is
needed to confi rm these trends that emphasise the
mid-1990s to 2005
Panel 2: Prevalence of abuse in residential care institutions
About 1·3 million children (aged 0–17 years) are in social-care
facilities within 20 countries in eastern Europe and the
former Soviet Union.71 Physical and sexual abuse by caregivers
and peers in these institutions seems to be common.72 In
2000, an anonymous questionnaire study of 3164 children in
residential care aged 7–18 years (8% of all children in
residential care in Romania) showed that 38% reported
severe physical punishment or beatings, usually by residential
care staff (in 77% of cases).73 A fi fth of respondents (roughly
half were boys) claimed to have been blackmailed or coerced
into sexual activity, and a further 4% claimed that they were
constrained to have sex. The reported perpetrators of these
acts of sexual abuse were older residents of the same
sex (50%), older residents of the opposite sex (12%),
institutional staff (1·3%) off ending inside the institution, as
well as relatives (4%), other young people (3%), and
adults (1%) off ending outside the institution. 29% of
respondents would not identify their perpetrator. Public
scandals involving the sexual exploitation of children in
residential care by their carers occur worldwide, with recent
examples in Belgium, Portugal, UK, and Ireland.51 However,
the consistency of the problem across residential care homes
in Romania suggests endemic abuse, which, given that
1·9% of children are in residential care at any one time in that
country, represents a major public-health problem.73
Proportion of responders (%)
Year of survey
1965 196819711980 19942006 2000
Child-reported parental violence
Figure: Time trends in parental violence towards children in Sweden
Parental attitudes are based on nationally representative interview surveys (1965, 1968, 1971, 1980) and
questionnaire surveys (1994, 2000, 2006). Child attitudes are based on questionnaire surveys of schoolchildren
aged 13 and 16 years in 1994, 2000, and 2006. Responses are to the question “Is it right to punish your child
physically (including a box on the ear) if they have made you angry” (for children “Is it OK for your parents to hit
you if you have made them angry?”). Parental violence is based on parent-reported physical punishment in the
past year and child reports on parental violence in preschool years.18
See Online for webfi gures 1
www.thelancet.com Vol 373 January 3, 2009 73
predominance and continuing problem of neglect and
the rise in recognition of psychological abuse, which is
often associated with other forms of family violence
(webfi gures 1 and 2).
Diff erences between countries
Comparisons of the prevalence or incidence of mal-
treatment between diff erent countries need parent-
report or self-report studies using similar survey
methods. Few such studies have been published. 30 years
ago, Gelles and Edfeldt66 reported a 5% higher prevalence
of physical abuse in the past year in the USA than in
Sweden when the same instrument was used. A
meta-regression of self-report studies20 indicates higher
rates of sexual abuse in the USA than in Europe
(22% vs 15%), although diff erences might be partly due
to less sensitive survey methods in the European studies.
The agency reports for diff erent countries in panel 1 are
diffi cult to compare since they refl ect diff erent systems
Child maltreatment is a particular concern in the newly
independent eastern and central European states, where
the economic transition in the past 15 years has been
associated with substantial rises in premature adult
mortality (panel 1).67,68 Although data are scarce, a
questionnaire survey of children aged 10–14 years
(n=1145) in Macedonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Moldova
recorded the lowest yearly prevalence rates of severe and
moderate psychological abuse and physical abuse in
Macedonia (18% and 12%, respectively) and the highest
in Moldova (43% and 29%, respectively).12 Abuse was
higher in rural areas than in urban areas, and was
associated with parental overuse of alcohol.12 Other
studies report similar rates of child sexual abuse to those
in western Europe.13,69 As in western Europe, by far the
greatest problem is neglect. The WHO national
prevalence study of child maltreatment in Romanian
families showed that physical neglect was reported
by 46% of adolescents surveyed, emotional neglect by
44%, and educational neglect by 34%.13 These rates are
much higher than are those in western Europe.41 A WHO
study in Samara, Russia, reported that the identifi cation
of neglect by health and social services is seven times
more common than is identifi cation of physical abuse.70
In two-thirds of all cases of maltreatment, the parents
were recorded as alcoholic. The usual response to such
cases in 2002 was to place the child into residential or
foster care. However, the chances of physical and sexual
abuse in residential care are even higher than in
family-based care (panel 2).
Death from child maltreatment
The most tragic manifestation of the burden of child
maltreatment is the thousands of child deaths every year
due to deliberate killing (homicide) or neglect
(manslaughter). WHO estimated that 155 000 deaths in
children younger than 15 years occur worldwide every
year as a result of abuse or neglect, which is 0·6% of all
deaths and 12·7% of deaths due to any injury.51 Only a
third of these deaths are classifi ed as homicide.
Furthermore, substantial under-reporting occurs because
of insuffi cient routine investigations and post-mortem
examinations of child deaths in most countries.74 The
biological parents are responsible for four-fi fths of cases,
and step-parents are to blame for most of the remaining
cases (15% of the total).74
Child homicide occurs most frequently during
infancy—in the UK, 35% of child homicide victims
(<16 years) are younger than 1 year.74,75 In infancy,
homicide is equally likely to be perpetrated by the
mother and the father; however, for older children, the
perpetrator is usually a man.75 Large diff erences in
infant homicide rates exist between high-income
countries, with the highest rates recorded in the USA
and lowest in Scandinavia and southern Europe.76 An
analysis of infant homicide rates between 1945 and 1998
in 39 countries confi rmed previously reported
associations between infant homicide and higher rates
of female participation in the workforce and income
Prospective studies* Retrospective studies*
Education and employment
Low educational achievement
Low skilled employment
Behaviour problems as child/adolescent
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Physical health and sexual behaviour
General adult health
Chronic pain in adulthood
Quality of life
Aggression, violence, criminality
No eff ect
No eff ect
*Refers to ascertainment of maltreatment. The classifi cation indicates consensus about the fi ndings from included
studies and are broadly consistent with the following criteria: strong=evidence of a signifi cant eff ect after adjustment
for confounders; moderate=evidence of a signifi cant but small eff ect, or of a stronger eff ect that is reduced after
adjustment for confounders or highly likely to be confounded; weak=evidence of an eff ect based on methodologically
problematic studies or associations that do not persist after adjustment, but consistently favour a positive eff ect;
inconsistent=eff ect qualitatively diff erent across studies (ie, positive and negative or no associations); lacking=no
studies addressing this question.
Table 2: Summary of review fi ndings on consequences of child maltreatment—evidence for an
association in prospective and retrospective studies
www.thelancet.com Vol 373 January 3, 2009
According to WHO estimates, rates of death in children
younger than 15 years due to homicide or manslaughter
in central and eastern Europe and the newly independent
states of the former Soviet Union are consistently higher
than in the western European countries of the EU
(webfi gure 3). The peak incidence from 1993 to 2003
coincided with the period of economic and political
transition when community services were severely
disrupted.68 Despite improvement over the past 30 years
in child protection in western European countries and
the USA, there has been very little decrease in the rate of
Long-term consequences of child maltreatment
Since groundbreaking work in the early 1970s drew
attention to the battered child syndrome, research
designed to quantify the long-term consequences of
child maltreatment has grown.80 Here we summarise
the evidence for associations between diff erent types of
maltreatment and outcomes related to education,
mental health, physical health, and violence or criminal
behaviour. Findings from
prospectively ascertained whether children were
maltreated or not, and which followed up these children
over time to identify later outcomes, are contrasted with
more diverse work of cohort and cross-sectional studies
that measure maltreatment retrospectively, usually on
the basis of self-reporting in adolescence or adulthood.
Since we are interested in the consequences of child
maltreatment, we want to assess causality. Thus, the
strengths of prospective studies include the temporal
ordering of maltreatment and subsequent outcomes,
objective measurement of maltreatment, avoidance of
recall bias, minimisation of selective inclusion of
participants on the basis of the outcome, and the
opportunity to adjust for social and individual
confounding factors as they occur.
All these factors are weaknesses of studies using
retrospective measurement of maltreatment, especially
since the temporal ordering of maltreatment and
outcomes cannot be reliably established. Recall bias is
also a concern, with ambiguity about whether
consequences are due to the actual abuse experience,
aftermath of the abuse experience, or a person’s cognitive
appraisal of the experience. However, studies that use
only offi cial cases of child maltreatment might detect
only the few maltreated children who come to professional
attention, who might diff er in some ways from other
maltreated children and whose outcomes could also be
diff erent. The problem of representativeness, which can
distort the prevalence and eff ect size, is reduced for
population-based longitudinal cohort studies. The validity
of various methods of assessing and studying
maltreatment is a source of ongoing debate.81,82 Our
analysis endeavours to draw on the strengths of
prospective and retrospective studies and, when available,
on fi ndings from systematic reviews (table 2).
cohort studies that
Education and employment
Child maltreatment is associated with long-term defi cits
in educational achievement. Prospective longitudinal
studies have consistently shown that maltreated children
have lower educational achievement than do their peers,
and are more likely to receive special education83–86
(Jonson-Reid and colleagues83 found that 24% of
maltreated children received special education at a mean
age of 8 years, compared with 14% of children with no
maltreatment record). The diff erences are substantial—
eg, only 42% of the maltreated children completed high
school compared with two-thirds of community-matched
controls.85 Another prospective study showed that
decreases in school attendance and school performance
were related to the timing of maltreatment, and were
cumulative.87 Most of these associations persisted after
adjustment for family and social characteristics (eg,
ethnic origin, age, sex, and socioeconomic status), as
seen in some but not all studies. A longitudinal
population-based cohort study in New Zealand,86 with
retrospective ascertainment of child maltreatment,
confi rmed these reduced
achievement in adults who had been physically or
sexually abused (eg, 6–10% of abused children attained a
university degree compared with 28% of those not
abused) but such diff erences were largely explained by
social, parental, and individual characteristics. Exposure
of children to intimate-partner violence also seems to be
linked to low educational achievement, but the extent to
which this factor is independent of other forms of child
maltreatment is unclear.88
Although the risk of underachievement in education is
clearly high in children who are maltreated, evidence for
a causal link is mixed. Studies are needed from outside
the USA to help quantify the extent of this burden in
diff erent educational settings.
Maltreatment has longlasting economic consequences
for aff ected individuals.89 In a prospective study of court
documented cases of childhood maltreatment and
community-matched controls, signifi cantly more of the
abused and neglected individuals were in menial and
semi-skilled occupations than were controls (62% vs 45%)
at 29 years of age, and fewer had remained in employment
during the past 5 years (41% vs 58%). Further research is
needed to examine the eff ect of child maltreatment on
economic productivity throughout life and in diff erent
levels of educational
Child maltreatment increases the risk of behaviour
problems, including internalising (anxiety, depression)
and externalising (aggression, acting out) behaviour.84,90–95
Children who witness intimate-partner violence are at
increased risk of behaviour problems, but whether this
factor is independent of other forms of maltreatment is
contentious.88,96,97 Behaviour problems in childhood seem
to be strongly determined by early timing of maltreatment,
See Online for webfi gure 3
www.thelancet.com Vol 373 January 3, 2009 75
although whether early physical or psychological abuse,
or neglect, is most damaging at this age is unclear.90,98
Behaviour problems that arise later in adolescence might
be related most strongly to maltreatment during
adolescence.91 Consistent evidence suggests a cumulative
eff ect of diff erent types of maltreatment on later
behaviour problems,91,99 with one group concluding “there
is no point beyond which services for children are
hopeless…every risk factor we can reduce matters”.99
Maltreated children have a moderately increased risk of
depression in adolescence and adulthood (adjusted odds
ratios ranging from 1·3 to 2·4), which only partly refl ects
the family context in which maltreatment occurs.84,91,92,95,100–103
Because depression is common and serious—around a
quarter to a third of maltreated children meet criteria for
major depression by their late 20s (with use of criteria
from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders [DSM])92,102,104—this association represents a
substantial burden. For many aff ected individuals, the
onset of depression begins in childhood, reinforcing the
need for early intervention in the lives of these abused
and neglected children, before symptoms of depression
cascade into other spheres of functioning.91,102 Depression
is associated with neglect and physical and sexual abuse,
with no clear evidence for a specifi c eff ect of any particular
type of maltreatment. Some investigators have shown a
dose response, with depression more likely with harsh or
severe physical abuse than with less severe forms of
Evidence suggests that child maltreatment increases
the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, which, by
defi nition, develops after a terrifying event or ordeal.
Symptoms include recurrent intrusion of frightening
thoughts and memories, sleep diffi culties, and detached
or numb feelings, which can substantially aff ect a
person’s ability to function. Prospective and retrospective
studies consistently show associations between physical
or sexual abuse or neglect and post-traumatic stress
disorder in adolescents and adults, which persist after
controlling for family and child characteristics that are
correlated with maltreatment.20,84,95,105–108 These eff ects
can be longlasting. One prospective study105 of children
who were maltreated before 12 years of age and assessed
at 29 years reported that 23% of people who were
sexually abused, 19% of those physically abused, and
17% of those neglected, had a present diagnosis of
post-traumatic stress disorder (with use of DSM-III
criteria) compared with 10% of controls, and lifetime
risks of this disorder were much higher in cases than in
controls. However, family, individual, and lifestyle
variables, such as having a parent who is an alcoholic or
has been arrested, also increased the risk of
post-traumatic stress disorder. A meta-analysis20 of
studies of children who have been sexually abused
suggests a dose-response eff ect, with higher risks
associated with penetrative sexual abuse than with
contact or non-contact abuse.
Evidence for an association between childhood
maltreatment and adult psychosis is inconclusive.109–111
No clear link between personality disorder and
maltreatment has been noted,89 although one prospective
study101 showed an increased risk of personality disorder
in maltreated children including those exposed to verbal
abuse, which was independent of physical or sexual
abuse or neglect. These fi ndings emphasise the need
for further research into the eff ects of psychological
Consistent evidence suggests that both physical abuse
and sexual abuse are associated with a doubling of the
risk of attempted suicide for young people who are
followed up into their late 20s. For physical and sexual
abuse, these eff ects persist after adjustment for
confounding family and individual variables,89,92 but for
neglect, these eff ects are mainly explained by family
context.100 According to cross-sectional studies, the risk of
attempted suicide increases with the accumulation of
multiple adversities, including repeated maltreatment
and witnessing intimate-partner violence.112,113 The risk of
attempted suicide can be very high in young people.
Widom and colleagues89 reported lifetime rates of 19% in
29-year-old adults who were abused or neglected as
children compared with 8% of community-matched
controls, whereas a population-based cohort in New
Zealand reported suicide attempts by 11–21% of young
adults or adolescents who were exposed to severe physical
abuse or penetrative sexual abuse compared with 1–3% of
controls.92 Similar rates have been reported in a systematic
review of ten studies114 and one prospective study in
New York, which showed that 6% of adolescents who
were abused made multiple suicide attempts.100
The hypothesis that children who have been sexually
abused use self-injurious behaviour (such as cutting) as a
maladaptive coping mechanism is only weakly supported
by a systematic review of 45 retrospective studies.115 By
contrast, a prospective study reported a strong association
with sexual abuse but no association with physical abuse
Converging evidence from prospective and retrospective
studies suggests that child maltreatment increases the
risk of alcohol problems in adolescence and adulthood.
These eff ects are moderate and persist in some but not all
studies after adjustment for family characteristics and
parental alcohol use.20,22,91,92,102,117–119 On the basis of results
from a prospective study with follow up at 29 and 39 years
of age,102,117 and from a systematic review of 224 studies,119
the association with alcohol problems, at least in
adulthood, is confi ned to girls. These fi ndings emphasise
the need for interventions for girls and young women to
prevent the development of alcohol problems and the
associated health, safety, and social problems that
excessive drinking in women can cause. For example,
problem drinking in women increases the risk of fetal
alcohol syndrome and might aff ect their ability to look
after a child.120
www.thelancet.com Vol 373 January 3, 2009
The link between child maltreatment and drug
dependency is not straightforward.22,84,91,92,121
prospective study122 reported that individuals who were
maltreated in childhood were no more likely to have a
diagnosis of drug dependency by the age of 29 years than
were community controls. However, when a diff erent
measure of drug use is used, individuals who were
abused and neglected were at increased risk for present
illicit drug use at roughly 40 years of age.121 Investigators
of this study speculated that although individuals who
had experienced neglect or abuse would mature out of
drug use, abused and neglected individuals might
continue in a problematic drug-use trajectory. Cross-
sectional studies indicate that exposure to multiple forms
of abuse and other childhood adversities, including
witnessing intimate-partner violence, leads to a
cumulative increase in the risk of self-reported alcohol or
drug misuse in adulthood.123,124
Overall, the burden of mental ill health resulting from
child maltreatment is substantial. A New Zealand cohort
study92 estimated that physical abuse accounted for 5% of
mental disorders and sexual abuse for 13%, after taking
account of the family context in which maltreatment
How exposure to maltreatment of diff erent types, at
diff erent developmental stages, leads to adverse
mental-health outcomes is complex, although early and
cumulative maltreatment seem to be particularly harmful
to the development of the brain.125,126 The webappendix
summarises the evidence for biological mechanisms that
link child maltreatment and later outcomes.
Four very diff erent prospective longitudinal studies127–130
have reported strong associations between physical
abuse, neglect, and sexual abuse and obesity, which
persist after accounting for family characteristics and
individual risk factors, such as childhood obesity. Large
diff erences in the magnitude of this association
between studies (adjusted odds ratios range from 1·3
to 9·8)129,130 probably indicate diff erences in exposure
and outcome measures and analyses. Retrospective
studies also suggest an association between child
sexual abuse and eating disorders (eg, bulimia and
anorexia), but there is less information about other
forms of maltreatment.131 Several large cross-sectional
studies have reported relations between multiple child
adversities, including child maltreatment, and a range
of health outcomes in adulthood (eg, ischaemic heart
disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures,
and liver disease), albeit with little adjustment for
Abnormally overt or intrusive sexualised behaviour is a
common problem in preteen children who are exposed
to sexual abuse.134 However, sexualised behaviour is not
specifi c to child sexual abuse and has been associated
with physical abuse, characteristics of family adversity,
coercive parenting, child behaviour, and modelling of
Most studies that have examined the relation between
child maltreatment and sexual behaviour in adolescence
and adulthood have focused on outcomes for sexual abuse.
An exception is a prospective study with follow-up at
29 years of age, which reported a signifi cant association
between physical or sexual abuse or neglect and arrest for
prostitution or being paid for sex (13% of cases vs 4% of
controls for girls, p=0·001; 15% vs 8% for boys, p=0·17),
but no signifi cant associations with promiscuity or teenage
pregnancy.136 In two prospective studies,91,137 child
maltreatment was associated with teenage pregnancy. In
one study,136 HIV was twice as common in abused and
neglected individuals as in controls, although the diff erence
did not reach conventional levels of signifi cance most
likely because of weak statistical power.136 A systematic
review and meta-analysis of various types of study, most
with retrospective ascertainment of abuse status, similarly
reported the strongest associations between child sexual
abuse and sex trading in adolescence or adulthood, and
showed greater eff ects for women than for men.112,138–140
Small to moderate eff ects of child sexual abuse on increased
rates of teenage pregnancy have been noted, as well as
earlier onset of sexual activity, greater numbers of sexual
partners, increased rates of abortion, and increased risks
of sexually transmitted disease.4,138,140–145 These eff ects are
stronger with more severe146,147 or repeated145 sexual abuse or
exposure to multiple childhood adversities.148,149 Emerging
evidence also suggests that exposure to child sexual abuse
might be related to later sexual orientation.150 Overall, these
fi ndings suggest associations between exposure to child
sexual abuse and subsequent sexual adjustment.
Controversy about a possible link between childhood
maltreatment and chronic pain in adulthood emphasises
the diff erences between prospective and retrospective
measures of child maltreatment and the advantages of
considering both types of study design. A prospective study
based on children with maltreatment documented by
courts and community-matched controls showed no
association with chronic pain reported in adulthood at
29 years of age.151 However, when groups were compared
on the basis of retrospective self-reports of child
maltreatment, the association with chronic pain was
signifi cant (p<0·0001).152 Similar evidence of a modest
association between child sexual or physical abuse (but not
neglect), and pain in adulthood has been reported.151,153–156
These fi ndings draw attention to the distinction
between how people remember and interpret abusive
childhood experiences and exposure to child abuse.
They establish an association between memories of
childhood abuse and chronic pain in adulthood and
further suggest that abused individuals with chronic
pain are more likely to seek health care than are
non-abused individuals with chronic pain.151 However,
we cannot conclude that child abuse or neglect causes
chronic pain in adulthood.
See Online for webappendix
www.thelancet.com Vol 373 January 3, 2009 77
Despite the evidence for diverse and serious consequences
of child maltreatment, a systematic review157 found no
studies measuring quality of life during childhood after
maltreatment, and only four studies in adults. Further
research, based on modifi cation of existing methods and
development of measures that can be used for younger
children, is needed for economic assessments of the
burden of child maltreatment and cost-eff ectiveness of
intervention strategies. Studies in North America158,159 and
Australia160 have shown increased service use and costs
associated with child maltreatment, but research is lacking
elsewhere in the world and in other public sectors.
Aggression, crime, and violence
In addition to feeling considerable pain and suff ering
themselves, abused and neglected children are at
increased risk of becoming aggressive and infl icting pain
and suff ering on others, often perpetrating crime and
violence. One paper on the cycle of violence161 reported
that being physically abused or neglected as a child
increased the likelihood of arrest as a juvenile (31%
arrested vs 19% of community-matched controls) and as
an adult (48% vs 36%). Since that time, similar eff ects on
criminal behaviour have been reported in the USA
despite diff erences in geographical region, time period,
age of adolescent, defi nition of maltreatment, and
assessment technique.95,137,162–167 These fi ndings are
supported by systematic reviews of retrospective studies,
showing that physical and sexual abuse predict
delinquency or violence in boys and girls,168 although
physical abuse might be most strongly related to youth
violence in girls.169 A direct comparison of diff erent types
of maltreatment found that children who were physically
or sexually abused were more likely to carry a weapon in
adolescence than were neglected children, because of a
perceived need for self protection.170 Evidence that risks
of youth violence cumulate when child abuse persists
into adolescence suggests a need for interventions to
prevent ongoing abuse.169
Child maltreatment is common, and for many it is a
chronic condition, with
maltreatment merging into adverse outcomes throughout
childhood and into adulthood. The burden on the
children themselves and on society is substantial. At the
same time, variation in rates of maltreatment between
countries, particularly for infant homicides, and a
possible decrease in recent years in sexual and physical
abuse in some high-income countries, shows that the
present high burden of child maltreatment is not
inevitable. International comparative studies are needed,
especially in countries outside North America and
northern Europe, to help learn lessons from diff erent
settings about how to prevent child maltreatment and its
consequences. The high burden and serious and
longlasting consequences of child maltreatment warrant
repeated and ongoing
increased investment in preventive and therapeutic
strategies from early childhood. Research into what
works at an individual and policy level is a priority.171,172
More research is needed into characteristics of
responses by communities, families, and services that
help with healthy development rather than exacerbate
the child’s problems. This research includes improved
understanding of the many ways in which children are
victimised at diff erent stages of development.27
More attention needs to be given to neglected children.
There is mounting evidence that the consequences of
childhood neglect can be as damaging—or perhaps even
more damaging—to a child than physical or sexual abuse.
More attention also needs to be paid to the potentially
diff erent needs of boys and girls who are maltreated.
Although classrooms and neighbourhoods are disrupted
more by deviant behaviour of boys than of girls, research
shows that maltreatment doubles a girl’s risk of being
arrested for a violent crime and increases risk for
subsequent alcohol and drug problems, with implications
for her children.
Confl ict of interest statement
We declare that we have no confl ict of interest.
We thank the following people who helped provide data, references,
or undertook searches for the review: Maria Keller-Hamela, Nobody’s
Children Foundation, Warsaw, Poland; Dinesh Seth, WHO Rome
Offi ce, Violence programme; Helen Wadsworth Wilson, City
University of New York; and Melissa Harden, UCL-Institute of Child
Health, London. We thank Toni Pitcher, Christchurch Health and
Development Study, University Otago, New Zealand, for contributing
to the web panel on biological mechanisms; and the editorial group
for the Series: Rosalyn Proops, Richard Reading, Harriet MacMillan,
Danya Glaser, and Pat Hamilton, for commenting on drafts of the
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