Published on Thursday, September 18, 2003 by OneWorld.net
Study Shows U.S. Ranks Poorly on Child Maltreatment
by Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON -- Young children raised in the United States, Mexico, and Portugal have the greatest chances of dying from neglect or other forms of mistreatment among the 27 industrialized nations that make up the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), according to a new report released Thursday by a research group associated with the UN Children's Fund.
UNICEF's Innocenti Research Center, based in Italy, produces periodic "Report Cards" on the status of children in developed countries. Report Card 5, "Child Mistreatment Deaths in Rich Nations," brings a global perspective to issues normally seen only through national statistics.
The report found that the younger the child, the more likely they were to die. Children under one year of age, according to the report, are at three times greater risk than those aged one to four who, in turn, are twice as likely to die from maltreatment as those between the ages of five and 15.
Children in the southern European countries of Spain, Greece, and Italy are the least likely to suffer maltreatment according to the study, which found that an average of only two children per million in those countries had died from abuse or neglect annually over the last five years.
The death rate was slightly higher--about three per million annually--in Ireland and Norway. In the Netherlands and Sweden, the death rate was twice that--about six per million each year--while in South Korea, Australia, Germany, Denmark, and Finland, the average was about eight per million, the report found.
By comparison, the death rate in the United States, according to UNICEF, was three times higher, at 24 per million, while in Mexico, it came to 30 per million and in Portugal, the highest, 37 per million children.
The findings are certain to be controversial, primarily because governments do not use a uniform methodology for determining maltreatment or even the cause of death, and because of differences across nations in the willingness of families to report maltreatment or of police to investigate it.
Recognizing these problems, UNICEF researchers used statistics provided by the governments on both known cases of abuse or neglect as a base-line and then added to those totals all child deaths that were recorded as being of "undetermined cause."
"The assumption made is that when no other cause can be established, the death is likely the result of maltreatment that cannot be proven in a court of law," the study said. Using the revised calculations, Portugal, whose government statistics found that only four children died of maltreatment annually (placing it among the better-performing nations), plunged to the bottom of the OECD rankings.
Similarly, for France, the death rate from maltreatment rose from five per million to 14 per million when deaths due to "undetermined causes" were added. Its ranking fell from 11 to 24, just above the bottom three.
Aside from Portugal and France, however, the rankings in the revised table remained generally consistent with those based solely on the government's official statistics.
The report, also based on scores of statistical studies on child deaths in OECD countries, found that countries with the lowest maltreatment rates also have very low rates of homicides from assault. Similarly, the three nations with the highest rates of child deaths from maltreatment--the U.S., Mexico, and Portugal--also recorded the highest adult death rates.
The study reported some good news. Using the same methodology for child deaths recorded in the 1970s, UNICEF found that child deaths from maltreatment appear to have declined in virtually all countries covered by the report.
Reducing maltreatment appeared to rely, above all, on public awareness about the problem; the frequency of visits by social and health workers where maltreatment has been reported or is suspected; and efforts to reduce poverty.
The report found that poverty and stress--along with drug and alcohol abuse--appear to be the factors most closely and consistently associated with child abuse and neglect.
It noted that seven OECD countries--Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden--have all adopted laws that explicitly forbid physical punishment of children. Assessments of these efforts suggest that they have been helpful in raising public awareness and discussion about the issue, one of the major factors in reducing the problem.
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