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Child Abuse and Neglect: Risk and Protective Factors

A combination of individual, relational, community, and societal factors contribute to the risk of child abuse and neglect. Although children are not responsible for the harm inflicted upon them, certain characteristics have been found to increase their risk of being abused and or neglected. Risk factors are those characteristics associated with child abuse and neglect—they may or may not be direct causes.

Risk Factors for Victimization

Individual Risk Factors

  • Children younger than 4 years of age
  • Special needs that may increase caregiver burden (e.g., disabilities, mental health issues, and chronic physical illnesses)

Risk Factors for Perpetration

Individual Risk Factors

  • Parents’ lack of understanding of children’s needs, child development and parenting skills
  • Parental history of child abuse and or neglect
  • Substance abuse and/or mental health issues including depression in the family
  • Parental characteristics such as young age, low education, single parenthood, large number of dependent children, and low income
  • Nonbiological, transient caregivers in the home (e.g., mother’s male partner)
  • Parental thoughts and emotions that tend to support or justify maltreatment behaviors

Family Risk Factors

  • Social isolation
  • Family disorganization, dissolution, and violence, including intimate partner violence
  • Parenting stress, poor parent-child relationships, and negative interactions

Community Risk Factors

  • Community violence
  • Concentrated neighborhood disadvantage (e.g., high poverty and residential instability, high unemployment rates, and high density of alcohol outlets), and poor social connections.

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Protective Factors for Child Maltreatment

Protective factors buffer children from being abused or neglected. Protective factors have not been studied as extensively or rigorously as risk factors. However, identifying and understanding protective factors are equally as important as researching risk factors.

There is scientific evidence to support the following protective factors:

Family Protective Factors

  • Supportive family environment and social networks
  • Concrete support for basic needs
  • Nurturing parenting skills
  • Stable family relationships
  • Household rules and child monitoring
  • Parental employment
  • Parental education
  • Adequate housing
  • Access to health care and social services
  • Caring adults outside the family who can serve as role models or mentors

Community Protective Factors

  • Communities that support parents and take responsibility for preventing abuse

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Additional Resources

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study
    The ACE Study examines the links between adverse childhood experiences including child abuse, neglect, and various household challenges, and adult health.
  • Child Maltreatment 2016
    This annual report, created by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Children’s Bureau, presents national data about child abuse and neglect known to child protective service agecies.
  • National Scientific Council on the Developing Child
    The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child is a multidisciplinary collaboration comprising leading scholars in neuroscience, early childhood development, pediatrics, and economics.

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