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Study suggests increased risk of fatal health problems for abused and neglected children

A new study from HHS’ Administration for Children and Families suggests children in the child welfare system may be at higher risk for developing heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, liver disease and skeletal fractures in adulthood.  The study, part of the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation’s “National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being” (NSCAW), found children in the child welfare system were far more likely to have personal histories that placed them at heightened risk for negative health outcomes as an adult.

“This report is heart-breaking, but it also confirms what we’ve suspected all along,” said HHS Acting Assistant Secretary for Children and Families George Sheldon.  “We must continue to put every effort into helping abused and neglected children heal as quickly and efficiently as possible when they enter the child welfare system.”

NSCAW explored the well-being of 5,873 children who had contact with the child welfare system during a 14-month period beginning in February 2008.  The researchers determined that more than half of the children were exposed to four or more adverse childhood experiences, including neglect, sexual abuse and household substance abuse. 

A previous landmark survey “Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES)” demonstrated a significant association between these childhood experiences and poor health outcomes as an adult.  Having four or more of these experiences increased the likelihood of physical and mental health problems as an adult 12-fold. 

While ACES found that 13 percent of adults nationwide reported having four or more adverse experiences during childhood, NSCAW determined that number is as high as 54 percent for children who are referred to child welfare services. 

“Our responsibility is to make sure children and youth who do come to the attention of the child welfare system are given every opportunity to overcome trauma and get back on the right developmental track," said Bryan Samuels, Commissioner for the Administration for Children, Youth and Families.  "We have several promising initiatives aimed at helping young people heal and recover from abuse and neglect, preparing them for successful adulthood.”

These initiatives include federal funding waivers that allow states to test new child welfare approaches and discretionary grants to better identify and treat abused and neglected children and youth.

In addition, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently announced the release of a letter to state child welfare, Medicaid, and mental health directors encouraging a greater focus on trauma and its effects on children. The letter highlighted cross-agency efforts to identify and treat trauma and identified federal funding sources for trauma-informed treatment.

View the NSCAW study.

Read more about the services ACF offers to neglected and abused children.

Last Reviewed: March 8, 2016
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