By Andrew M. Seaman
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - The number of U.S. children who were exposed to violence, crime and abuse in 2011 was essentially unchanged from 2008, according to a new government survey.
Researchers who interviewed 4,503 children and teenagers in 2011 found that two in five children reported being physically assaulted in the previous year, and one in every 10 kids was injured by that abuse.
"The good news is that a lot of people expected things to get worse given the economy was doing so bad," said David Finkelhor, the study's lead author.
"That's the good news but the bad news is that... the level of exposure to violence, to crime and all that stuff is really enormous to kids," added Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes against Children Research Center in Durham.
For the new study, which was supported by federal grants from agencies including the U.S. Department of Justice, interviewers called the homes of children between the ages of one month and 17 years old.
They interviewed an adult in the home and then a randomly selected child between 10 and 17 years old. If the child was younger than 10 years old, the caregiver who is most involved with the child was interviewed.
Finkelhor and his colleagues found that 40 percent of the children and teens reported being physically assaulted in the past year, and 10 percent said they suffered an injury from an assault.
Boys were more likely to be the victims of assault, and often brothers and sisters or other children were the perpetrators.
About 6 percent said they were the victims of sexual harassment, and about 2 percent said they were sexually assaulted.
Those at the highest risk for sexual assault were girls between the ages of 14 and 17 years old. About a quarter of girls in that age group experienced sexual harassment and about 8 percent reported a sexual assault.
The researchers also found that about 14 percent all the children and teens experienced maltreatment, which includes neglect, physical or emotional abuse, custodial interference or sexual abuse by a familiar adult.
About a quarter of the entire group also said their belongings were vandalized or stolen in the past year. About the same number of children reported seeing some sort of violence or crime in their homes or their community. That included domestic violence.
A previous study that surveyed children and their caregivers in 2008 found similar rates of violence and abuse, according to the researchers, who published the new findings in JAMA Pediatrics.
Finkelhor suggested that the rates may have remained steady, in part, because there are programs to help curb violence available to families.
"In spite of anxiety that people had about the recession or the Internet… I think something larger is at work," he said, adding that people still should not be afraid to get involved if they suspect abuse.
"I don't want anyone to get the impression that everything is hunky dory. We still have rates that are higher than in many other developed countries," Finkelhor said.