Costs of Child Abuse

The human costs of child abuse are dreadful. Some parents torture their children in ways that would arouse national outrage if done by an enemy to an American prisoner of war. The cost to the children is intangible and impossible to calculate.  It is the personal burden of  the children, and if they survive, the adults they become and, perhaps, those who are close to them.

What many people do not realize is how much child abuse costs the rest of us, in dollar costs that can be calculated.  According to a 2007 economic study by prevent Child Abuse America, a conservative estimate of the annual cost of child abuse is approximately $112.4 billion in 2012 dollars. Yes, that is billion, with a B.  For perspective, this is over one and one half times the federal budget for the entire Department of Education, one and one half times the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, twice the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and one-fifth the base  budget of the Pentagon.   Child abuse costs the American taxpayer as much as the most extreme estimate of the cost of illegal immigration, about the same amount as the estimated American market in marijuana, and more than Google paid for Facebook.

Costs to the public are both direct and indirect.  Direct costs are relatively easy to identify:  the cost of maintaining child protective agencies, treating the injuries and long-term disabilities of physically battered children, providing mental health services for abused children, and the cost of police investigations,  judicial prosecution and incarceration of offenders.  These costs comprise about one-third of the cost of child abuse to American taxpayers.

Indirect costs consist of the costs of special education, juvenile delinquency, the adult criminal justice system, mental health and health care, and lost productivity.

Special Education:  More than 1 in 5 abused children require special education.  Even if they do not require formal special education programs, abused children often do poorly in school, making greater than average demands on the instructional and disciplinary resources and limiting their own chances for a successful adulthood.

Lost Productivity:  Children who suffer abuse are subject to many factors that reduce their earning power, including poor school performance, a high dropout rate, physical and mental health issues, criminal records, and substance abuse.  Abused girls are likelier to become pregnant and give birth at a young age, which reduces their ability to enter the workforce and places their babies at a social disadvantage.  Reduced earning power means that such children pay less in taxes, which in turn means that others must pay more.

Welfare:  Early single motherhood, low earning capacity, educational disadvantage, and poor physical and mental health are all factors that result in adults who were abused as children making more demands on taxpayer-supported welfare systems.

Adult Criminal Justice and Public Health Systems:  The National Institute of Justice estimates that 13% of violent crime can be linked to earlier child maltreatment. The cost of investigating, arresting, trying and incarcerating the adults who were once abused children is borne by the taxpaying public.  What is more, abused children are likelier than their luckier peers to suffer from alcoholism and substance abuse, which may involve them in non-violent criminal activity.  They are likelier to become prostitutes, to be trafficked, and to become homeless, all of which are public health and social service concerns.Abused children can grow up to become homeless adults, sometimes as a result of alcohol or drug abuse, sometimes as a result of mental illness, and sometimes because of the economic disadvantages they face.

Many, many prostitutes are childhood victims of sexual abuse. They often run away from home and have no other way to earn a living. Pimps find them or worse, human traffickers enslave them.

Mental Health Services:  One of the costliest, and most overlooked, costs of child abuse is the mental health services required by many of the children when they become adults.   Adults who were abused as children are  far likelier to suffer from depression and other mood disorders, personality disorders, and psychosis.  Even in those who might have been mentally ill anyway, the illness frequently appears earlier and is more severe when there is a history of abuse, and there is more frequent need for psychiatric hospitalization and even institutionalization.

Many abused children do grow up to lead productive and useful lives, and to achieve a measure of  contentment and even happiness.  These are the fortunate ones who had a supportive adult or a good role model to ease their childhood suffering, or who were saved from their abusers by the systems in place for that purpose.

Unfortunately, there are thousands of  children who are never rescued at all, and many more who come to the attention of the authorities in the courts or in child protective agencies, only to be sent back to be abused again.  The road to happiness for these children is far harder, the obstacles are far greater, and damage far deeper.  Justice for Children has throughout its existence worked to make sure that children who are known to be victims are not forced to spend unsupervised time with those who victimized them.   It has consistently focused on children at risk of being failed by “the system”, and to give them the assurance of a safe home.