Like a lot of violence that occurs within families, child abuse can be awfully tough to measure.
The federal government’s most oft-cited number of abused children nationwide is 900,000 a year. That’s based on statistics from 2004 that peg that as the number of cases reported to authorities and considered substantiated enough to warrant an investigation.
But a different federal agency estimated just a few years earlier that the number of abused children was 1.5 million – while the number of children suffering from neglect was nearly 3 million.
A national organization that advocates for early childhood intervention programs, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, estimates that the true number of abused children in America is closer to 2.7 million, given how frequently abuse is known to go unreported.
“Official figures mask the real toll of child abuse and neglect,” the organization said in a 2004 report.
The statistics vary for a variety of reasons, experts say. Some unknown but large numbers of offenses never come to anyone’s attention – the police and social service agencies are never called.
Another factor is the differing definitions researchers use to establish their counts. Using census data, Fight Crime says that Washington had seven child deaths from abuse or neglect in 2004 – those are deaths confirmed as caused by abuse.
But often the circumstances surrounding a neglected child’s death are murky. The Washington Office of the Family and Children’s Ombudsman produced a report that noted in 2004, 87 children died who were “in the care of, or receiving child welfare services … within one year of their death or who died while in state licensed care.”
Chances are, as a precise measure of the fatal toll of child abuse in Washington, neither figure is correct.