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Child-abuse head trauma rose during recession, study finds

LOS ANGELES – Rates of abusive head trauma in children under age 5 rose during the last recession, suggesting that economic woes may have led parents to lash out against their kids, researchers reported Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

The notion that economic hardship leads to increases in child abuse is not new – scientific research and anecdotal reports have long shown a relationship. The Los Angeles Times reported during the recession in 1994 about increases in child abuse and neglect in Los Angeles County.

In recent years, the co-authors noted in the Pediatrics study, articles in the popular press have again stoked concerns that abuse was on the rise as the economy worsened.

Hoping to better understand the relationship, Dr. Rachel Berger of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and her co-authors reviewed medical records of children under 5 years old with abusive head trauma in three regions – six counties in the Seattle area, 23 counties in western Pennsylvania, and 45 counties in Ohio and northern Kentucky – between Jan. 1, 2004, and June 30, 2009. The first four years of that period preceded the recession; the last 19 months coincided with it.

A total of 422 children in the studied regions, 58 percent of them boys, were treated for abusive head trauma during the research period. Their average age was 8.9 months; more than three-fourths were less than a year old. Sixty-three percent went to a pediatric intensive care unit. Sixteen percent died.

All three areas had significant increases in abusive head trauma during the recession. Put together, the annual rate of the injuries went up from 8.9 per 100,000 before the recession to 14.7 per 100,000 during the recession, the team reported.

The researchers did not find any correlation between unemployment rates in the counties and abusive head trauma.