Investing in Prevention: Avoiding the Individual and Societal Costs of Child Maltreatment

BlogChild WelfareApr 1 2015

In FY 2013, almost 700,000 children were victims of abuse or neglect in the United States. As if this figure was not dismal enough, official maltreatment numbers are widely understood to underestimate the true prevalence of child maltreatment. April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, giving us an opportunity to reflect on the hundreds of thousands of victims of child maltreatment and push forward with efforts to prevent maltreatment from ever occurring.

Preventing maltreatment reaps large dividends in terms of child and adult well-being. Children exposed to maltreatment face increased risks of developmental delays, mental health and substance abuse problems, criminality, risky sexual behavior, and a host of other negative outcomes. Studies also find that being a victim of maltreatment as a child increases an individual’s risk of becoming a perpetrator of maltreatment with his or her own children. Preventing a child from being maltreated can reduce the risk of experiencing these negative outcomes.

Beyond promoting child well-being, the prevention of child abuse and neglect also offers measurable societal benefits. In addition to the clear societal benefits of having fewer individuals with mental health problems or who engage in risky sexual behavior, for instance, preventing maltreatment also offers considerable savings to taxpayers. A CDC study estimated that the number of confirmed child maltreatment cases occurring in a one year period results in $124 billion in lifetime costs (such as child welfare, health care, criminal justice, and special education costs, as well as lost economic productivity).

Individual and societal benefits that result from preventing maltreatment are therefore quite significant. However, it is much easier to “talk the prevention talk” than it is to “walk the prevention walk.” The reality is that child welfare systems across the country have limited resources dedicated to maltreatment prevention and deal with children in crisis situations on a daily basis. It is no wonder that Child Trends’ recent publication on child welfare financing reported that most states did not list prevention activities as one of the primary uses of the flexible Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) dollars that can be used for child welfare services. States are instead largely using those flexible funds to finance their core foster care and child protection services; in other words, to respond to situations in which children have already experienced abuse or neglect.

Shifting resources to prevention activities is possible, though. As suggested in a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, federal laws can incentivize states to make practice and policy changes that (1) benefit children currently in the child welfare system, and (2) generate government cost savings. To illustrate, one option presented in the report suggests that legislation could encourage states to reduce the length of time children are in foster care by only reimbursing costs for a set time period. A recent Child Trends analysis estimated this policy change would yield over $3 billion dollars in cost savings over five years—money that could then be invested in prevention.

Even if the actual cost savings are significantly less than projected, the potential of using incentives to promote best practices now so that cost savings can be reinvested for the future can be clearly seen. With enough political will, this reinvestment approach can be applied so that fewer children experience harm, more children and adults thrive, and the benefits of preventing maltreatment are shared throughout society.