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Study Says White, Middle-Class Child Abuse Often Unreported

January 14, 1985 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Child abuse in middle-class, white families is less likely to be reported to police or child welfare officials than child abuse in low-income black or Hispanic families, according to a new study.

The study, published in the January issue of the American Journal of Public Health, says hospital data showed that the principal difference between child abuse cases that were reported to authorities and cases that were not turned out to be the race and class of the family involved.

For children from households with incomes above $25,000 a year, only 36.7 percent of the child abuse cases were reported, the study said. But nearly 80 percent of the cases involving families with incomes below $15,000 were reported to authorities.

By the same token, 60.5 percent of the child abuse cases involving white families were reported. But the figure was 74.3 percent for black families and 91.2 percent for Hispanics.

The study was conducted by Dr. Eli H. Newberger of the Harvard Medical School Department of Pediatrics and Robert L. Hampton of the Department of Sociology at Connecticut College.

In their discussion of the results, they said the apparent bias in class and race showed the need for review of the child abuse reporting system.

″To the extent that we selectively invoke agents of the state to police the lives of poor and non-white families, we may be inappropriately and unfairly condemning these families as evil,″ they said.

″In selectively ignoring the prevalence of child abuse in more affluent majority homes, we may be perpetuating a myth that child abusers are out there, and that homes like ours are free of violence.″

Another consequence of the bias, they said, ″may be a failure to address the needs of the many children in middle-class families who are at risk of abuse.″

The study drew on data collected by the government in a 1981 national survey of the incidence and severity of child abuse. The survey collected information from 70 hospitals in 10 states, including a mix of urban, suburban and rural counties.

The analysis compared the hospitals’ records of child abuse cases - including physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect - with cases reported to child protection agencies or other law enforcment agencies.

Of the 805 child abuse cases that came to the attention of hospital staff members, they said, only 66.6 percent were reported to authorities.

Besides the bias on class and race, the authors said, they also discovered that hospital officials were less likely to report abuse cases when the mother was the suspected abuser.

And, by a wide margin, emotional abuse was less likely to be reported than either physical or sexual abuse.

In explaining the bias, the authors of the study said subjective judgment remains in the area of child abuse, and suggested that doctors are less likely to envision a child abuser in someone of their own class or race.

″The label ‘child abuser’ may be less likely to be applied if the diagnostician and suspected abuser share similar characteristics, especially socioeconomic status, particularly when the injury is not serious or a manifest result of abuse,″ the study said. ″... A physician’s stereotype of an ‘abuser’ may determine which parents of an injured child will be seen as possible abusers.″