Emotional Abuse Is Inadequately Defined and Measured

By Sara Oon

In Michigan, 46 percent of child abuse victims in 2013 suffered from emotional abuse, according to the 2013 report on child abuse and neglect data collected by the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System. In neighboring Illinois, however, emotional abuse accounted for less than 1 percent.

How can two states generate such different rates of substantiated emotional abuse?

“Different states have different definitions for emotional abuse,” said Diana English, a Research Scientist at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work and a Senior Director at Casey Family Programs. “There is no consistent approach regarding how to ask for information and how information is used.”

Researchers believe the disparity in rates can be attributed to a difference in how emotional abuse is defined and measured instead of a difference in actual incidence rates. The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) broadly defines abuse as: “Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or, any act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”

Each state interprets the federal definition independently in order to provide its own definitions of the specific types of maltreatment, including emotional abuse.

Emotional abuse has gained visibility in recent years within academic and policy spheres as a result of new research suggesting that emotional abuse can leave long lasting scars comparable to physical abuse, as well as a number of high profile cases of abuse and neglect in the media. This has placed increasing pressure on regulators to develop policy responses to address the issue.

Within the Department of Health and Human Services, the Children’s Bureau advises the Administration for Children and Families on matters of child welfare. Over the years, the Children’s Bureau has received many calls for more consistent definitions across states and jurisdictions, and more recently, there has been a clearer recognition of mental and emotional health.

While all states provide specific definitions for physical and sexual abuse, only 33 states currently define emotional abuse or mental injury. Many of these definitions include language such as “injury to psychological capacity” and “impairment in the child’s ability to function.”

However, actual definitions vary widely across states. For instance, Delaware’s definition includes specific actions that constitute abuse, including “threats to inflict undue physical or emotional harm, and/or chronic or recurring incidents of ridiculing, demeaning, making derogatory remarks, or cursing.” Some states such as Arizona, Iowa and Pennsylvania even require an official diagnosis by a physician or psychologist in order to substantiate emotional abuse.

Additionally, states have different standards for determining if a case of maltreatment has occurred or if a child is at risk of maltreatment. Some states also use alternative response systems which allow for lower risk cases to be handled differently from the traditional investigative response.

In particular, states often vary in the level of evidence required to substantiate a case. Most states currently require a “preponderance of evidence” to substantiate a report, meaning that evidence in favor of maltreatment should outweigh evidence to the contrary. However, six states will substantiate a report when there is probable or reasonable cause to suspect abuse or neglect, while two states require clear and convincing evidence.

Policy makers and researchers acknowledge that improving definitions would help in the identification of optimal responses. “We need a better and more consistent way of addressing physical and emotional traumas in case planning,” English of the University of Washington’s School of Social Work said.

However, there are structural hurdles to reaching a more consistent approach. In particular, the responsibility for overseeing child welfare and response lies at the state and local levels, while efforts at the federal level have been focused on identifying and communicating best practices to help state and local communities plan their programs.

The limitations of federal agencies to exert control over state and local jurisdictions was a subject debated by Shame on U.S., a report by the Children’s Advocacy Institute of the University of San Diego School of Law. According to the report, “Congress must expressly direct the executive branch to engage in formal regulatory activity to implement and interpret federal child welfare laws through the adoption of binding federal regulations — not simply send memos or adopt policy manual provisions which states are free to ignore without consequence.”

In other countries, the public discourse has succeeded in generating concrete policy changes. In the United Kingdom, for instance, an existing law was amended to take into account emotional abuse and neglect of children. The law, which previously stated that a person should be punished for treating a child “in a manner likely to cause him unnecessary suffering or injury to health,” was amended to state that a caregiver could be punished for impairment of a child’s “physical, emotional, social or behavioral development.” Dubbed the “Cinderella Law,” this recent change is expected to reduce overall rates of emotional abuse.

Sara Oon is an MBA candidate at U.C. Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. She wrote this story as part of the Journalism for Social Change class at U.C. Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.

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