A critical step in devising effective responses to child abuse and neglect is reasonable agreement on the definition of the problem and its scope.
At a minimum, any recent act or set of acts 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 an act or failure to act, which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.
Publications on child abuse and neglect have increased more than threefold over the past two decades, documenting significant advances in the field. Among these are: (1) research on consequences of child abuse and neglect has demonstrated that they are serious, long-lasting, and cumulative through adulthood; (2) the consequences include effects on the brain and other biological systems, as well as on behavior and psychosocial outcomes; and (3) rigorous research has been conducted on interventions to address the problem. Yet despite these gains in grasping the scope and scale of the problem, as well as identifying some general preventive approaches with proven effectiveness, much of the research evidence also underscores how much remains unknown. The causes of child abuse and neglect need to be understood with greater specificity if the problem is to be prevented and treated more effectively. Also needed is a better understanding of what appear to be significant declines in physical and sexual child abuse but not neglect; why children have differential sensitivity to abuse of similar severity; why some child victims respond to treatment and others do not; how different types of abuse impact a child’s developmental trajectory; and how culture, social stratification, and associated contextual factors affect the causes, consequences, prevention, and treatment of child abuse and neglect.