One enduring myth is that crime infrequently occurs in rural society. It is a myth with wide and continuing popularity, expressed as frequently by criminology scholars as by the popular press and public opinion.
Examining the issue of child abuse in rural communities of the United States provides one way to bust this myth. The most recent and comprehensive report that compares rates in rural and urban communities is the Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-3). The NIS-3 is based on detected and substantiated child maltreatment, which means that it is an approximation of the real prevalence of child abuse since much of it can go unreported. The NIS-3 was conducted in 1993, but the Fourth National
Incidence Study is currently underway, providing both a much needed update and an opportunity to compare trends in relation to urban and rural places.
The NIS-3 estimates a rate of child maltreatment based on the harm standard, which is described as a child who has experienced some form of obvious or demonstrable abuse, or serious harm from neglect. In turn, harm is defined in various ways, depending upon the type of abuse or neglect. Altogether, there are three forms of abuse and a fourth category for types of neglect:
- Physical abuse is any physical, mental, or emotional injury from physical abuse that can be observed on the victim for at least 48 hours.
- The harm standard for sexual abuse assumes that any kind of molestation or genital intrusion is emotionally injurious and that other forms of sexual abuse (exposure, fondling) must cause moderate physical or emotional harm.
- Emotional abuse includes confinement (restriction to a small space, binding or tying up, etc.) plus verbal and emotional threats or assaults. To meet the harm standard, there must be direct evidence of physical or emotional injury.
- Finally, there are three forms of neglect, including physical (refusal or delay to seek health care, abandonment, expulsion, inattention to avoidable hazards in the home), educational neglect (allowing prolonged absences from school for no reason, failure to enroll a child in school, and inattention to special educational needs), and emotional neglect (lack of or withdrawal of affection, extreme spouse abuse that emotionally affects a child, encouragement of drug use or delinquent behavior, and refusal or delay in providing psychological care).
According to the harm standard, abuse or neglect must have been from a parent, guardian, or some other caregiver with direct responsibilities for the child’s welfare. Altogether, there were about 1,554,000 incidents of maltreatment, for a rate of 23.1 per 1,000 children. The largest share of abuse is neglect (about 57%), followed by physical abuse (about 1 in 4 cases), sexual abuse (about 1 in 7), and emotional or psychological abuse (about 1 in 7). This increase is substantial over the rates estimated in NIS-2 in 1986 (14.8) and NIS-1 in 1980 (9.8).
Based on the moderate harm standard, the NIS-3 estimated the rate of maltreatment at 7.1 per 1,000 children residing in large urban counties (located within the 20 largest metropolitan areas), which was statistically different from the rate of 16.5 per 1,000 children in other urban counties (smaller-sized metropolitan areas). The rate for rural or nonmetropolitan counties was 14.0. The NIS-3 tested for underestimation of the large urban county rate due to data collection problems and determined there was no bias in its estimate; however, they do note that the rate for rural counties was less precise due to a lower number of cases and a smaller population base.
Despite the various limitations that go into any attempt to estimate the incidence of child abuse, the rates reported in the NIS-3 indicate that rural child abuse is not only real, but also is equivalent to and possibly greater than rates for children from cities and suburbs in the United States. Further, changes in the rate of abuse from the NIS-2 to NIS-3 were not related to place, indicating that rural child abuse has been and continues to be a real and long-standing problem and not simply the artifact of a single statistically based study.
More localized research further substantiates the extent and pattern of rural child abuse. A study in Colorado noted a distinct pattern of surges in reported cases of child abuse in rural counties, and suggested that these sentinel events may be triggered by plant closings and crop failures, as well as noting that rural culture is more tolerant of harsher treatment of children. A study of child abuse in rural Iowa found higher rates in counties with high proportions of single-parent families and divorce, and in rural communities with high rates of elder abuse, indicating that rural child abuse may be part of a larger cultural syndrome in some localities. Another study notes the link of methamphetamine use and the welfare of children, including various forms of abuse, in the rural Midwest where the methamphetamine problem is quite serious.
Although it is difficult to know the true extent of child abuse in general, and rural communities specifically, it is an important issue to address due to the serious and long-term consequences of abuse on children. Rural populations have less access to professional health services and aspects of rural culture may create formidable obstacles to the prevention, detection, and treatment of child abuse cases.
- Fryer, G. E., Jr., & Miyoshi, T. J. (1995). A cluster analysis of detected and substantiated child maltreatment incidents in rural Colorado. Child Abuse & Neglect, 19, 363–369.
- Haight, W., Jacobsen, T., Black, J., Kingery, L., Sheridan, K., & Mulder, C. (2005). In these bleak days: Parent methamphetamine abuse and child welfare in the rural Midwest. Children and Youth Services Review, 27, 949–971.
- Sedlack, A. J., & Broadhurst, D. D. (1996). Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect. Washington, DC: National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Weissman, A. M., Jogerst, G. J., & Dawson, J. D. (2003). Community characteristics associated with child abuse in Child Abuse and Neglect, 27, 1145–1159.
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