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U.S. kids suffer high rates of assault and abuse

More than one-third of U.S. children and teens have been physically assaulted -- mostly by siblings and peers -- in the past year, a new study finds.

And one in 20 kids has been physically abused by a parent or another caregiver in the same time period, the researchers said.

"Children are the most victimized segment of the population," said study author David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. "The full burden of this tends to be missed because many national crime indicators either do not include the experience of all children or don't look at the big picture and include all the kinds of violence to which children are exposed."

The implications of these results are substantial in terms of children's lives long-term, Finkelhor said.

"Violence and abuse in childhood are big drivers behind many of our most serious health and social problems," Finkelhor said. "They are associated with later drug abuse, suicide, criminal behavior, mental illness and chronic diseases like diabetes."

The findings were published online June 29 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

The researchers analyzed the results of telephone interviews about the experiences of 4,000 children and teens. Children aged 10 to 17 answered questions about their exposure to violence, crime and abuse, while the caregivers answered questions for children aged 9 and younger.

Just over 37 percent of the children in the study had been physically assaulted in the past year, usually by siblings or peers, and 9 percent had been injured from an assault.

But 15 percent had been mistreated by a parent or other caregiver, including 5 percent who were physically abused by a parent or other caregiver. This mistreatment included physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect or interfering with a child's custody arrangements, such as refusing to let a child see another parent or talk to them on the phone. Another 6 percent saw a physical fight between their parents.

Overall, boys were assaulted by adults about twice as often as girls were: 6.9 percent of boys and 3.3 percent of girls had been physically abused, and boys were more likely to be assaulted by peers as well.

The survey also found that 2 percent of girls overall had been sexually abused or assaulted within the year, which included 4.6 percent of those aged 14 to 17.

"The dizzying array of statistics from this study are sobering and depressing to me as a parent and pediatrician, and they should be of great concern to public health experts and policy makers nationwide," said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York.

"These statistics should prompt public health experts and policy makers nationwide to commit greater resources to insure that, going forward, children and adolescents are neither exposed to -- nor the victim of -- so many different forms of violence," he said.

"On the positive side," Adesman added, "when the investigators looked for significant increases or decreases across a large number of variables, there were no significant increases in any of the variables examined. "On the other hand, there were also exceedingly few decreases in the reports of exposure to violence, crime or abuse."

Various programs can help prevent abuse, Finkelhor said. These include parent education and support programs that can prevent family abuse, school-based programs that reduce bullying and dating violence programs that reduce interpersonal relationship violence.

"The challenge is to get children and families access to these programs, and make such education more comprehensive and integrated into the curriculum," he added.

According to Mayra Mendez, an early childhood specialist at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, Calif., programs that teach positive parenting strategies, such as positive discipline, effective communication and developmental guidance are particularly important.

"A primary factor in preventing child abuse results from creating safe, stable and nurturing relationships and environments for children and caregivers," Mendez said.

For children who have been abused, Mendez said that counseling, play therapy, art or music therapy, supportive play groups, family therapy and sometimes medication can help treat their mental health problems and trauma.

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