Child Abuse and Neglect

Child Abuse/Neglect

Children are frequently witnesses to or victims of domestic abuse.  According to data submitted to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), the number of nationally estimated duplicate child victims (i.e., a child counts as a victim for each incidence and may therefore be duplicated) in 2009 was 763,00; the number of nationally estimated unique child victims was 702,000.  Though the child victimization rate has generally decreased over the past several years, child abuse and neglect remain a significant issue.  There is increasing awareness of the detrimental effects which this has upon children – some of which will be explored below.


  • child: any person up to the age of thirteen (unless indicated otherwise)
  • abuse/maltreatment: any inappropriate or harmful treatment of a person by another, often (though not necessarily) for an unfair personal benefit
  • neglect: form of abuse in which the perpetrator fails to adequately provide for the needs of the victim, usually (but not restricted to) a child or dependent
  • victim: the person who receives the abuse
  • perpetrator/offender: the person who commits the abuse and is responsible for its outcomes
  • Child Protective Services (CPS): state or local agency which investigates reports of child abuse and neglect


Prevalence of Abuse

The true prevalence and incidence (i.e., the number of new cases) of domestic abuse is difficult to accurately estimate.  First, instances of domestic abuse, including cases involving children, are likely under-reported; some may even go unreported entirely.  Some victims have a lack of resources or support structures available to them in their family, neighborhood, or community.  Those who may have access to resources still must deal with the lack of anonymity which reporting necessarily entails, and they must also confront any stigma or shame which it produces.

Second, there is often a lack of community engagement or response to domestic violence.  It may be due, in part, to a lack of sufficient funding.  There is also the tendency to have domestic abuse “swept under the rug,” so to speak, or minimized.  Further, many people do not have an adequate understanding of what constitutes domestic abuse/violence.  Even those who do understand well enough may be unable to determine the boundaries of responsibility.

According to the 2008 Domestic Abuse Incidence Report (DAIR) released by the Wisconsin Department of Justice, 29,769 cases (overall) were reported to law enforcement and referred to district attorneys’ offices in 2008.  10% of victims (1,037) had a child in common with the offender.  26% of domestic homicide victims (14) were children (in this instance, “children” includes any person under the age of eighteen).

According to the Annual Wisconsin Child Abuse and Neglect (CAN) Report for 2009, there were 4,289 child victims of maltreatment substantiated in that year; substantiation requires that the information gathered during the CPS investigation provides a preponderance of evidence – that is, the alleged maltreatment is more probable than not.  The number of reports alleging abuse of a child, however, was significantly higher: a total of 56,619 reports.  The reasons for the discrepancy are that approximately 45% (23,751) of these reports received further assessment, and some children were involved in multiple allegations of abuse.

As cited above (introduction), the estimated number of duplicate child victims was 763,000; the estimated number of unique child victims was 702,000.


Dimensions of Abuse Affecting Children

The most obvious way in which a child may be affected by domestic abuse is through direct, physical assault by either a parent, sibling, or other family member.  This may be on purpose (i.e., it is the perpetrator’s intent to harm the child) or because the child intervenes on another victim’s behalf.

A child may also be affected by witnessing spousal abuse, or abuse of a sibling.  This may include witnessing either parent threatened, insulted, or battered.  It may also include simply overhearing some type of conflict or abuse or seeing evidence of physical injury.  Similar situations might arise in witnessing abuse of a sibling.

A child is affected by emotional abuse and neglect, as well.  Especially if either parent is abused or neglected her-/himself, the child is less likely to receive the care they need.

Additionally, a child witnessing abuse in their home may learn that abuse and violence are acceptable modes of behavior.  Experience of abuse or violence in childhood is correlated with perpetrating domestic abuse in adulthood.


Development in Childhood

                Child development refers to the biological and psychological changes which occur in order for a person to reach adulthood.  This development is influenced not only by genetically-controlled processes, but also by a child’s environment and learning.  As such, any negative environmental factors like domestic violence also negatively influence developmental outcomes.  The major developmental stages are discussed below; for a fuller discussion on the effects of abuse upon children, see the page dedicated to this.


Infancy refers to the time period from the ages of one month to one year.  During this time, the infant is fully dependent upon their parent/caretaker, and begin to form attachments.  If the parent/caretaker is insensitive and unresponsive to the needs of the infant (likely in cases of neglect), this leads to impaired social and emotional functioning in later life.


An infant becomes a toddler by the time they reach the age of one year old. The following two to three years are a period of significant cognitive, emotional, and motor development.  Their parent(s) remain the base from which they explore the environment, but they begin to perceive themselves as separate from them.  Toddlers remain especially vulnerable, however, and children under the age of four accounted for four-fifths of child fatalities in 2009 (NCANDS).


A preschool child is generally between the ages of four and six years.  As the term indicates, the child does not yet attend formal schooling, so their primary interactions are those with parents and possibly siblings or daycare playmates.  Children in this stage will likely learn about sharing and ideas of fairness, as well as counting and basic scientific facts.

School-Aged Children

School-aged children are those who are between the ages of six and thirteen.  The child has likely entered formal schooling, and, unless they are home-schooled, they begin to interact more frequently with peers and non-family authority figures (i.e., teachers and administration, friend’s parents, etc).  School-aged children must still undergo significant development during this period, and a stable domestic life contributes to more positive outcomes.

Youth & Family Advocate
608-791-2610 ext. 1203

External Resources

In addition to the information provided here and resources provided by New Horizons, there are numerous organizations and governmental departments which the reader may find of use.  There is an additional resources page on this website.

  • local resources
    • Gundersen Lutheran Domestic Abuse/Sexual Assault Services
      1900 South Ave
      La Crosse, WI 54601
      (608) 775-5462 or 775-4724
      Crisis Line: 1-800-362-9567 ext. 55950
    • New Horizons Children’s Program
      Children’s Advocate
      Phone: (608) 791-2610 ext. 203
    • La Crosse County Human Services Department
      300 N 4th St
      La Crosse, WI 54602
      Office hours: (608) 785-6034
      After hours: (608) 785-9634
  • regional/state resources
  • national resources


Wisconsin Department of Justice, 2008. Domestic abuse incidence report.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: Administration for Children & Families, 2008. National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System

Wisconsin Department of Children & Families, 2009.  Wisconsin Child Abuse and Neglect Report.