Identifying Child Abuse in NIBRS Data

As noted in the sidebar, NIBRS collects a wide range of information on victims, offenders, and circumstances for a variety of offenses. Generally, the term “child maltreatment” is thought of as referring to offenses and threats to a child’s well-being that are committed or caused by parents and other caretakers. Although for child welfare purposes the definition of caretakers can vary somewhat from State to State, the term typically includes parents, other responsible adult family members, and, in some cases but not always, professional caretakers such as teachers, recreation leaders, and babysitters. Unfortunately, NIBRS does not have a specific caretaker category, but it does specify parent and stepparent perpetrators, who constitute the vast majority of child maltreatment offenders (Sedlak and Broadhurst, 1996). To these two groups, the authors added grandparents, other adult family members (but not inlaws), babysitters, and parents’ boyfriends or girlfriends. There is no NIBRS category that allows the separation of professional caretakers, such as teachers or recreation workers, from the larger category of acquaintances. However, in State child maltreatment reports, the categories that include nonfamily caretakers such as teachers and other school staff account for only 6 percent of perpetrators identified (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, 1999). Furthermore, babysitters—a group identified separately in NIBRS records—are included in this 6 percent.

Several crimes coded by NIBRS clearly fall within the child maltreatment domain when committed by caretakers: simple assault, aggravated assault, and sex offenses. In NIBRS, sex offenses include both forcible sexual assaults, which are considered violent crimes and make up the great majority of sex crimes, and nonforcible sex offenses such as statutory rape and nonforcible incest. These acts clearly correspond to child physical and sexual abuse.

Unfortunately, no NIBRS code designates acts of neglect. NIBRS collects information only on a standardized set of offenses that fall specifically within the domain of law enforcement. Neglect accounts for a large proportion of child maltreatment cases, but it is not often considered criminal in nature and frequently may not be reported to law enforcement. The same is true for psychological abuse.

Another offense reported in NIBRS and categorized as a violent crime is kidnaping, which, when committed by a caretaker, is clearly a child welfare offense. However, little is known about how kidnaping is reported or classified in the child welfare system’s child maltreatment data. The authors have opted to include it in this Bulletin.

Therefore, NIBRS data used in this analysis concern the violent crimes of assault, sexual assault, and kidnaping, plus nonforcible sex offenses, committed against juveniles under age 18 by parents, stepparents, grandparents, babysitters, other adult family members, and parents’ boyfriends or girlfriends. Together, these crimes are categorized as “offenses by parents and other caretakers.” With the possible exception of family kidnaping—an offense that has an unclear child welfare system status and that accounts for only 4 percent of the total reports in the data analyzed in this Bulletin—this category corresponds fairly well to the child welfare system’s concept of child abuse (but not neglect).

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Child Abuse Reported to the Police Juvenile Justice Bulletin May 2001