Comparing NIBRS and Child Welfare System Data

Similarities and Discrepancies

Law enforcement data confirm certain features of the child abuse problem that are known from child welfare sources. However, they also reveal some discrepancies. Law enforcement data validate child welfare data showing that parents are the most common caretaker abusers, that male caretakers are responsible for most sexual abuse, and that although girls are disproportionately victims of sexual abuse, the proportions of boys and girls who suffer physical abuse are about equal.

NIBRS data also confirm that there is substantially more physical abuse than sexual abuse of juveniles. Despite what might be inferred from the predominance of sexual abuse reports in the news, the majority of the parent and other caretaker offenses reported to police involve physical assaults, not sexual offenses, at a ratio of 2.9 to 1. The comparable ratio in the child welfare system national child maltreatment data for 1997 is 2.2 to 1 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, 1999). Some earlier research had suggested that physical abuse was less likely than sexual abuse to be regarded as criminal and that child welfare sources infrequently passed on incidents of physical abuse to police (Finkelhor, 1983). The more recent NIBRS data documenting more physical than sexual abuse suggest that this was not true or is no longer true and that physical abuse by parents and other caretakers being regarded as sufficiently criminal to be referred to police. Whether physical abuse is prosecuted as aggressively as sexual abuse is another matter.

Despite some similarities, other comparisons of NIBRS and child welfare system data suggest that the two systems may not be dealing with identical populations (table 1).2 For example, although the age distribution of sexual abuse victims looks quite similar in the two systems, the distribution for physical abuse victims is different—the child welfare system has many more younger children than NIBRS.


Table 1: Comparison of Child Welfare Data and NIBRS Data for Physical and Sexual Abuse/Assault, by Victim Age
Table 1: Comparison of Child Welfare Data and NIBRS Data for Physical and Sexual Abuse/Assault, by Victim Age
*1997 Detailed Case Data Component selected case-level data from 16 States: Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wyoming, as reported in U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families (1999), Table 4–1, p. 4–4.

† 1997 National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) selected victim-level data (caretaker offenders) from 12 States: Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia, as reported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (1997).

‡ Age grouping for child welfare data is “16+.”


Forty-two percent of the physical abuse cases in the child welfare system data involved victims who were age 7 and younger, compared with only 24 percent in NIBRS. This difference in the two systems regarding the distribution of victim ages is consistent with a difference in data regarding perpetrator gender: females constitute 51 percent of the physical abusers in child welfare data, but only 32 percent in NIBRS data. Together, these discrepancies suggest that caretaker assaults against younger children and by females may be viewed by potential reporters as less criminal or as matters in which police have less expertise. Thus, these assaults may be less likely to be referred to police even by child welfare agencies.

It will be easier to know how NIBRS and child welfare system data correspond when complete data are available for entire States. Currently, only three States—Idaho, Iowa, and South Carolina—have both statewide child abuse data and close to 100 percent law enforcement agency participation in NIBRS (table 2). In both Idaho and Iowa, child welfare agency protocols dictate that law enforcement agencies must be notified of all maltreatment known to child welfare; nevertheless, police reports of caretaker assaults are only a fraction of the substantiated abuse recorded by child welfare authorities. In Idaho, the NIBRS tally of physical assaults is only one-third as large as the number of physical assaults substantiated by child welfare; in Iowa, NIBRS records only one-fifth the number of substantiated cases. Possible factors that may explain this discrepancy include incomplete NIBRS data collection or broad child welfare definitions of child abuse that include noncriminal acts. However, the data are consistent with the possibility that a great deal of criminal child abuse is not reported to or recorded by law enforcement in some States. The situation in South Carolina suggests a different story. In that State, sexual assault cases in NIBRS data are equal in number to sexual abuse cases in child welfare data, but physical assault cases in NIBRS data actually exceed the number reported in child welfare data. In South Carolina, it is possible that child abuse reports are readily passed on to law enforcement but that the threshold for substantiating physical abuse in the child welfare system may be higher than the threshold for recording a crime in NIBRS.


Table 2: Comparison of Child Welfare Data and NIBRS Data on Number of Juvenile Victims of Physical and Sexual Abuse/Assault for Three States
Table 2: Comparison of Child Welfare Data and NIBRS Data on Number of Juvenile Victims of Physical and Sexual Abuse/Assault for Three States
*1997 figures. Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families (1999), State Data Tables, Section 4.1, p. D–13; 1997 NIBRS selected victim-level data (caretaker offenders).

† 1995 figures. Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families (1998), State Data Tables, Section 4, pp. 3–7; 1995 NIBRS selected victim-level data (caretaker offenders).


A Contrasting National Perspective on Child Abuse

Up until now, in the absence of national law enforcement data, the only national statistics on violence specifically against children have been abuse data collected by child welfare agencies. An expanding NIBRS will eventually supply national data representing a law enforcement point of view on crimes committed against all juveniles and will provide a new and potentially contrasting perspective on the problem of violence against children. For example, based on information from 43 States, child welfare data for 1997 documented nearly 300,000 substantiated cases of child physical and sexual abuse, yielding an estimate of 350,000 cases nationwide (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, 1999). These numbers, however, primarily capture incidents of violence committed against juveniles by parents and other caretakers and exclude assaults by noncaretaker perpetrators, which are outside the domain of the child welfare system. Presently available NIBRS data reveal that noncaretaker perpetrators are responsible for four-fifths of all the crimes against juveniles that are reported to the police.3 A crude extrapolation from the current NIBRS States would yield a national estimate of close to 900,000 violent crimes against juveniles that are reported to the police. Therefore, data from the child welfare system almost certainly cannot be considered a good representation of the magnitude of violent crimes perpetrated against juveniles and reported to authorities.


2 The comparative data for the child welfare system are taken from child abuse data provided by 16 States, as part of the Detailed Case Data Component of NCANDS. These are not the same States that provide NIBRS data, so discrepancies between law enforcement and child welfare data could simply be due to State variation.

3 For more information on noncaretaker crimes, see Finkelhor and Ormrod, 2000.

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Child Abuse Reported to the Police Juvenile Justice Bulletin May 2001