Colorado counts the cost of child abuse

The United Nations Children's Fund publishes reports analyzing the performance of the wealthy nations of the OECD in meeting the needs of their children. The 5th report in the series discusses how costs could be saved in the USA. Calculations are based on an analysis by M. Gould and T. O'Brien titled 'Child maltreatment in Colorado: the value of prevention and the cost of failure to prevent', Colorado Children's Trust Fund, Denver, USA, 1995.

Sections of the report may be freely reproduced with the following reference: "A league table of child maltreatment deaths in rich nations," Innocenti Report Card No.5, September 2003. UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Florence. © The United Nations Children's Fund, 2003. You can download the full report as a PDF document from the UNICEF website: Innocenti Report Cards.

The USA: Colorado counts the cost

The burden of child abuse falls first and foremost on the abused child. But there are also costs to society. And although impossible to itemise in detail, the bill includes:

  • Medical costs for treatment of injuries, long-term disabilities, and psychiatric disorders.
  • Social services costs for the investigation and monitoring of child abuse, family and child care programmes, child care institutions, help-lines, programmes for children who leave home to live on the streets, and subsidised fostering and adoption programmes.
  • Legal costs for police and court time, prison services, probation and parole boards.

In addition, the strong association between child abuse and a variety of later-life problems means that society also incurs significant long-term costs arising from higher rates of educational failure, unemployment, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, crime and violence. All of these are associated in some degree with child abuse, and all lead to significant costs through welfare payments, reduced tax revenues, lost educational investments, and the many consequences of social alienation and crime.

Putting a dollar figure on the bill is extremely difficult. But the attempt has been made by researchers at the State University of Colorado.

Commissioned by a children's charity, the study concludes that the direct costs of child maltreatment in Colorado — including welfare services, out-of-home placement schemes, and other services provided by the Colorado Children's Welfare Department — amount to approximately $190 million a year.

Indirect costs (those attributable to the "known long-term consequences of child abuse") were calculated at a further $212 million per year, including a share of the cost of income maintenance payments, substance abuse programmes, and medical, prison and police costs.

The researchers went on to calculate that the cost of an extended home visiting and family support programme (of a kind shown to be effective in reducing child maltreatment among 'high risk' families) would amount to an extra $24 million a year. This sum is less than 1 per cent of the annual budget of the State of Colorado, and less than half of the amount spent on foster-care programmes alone.

Arguing that such prevention programmes could pay for themselves many times over, the Colorado Children's Trust believes that this kind of 'cost of failure analysis' is necessary to strengthen the case that "money spent on the prevention of society's problems results in documentable savings over the short and long term."

"If we are able to reduce child maltreatment related expenditures by only 6 per cent," concludes the report, "the cost of the prevention initiative would be offset."

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