Kentucky’s rate of child abuse continues to outpace the national average

Kentucky’s rate of child abuse decreased in 2022, but the state still surpasses the national average.

The Child Maltreatment 2022 report, released this year by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Children’s Bureau, found Kentucky’s rate of child abuse victims in Kentucky was 12.3 per 1,000 children. That means about a dozen kids out of every 1,000 children in Kentucky experienced some form of maltreatment during 2022.

Indiana’s rate is nearly equal to Kentucky’s, at a rate of 12.2 victims. Both states’ child abuse victimization rates are higher than the national average, which is 7.7 per 1,000 children. Kentucky and Indiana hold the 14th and 15th highest child abuse victimization rates in the country, respectively.

The report found most child abuse victims in Kentucky, Indiana and nationally were younger than age 1.

2022 abuse cases2022 abuse rate (per 1,000 children)

More work to do

Despite child abuse victimization rates dropping for the fourth year in a row, Norton Children’s specialists who work with abuse victims say they haven’t seen a significant decrease in cases and believe Kentucky has a lot of room for improvement.

Since 2018, the report finds Kentucky has more than doubled its response time, which is the time it takes for officials to make contact with a family or child once a report is made. Currently, the state takes an average of 221 hours to respond. The national average is 93 hours.

“We have the fourth-highest response time in the country,” said Melissa L. Currie, M.D., child abuse pediatrician and medical director of Norton Children’s Pediatric Protection Specialists, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine. “It takes us more than twice as long as the national average.”

Kentucky also falls behind in protecting babies who’ve been subjected to prenatal substance exposure, which is when a patient uses alcohol or illicit drugs while pregnant. States are required by federal law to create plans of safe care for substance-exposed babies, set in place for when they leave the hospital after birth.

“It may be placing the child with an alternate caregiver, but more often the infant will remain with the mother, and there’s a plan in place for supportive services in the home, closer monitoring by community supports and other things of that nature,” Dr. Currie said. “The percent here in Kentucky for substance-exposed babies with plans of safe care is 18.4%, while the national average is 69.5%.” 

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month

In Kentucky, the number to call to report suspected child abuse is (877) KY-SAFE1 (597-2331). The National Child Abuse Hotline, (800) 4-A-CHILD (422-4453), offers professional crisis counselors who can provide intervention, information and referrals to emergency, social service and support resources. Calls are confidential. In Kentucky, everyone is mandated to report a reasonable suspicion that maltreatment has occurred. Reporting child abuse and neglect is the right thing to do, and it’s the law.

How to prevent child abuse

While child abuse remains a persistent problem, doctors have tips on how community members can help prevent it.

Child abuse is 100% preventable. We all have a responsibility to help those who are struggling. Research has found that when families are stressed, children are at higher risk of being abused,” said Kelly L. Dauk, M.D., chair, Norton Children’s Hospital Child Abuse Task Force and pediatric hospitalist with Norton Children’s Inpatient Care, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine. “Even a small gesture for an overwhelmed family, like offering to babysit for an hour or two, can greatly reduce stress for the parents.”

Here are some ways parents and bystanders can make a lifesaving difference:

  • If you feel yourself about to lose control with a child, it’s OK to step away. Listen to your favorite song, take a few deep breaths or call a friend.
  • If you’re a parent of a newborn, sleep when your baby sleeps. You and your baby both need rest! Make that a priority.
  • Keep a list of friends’ and family members’ phone numbers to call for support.
  • If you know a parent who may be feeling stressed, offer to babysit so he or she can have a break for an hour or two.
  • Offer to run an errand for a neighbor with small children who has difficulty getting out of the house. A small gesture like that can greatly reduce stress for the parent.
  • If you see someone about to raise a hand to a child, you can help the situation. Even saying something like, “I remember when my child acted like that,” can break the tension and protect the child.