Bystander & Child Abuse Survey

Key Findings

In 2008, Safe Horizon conducted an unprecedented survey on bystanders and child abuse, which revealed that most Americans have been directly or indirectly affected by child abuse but simply lack the knowledge to stop it.
Uploaded Image: /uploads/images/sadBoyOutside.jpgOne out of every five Americans surveyed (21%) said they have been a victim of child abuse, and 59% said that they knew someone who had personally experienced child abuse.

Nearly all Americans (95%) said they were concerned about child abuse. However, the survey revealed that Americans do not report suspected child abuse or get involved because they lack knowledge about the signs of abuse, fear the consequences of getting involved or are uncertain about the facts.

Child abuse is a very personal issue for Americans, who expressed grave concern about the problem. 

  • 59% personally knew someone who has been a child abuse victim.
  • 21% reported that they were abused as a child.
  • 19% had a relative who was a child abuse victim.
  • 95% said they were concerned about child abuse, and
  • 97% believed that everyone has a responsibility to protect children and prevent child abuse.

The “bystander gap”: despite their personal experiences and overwhelming concern, many Americans simply do not get involved or contact authorities. 

  • Uploaded Image: /uploads/images/childAbuse_internal_sadBoy.jpgWhile 78% of Americans surveyed said that suspected abuse is enough of a reason to contact the authorities, when actually confronted with suspected child abuse, only 19% said they had contacted child protection services, only 6% contacted authorities, and only 6% contacted the police. 
  • One in five Americans (20%) said they had been in a situation where they suspected a child was a victim of child abuse but didn't know what to do. 
  • 97% of Americans say that everyone has a responsibility to prevent child abuse and protect children, but 33% say people are reluctant to report suspected cases because they do not want to get involved.

Many Americans cannot identify the warning signs of child abuse.

  • 72% say it is difficult to identify child abuse.
  • 42% say they suspected child abuse had occurred but just weren't sure.   
  • When asked to describe the warning signs of child abuse, fewer than 10% identified the following important indicators: 
    • deteriorating school performance
    • child looks dirty/unkempt or has bad hygiene
    • child has fear of going home or being alone with certain adults
    • return to earlier behaviors (e.g. thumb sucking, bed-wetting, fear of dark)
    • changes in eating and weight gain or loss
  • Americans tend to define child abuse narrowly, focusing on physical abuse (75%) or mental/emotional abuse (64%). When asked to define child abuse, fewer than 20% mentioned sexual abuse (18%), neglect (14%), or withholding food (6%).
  • Half of Americans (50%) incorrectly believe that physical evidence of abuse can be found in the majority of child abuse cases.  Uploaded Image: /uploads/images/childAbuse_internal_pinkGirl.jpg

Fear of consequences is a key reason why Americans do not get involved.  

  • 38% of Americans cite fear as a reason why people might be reluctant to report suspected cases of child abuse: fear of reprisals/or being sued (16%); fear they could be wrong and/or labeled as an abuser (16%); and a general fear of what would happen if they did get involved (6%).

Uncertainty about the process of reporting also stops people from getting involved.

  • 46% of Americans surveyed incorrectly believed that children reported to child protection authorities are normally taken away from their families.
  • 38% did not know that people can report suspected child abuse anonymously. However, 80% said that knowing they could report suspected child abuse anonymously made them more likely to report.

These survey results are based on a nationally representative and Census balanced telephone poll conducted in March 2008 among 511 adults 18 years of age or older. Poll results match U.S. demographics on gender, geography, age, income and race. The study was commissioned by Safe Horizon and was conducted by Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates. The margin of error for the study is +/- 4.3.

Related: Child Abuse Statistics and Facts

Return to the Child Abuse page.

Safe Horizon's mission is to provide support, prevent violence and promote justice for victims of crime and abuse, their families and communities.
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