Associated Press, August 22, 1998

Survey details child abuse growing in Texas
By Michael Graczyk

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) - The number of Texans who say they were abused as children has risen dramatically - more than 41 percent - according to studies by Sam Houston State University researchers.

In results released Monday, a total of 26.4 percent of 798 people surveyed by the school's Criminal Justice Center, working with the Children's Trust Fund of Texas, said they had been abused or neglected by the time they were 16 years old.

That's 41 percent more than the 18.7 percent who said in a 1991 survey that they had been abused or neglected as children. A similar survey in 1978 found 14.3 percent considered themselves victims of abuse and neglect as a child.

"Whether the respondents are simply more aware of the abuse of the children ... or whether an actual increase is taking place cannot be determined from this survey," reaseachers Raymond Teske Jr. and Stephanie Whitus Goodner concluded. "However, the totality of the findings suggest that the increases are real."

One-fifth or those surveyed said they were a parent and 28 percent of those with children indicated at least one of their own children had been abused or neglected. That's almost double the response from parents in the 1991 survey.

"I do think there has been a significant increase in awareness and more people are feeling comfortable talking about it." Janie Fields, executive director of the Children's Trust Fund of Texas said Monday.

In the 1978 study, only 8.5 percent reported abuse or neglect suffered by their own children.

"The findings from this survey provide unique insight into a problem which is of major and growing concern," Teske and Ms. Whitus-Goodner said. "Child abuse and neglect have a significant impact on the quality of life in our society and many parents today worry about their child being abused by either a stranger or someone they know."

The study, based on mailed questionnaires, was conducted from July through October last year.

Just over 50 percent of the people 18 years of age and older who received the questionnaires responded from 124 Texas counties.

Almost 13 percent of the respondents were college graduates, 41 percent had some college and nearly 30 percent had only a high school education. Margin of error in the findings was listed at plus-or-minus 3 percent.

Abuse was divided into three categories: physical, sexual and emotional.

Physical abuse included spanking, slapping, biting, shaking or holding a child in very hot water. Sexual abuse ranged from forcing a child to engage in sexual activity to fondling to showing pornographic movies. Emotional abuse ranged from threats to shouts to locking a child in a dark room or withholding affection.

Some survey results were promising, the researchers said, noting that compared to earlier surveys, the number of people who considered spanking with a wooden paddle to be abusive grew from 36 percent in 1978 to 48 percent in 1996. Shaking a child violently was considered abuse by 96 percent of the respondents in the most recent survey, up from 84 percent 20 years ago.

"These findings are very encouraging as they suggest that the public is becoming more aware of the potential harm children may suffer from the shaken baby syndrome," Teske and Whitus-Goodner wrote.

However, the most recent survey could not gain unanimous agreement that striking a child with a fist was abuse (3 percent disagreed), or that holding or placing a child in very hot water was abuse (1 percent disagreed).

In addition, 2 percent said forcing a child to engage in sex with another child was not sexual abuse, and 1 percent said it was not abuse for a parent to engage in sexual intercourse with his or her own child. Three percent said it was not emotionally abusive to tie a child to a chair, bed or other object. And 2 percent said failure to provide a child with adequate food did not constitute neglect.

"That's the way someone's parents disciplined them and people generally don't want to view their parents as child abusers," Ms. Fields explained. "Or if someone in their family or perhaps themselves did this, they don't want to recognize that as abuse or neglect."

Her agency since 1985 has been working to establish prevention programs and services throughout the state and is financed in part by $12.50 from every Texas marriage license fee.

The survey supported her assessment, with the victim listing the abuser's upbringing as the top reason for causing the abuse, followed by mental or emotional problems and acohol or drugs.

In the survey, 6 percent said their own abuse or neglect as a child caused them to require professional counseling as an adult. Researchers said that assuming their sample is representative of all Texans, that means from 3 million to 4 million Texas residents 18 and older were abused or neglected as children and at least 626,000 have sought professional help.

Of those acknowledging they were abused, only 26 percent said it had been reported to someone, most likely the police (29 percent) or the victim's mother (18 percent). Two-thirds reported nothing happened to the abuser. Five percent said their abuser was arrested.

Victims listed their father (28 percent) as the most common abuser, followed by stepfather (12 percent) or other relative (11 percent).

"There doesn't seem to be collective understanding of citizens of how significant (a problem) this is," Ms. Fields said, noting that 151,261 abuse cases were reported in Texas in 1996, with 44,704 of them confirmed.

Of the cases not confirmed, authorities may find it difficult to substantiate the accusations or children may recant.

"To me it's frightening to think every single day we have an average 122 children in Texas that are confirmed as victims of child abuse and neglect," she said.

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