As police in Kansas City, Missouri, continue to look for missing 10-month old girl Lisa Irwin, detectives know where to begin their list of suspects: the toddler's parents.
One reason? According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, "the danger to children is greater from someone they or their family knows than from a stranger."
And it happens all the time.
According to figures released by UNICEF, over the past decade more than 20,000 American children are believed to have been killed in their own homes by family members. That is nearly four times the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and means that America has the worst record of child abuse in the industrialized world.
Twenty-seven children under the age of 15 die from physical abuse or neglect every week in America. According to UNICEF, the United States has 2.4 annual deaths per 100,000 children, compared to 1.4 for France; 1 in Japan, and 0.9 in the United Kingdom.
According to Michael Petit, president of the advocacy group Every Child Matters, part of the reason for the striking disparity is that many risk factors associated with abuse and neglect (including teen pregnancy, violent crime, poverty and imprisonment) are generally much higher in America.
Yet there may be hope: though these social problems are much higher in the United States than in other industrialized countries, most of these problems are actually getting better, not worse.
For example according to a February 2010 "National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect" from the Department of Health and Human Services, "An estimated 553,000 children suffered physical, sexual or emotional abuse in 2005-06, down 26 percent from the estimated 743,200 abuse victims in 1993. The number of sexually abused children dropped 38 percent between 1993 and 2005. The number of children who experienced physical abuse fell by 15 percent and the number of emotionally abused children dropped by 27 percent."
Furthermore, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics reported last year that the birth rate for U.S. teenagers fell 6 percent in 2009. The American teen birth rate fell to the lowest level ever recorded in nearly seven decades of tracking teenage childbearing.
So by some measures the epidemic of child abuse should be getting better, not worse. However Petit also points out that there are other important factors contributing to the problem. For one thing, other countries with far lower abuse rates — unlike the United States — have social policies that provide child care, universal health insurance, pre-school, parental leave, and so on.
All these social problems should not obscure one ugly fact: In the final analysis it is not lack of child care, or poverty, or teen pregnancy that is killing America's children. It is abusive mothers and fathers.
According to a report titled "Homicide Trends in the U.S." issued by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, of all children under age five murdered between 1976 and 2005, about two-thirds of them were killed by their parents: 31 percent were killed by fathers and 29 percent were killed by mothers.
A 2003 study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that at least 85 percent of North Carolina newborns who were killed or left to die were murdered by their mothers (usually through strangulation or drowning).
Many studies suggest that mothers abuse and kill their infants and children at a higher rate than fathers. (This is probably due to the fact that women and mothers are more often the caregivers, so they have more overall contact with children — both good and bad — and are therefore overrepresented in child abuse cases.)
According to Petit, as many as seven children die from abuse and neglect every day in America. If seven children were killed each day by strangers (or released sex offenders), the public would be outraged. Yet the public is largely unaware of (or indifferent to) parents who murder their children.