A new study finds that by their mid-teens, children who were the subject of a child protective services contact are up to 52 percent more likely to be hospitalized for a range of problems, with the most frequent problems being mental illness, the toxic effects of drugs, and physical injuries.

The study examined the impact of child abuse and neglect from data covering 608,540 children born in South Australian since 1986, according to researchers at the University of South Australia.

The research underlines the long-term impacts of child abuse and neglect and the importance of protecting children from an early age to prevent ongoing health problems, said Dr. Emmanuel Gnanamanickam, lead author of the study and a research fellow at the university.

“The research shows that the system is identifying children who are at risk, but there is not enough happening to support these children and their families early and as they enter adulthood,” Gnanamanickam said.

The researchers discovered that by the age of 16.5 years, children who had at some time been placed in Out of Home Care (OOHC) had an average of 7.7 hospital admissions, about four times the mean of 2.0 for children who had never had contact with CPS.

And the impact continues beyond adolescence, the researchers note.

People between the ages of 15 and 32 who have had contact with CPS in their childhood had two to four times more hospitalizations than those with no contact.

Children with proven child abuse or neglect and had entered OOHC were shown to be at the highest risk, according to the study’s findings.

“The study indicates that there are long-term health and mental health consequences for children experiencing abuse and neglect and that those impacts are felt even by children whose cases are not elevated by the child protection system,” Gnanamanickam said. “Rates of hospitalization for children who are placed in out of home care — because these cases are the most serious — are highest.”

“Further research is required to unpack how the elements of abuse and neglect interact with removal from family to ensure the negative outcomes for these children can be mitigated as far as possible,” he adds.

According to Professor Leonie Segal, lead investigator of the Impacts of Child Abuse and Neglect (iCAN) project, the key takeaway message from the new research is that better access to high quality infant, child, and adolescent mental health services must be a critical part of any effective intervention strategy.

“Differences in hospitalization start in infancy, highlighting the need to pursue opportunities for preventing child maltreatment and protecting children from harm from an early age,” she said. “Clearly more needs to be done to support troubled families and this is something that requires an integrated approach that would see child protection working with the wider human services sector to ensure that effective, cross-agency strategies are available from early in life.

“Not only is there an ethical imperative to improve the health and wellbeing of our most vulnerable children across the life course, doing better to address child maltreatment and prevent associated harms, presents a considerable hospitalization prevention opportunity,” Segal said.

The study was published in the international journal Child Abuse and Neglect.

Source: University of South Australia