Severity, not frequency, of abuse may predict children's mental health outcomes
Dr. Yolanda Jackson and her team are analyzing data from one of the largest longitudinal studies of foster children ever undertaken. “We know so much more about these children than most research efforts in the past and we are in a great position to tell their stories,” she said.
One of the first findings from the study, that seeks to determine why some children who suffer child maltreatment are more resilient than others, was that how severely children are abused or neglected, rather than how frequently, appears to predict which children will suffer serious mental health outcomes.
“If your goal is to understand what about a child’s life really speaks to his mental health or illness, so far the data is telling us that it would be how bad or injurious the abuse was—and it would only have to happen once,” said Dr. Jackson.
However, she says, even in cases of severity it is rarely the one time. The threshold for foster care does require severity but more often than not requires frequency.
“That is the rubric that by and large our systems of care use. Even if you have hurt your child significantly, you will likely get a lot of chances to get your children back if you want them. What that means, however, is that a lot of kids will be in and out of foster care before the environment at home is safe again.”
While Jackson strongly cautioned that the study is not saying that children who experience frequent, but milder kinds of maltreatment should not be in foster care, it does suggest that kids who have been abused and in foster care are not all the same.
“There’s really a range of kids and that range is important for us to understand and think about how we are going to intervene,” she said.
Do the study results generalize to the rest of us? Jackson says that they do. “They generalize in the sense that these kids are in the general population. Your kids go to school and play soccer with them and their numbers are growing.”
The results could also have some implications for other kinds of trauma that all kids experience. “We hope the model of the relation between trauma experiences like child maltreatment and mental health could inform other models of how traumatic events in the general population operate to predict outcomes.”
Jackson said that future analyses would determine how childhood experiences of maltreatment and other stressors impact both adjustment and maladjustment in youth.