An unclear connection

In its procedures about how to handle child sexual abuse, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has unambiguous language about the role poverty should play in determining whether abuse has occurred. None.

A Chicago Reporter analysis of allegations of child sexual abuse made to the DCFS Child Abuse Hotline paints a different picture.

The Reporter investigated about 110,000 allegations of child sexual abuse made in Illinois between 2005 and 2009 and found that the rate of allegations of abuse increased as the median incomes of the ZIP codes decreased.

In Chicago, each of the 10 ZIP codes with the highest rate of allegations had income levels below the citywide median of $40,083.

ZIP code 60621, which covers Englewood and had the city’s second-lowest median income, had the highest allegation rate of 400 per 10,000 residents younger than 18. ZIP code 60636, also one of the city’s poorest, had the second highest allegation rate of 369 per 10,000 children. That ZIP code includes parts of the Gage Park and West Englewood neighborhoods.

By contrast, ZIP code 60614, which is located on the city’s North Side, had the lowest allegation rate of just 52 per 10,000 children. At $68,324, the ZIP code had the city’s second highest median income.

More broadly, eight of the 10 ZIP codes with the lowest allegation rates had above-average median incomes.

These findings are consistent with national data.

Published in January, the Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect Report to Congress provided a comprehensive look at different types of abuse and neglect children in the country endure.

The study found that the estimated rate of sexual abuse among children of low socio-economic status was more than twice as high as the rate of abuse among their more affluent peers.

The findings raise troubling questions about the relationship between poverty and abuse. Some scholars say that higher levels of poverty are associated with neglect and abuse in general, and, to some degree, with child sexual abuse. “Substance abuse can contribute to poverty and to abuse,” said Lisa Aronson Fontes, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of several books about culture and child sexual abuse.

But other scholars and advocates caution against finding too much meaning in these data.

Some say they are a product, in part, of biased reporting, higher levels of attention paid to poor families who have more interaction with social service agencies, and more affluent families availing themselves less of public resources such as the DCFS hotline.

David Finkelhor, a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, disputed the idea that being poor by itself made people more likely to abuse children. But he added that stressors associated with being lower-income can lead to higher rates of abuse to those people who are prone to commit it. “I don’t think it’s the situation that because of economic stress that they suddenly decide they are going to abuse a child,” he said. “It’s people who have such a proclivity to start out with.”

Dorothy Roberts, a law professor at Northwestern University, urged against making a causal connection between poverty and higher levels of child sexual abuse. She pointed out that people who live in communities that are more familiar with DCFS are more likely to use the hotline than residents in wealthier communities who have less interaction with the department.

“People within neighborhoods that are used to a heavy presence of DCFS are more likely to call,” Roberts said.

Data from DCFS support Roberts’ assertions about greater knowledge of the organization.

Parts of Austin, Englewood, North Lawndale and West Englewood, all of which had low median incomes, have an estimated total of more than 250 investigations, including sexual abuse, per square mile, according to DCFS.

“That means that there are many blocks in which we’ve investigated every house on the street,” DCFS Director Erwin McEwen said.

Another source of caution: possible bias against poor people by mandated reporters like teachers, pediatricians and social workers. “Study after study after study shows that child welfare systems are more likely to bring poor people into their net,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

But Melissa Jonson-Reid, a social work professor at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote in a 2009 paper that the overrepresentation of poor children in child welfare systems is driven more by the presence of risk for harm to the children.

“The problems confronting poor families must be taken seriously and not be cast aside as simple expressions of class bias in the reporting system,” she wrote.

DCFS’ McEwen says his agency is doing just that. Among a number of initiatives, he touted the eventual establishment of about 20 family advocacy centers, which are partnerships with community-based organizations to meet the needs of people in neighborhoods with the greatest needs.

For her part, Roberts suggested a set of public policies designed to provide resources to poor families would go even further. “The solution is to alleviate poverty rather than to remove children from home,” she said.

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