I’m going to be candid from the start, there has never been a study to calculate the cost of child abuse in the UK. The £20 Billion is just a fair guess based on studies in the USA and Australia and designed to grab your attention and to get you to think about how much child abuse does cost the UK every year.
A 2007 study in the USA looked at Attachment and Relationships, Physical Health: Body and Brain, Emotional Responses, Dissociation, Behavior, Cognition, Self-Concept, Future Orientation, and Long-Term Health Consequences before calculating the economic impact of abuse on the USA economy to be up to $124 Billion annually.
The cumulative economic and social burden of complex trauma in childhood is extremely high. Based upon data from a variety of sources, a conservative annual cost of child abuse and neglect is an estimated $103.8 billion, or $284.3 million per day (in 2007 values). This number includes both direct costs—about $70.7 billion—which include the immediate needs of maltreated children (hospitalization, mental health care, child welfare systems, and law enforcement) and also indirect costs—about $33.1 billion—which are the secondary or long-term effects of child abuse and neglect (special education, juvenile delinquency, mental health and health care, adult criminal justice system, and lost productivity to society).
A recent study examining confirmed cases of child maltreatment in the United States found the estimated total lifetime costs associated with child maltreatment over a 12-month period to be $124 billion. In the 1,740 fatal cases of child maltreatment, the estimated cost per case was $1.3 million, including medical expenses and productivity loss. For the 579,000 non-fatal cases, the estimated average lifetime cost per victim of child maltreatment was $210,012, which includes costs relating to health care throughout the lifespan, productivity losses, child welfare, criminal justice, and special education. Costs for these nonfatal cases of child maltreatment are comparable to other high-cost health conditions (i.e., $159,846 for stroke victims and $181,000 to $253,000 for those with Type 2 diabetes).
The £20 Billion estimated cost to the UK economy takes the lower conservative USA estimate of $104 Billion and divides by a little under five to reflect the difference in sizes of the UK and US economies. So, the figure isn’t totally pulled out of the air.
It is always correct to first consider the personal costs of child abuse but there are significant social costs and considerable short term, medium term, and long term financial costs also.
When an abuser assaults a child he does not just take away the innocence of that child but also hands taxpayers a huge ongoing financial commitment.
A 2007 study in Australia estimated the cost to their economy to be between $10 and $30 Billion annually.
The Cost of Child Abuse and Neglect Incurred by the Australian Community
In 2007, it is estimated that 177,000 children under the age of 18 were abused or neglected in Australia.
This figure could be as high as 666,000 children and young people. Based on these numbers, the best estimate of the actual cost of child abuse incurred by the Australian community in 2007 was $10.7 billion, and as high as $30.1 billion.
The Lifetime Cost of Child Abuse to Children Abused or Neglected for the First Time in 2007, estimated that there were 130,237 children who were abused or neglected for the first time in Australia. This figure could be as high as 490,000 children. Based on these numbers, the projected cost of child abuse and neglect that will be incurred by the Australian community over the lifetime of children who were first abused or neglected in 2007 was $13.7 billion, but could be as high as $38.7 billion.
A 2008 study by the Youth Justice Board identifies many of the costly consequences of child abuse without estimating the financial impact on the UK economy.
There is clear evidence from the studies reviewed that childhood maltreatment may impact in significant ways on the later life chances of children, and the review identified a significant number of research studies that found a strong correlation between child
maltreatment and offending behaviour. Although this is not the same as identifying cause and effect, it is still indicative.
Some of these studies also showed a demonstrable link between previous abuse and the likelihood of receiving a custodial sentence.The review also suggests that the incidence of later mental health problems can be as high as 80% among people who have been maltreated as children. One UK study showed that the rates of previous abuse among adolescents admitted to secure psychiatric units were between 50% and 82%.
The studies also show that previous maltreatment is a clear indicator of later behavioural difficulties, including increased likelihood of aggression, abusive behaviour, alcohol and other substance misuse and offending behaviour. A number of studies also discussed the emergence of post traumatic stress disorder as a result of childhood maltreatment. Research also highlighted the increased inability of abused children to develop secure and functional relationships and to develop appropriate social and cognitive skills; there is also emerging evidence that maltreatment has a physiological as well as psychological effect on brain development. We found little research from the UK but a number of studies from the USA indicate that maltreated children are more likely to do poorly in education and have a greater risk of poor behaviour in school, becoming victims of bullying and truancy and exclusion.
My primary reason for raising all of this is that if politicians can’t be bothered to do something about child abuse in the UK just because it’s the right and decent thing to do then perhaps they’ll act if they recognise the ongoing social and financial costs to the UK.
Overall, I think £20 Billion is a fair estimate of the annual cost and I’d suggest that the UK can’t afford it.