Relationship Between Child Maltreatment and Disability

By Ashley Ann Marshall, Catherine Corr, Ph.D., and Deserai Miller, LCSW

Many individuals are aware of the risk for abuse experienced by typically developing children, however, fewer are aware of the increased risk for children with disabilities. A common misconception is that young children with disabilities are less likely to be abused because they are regularly cared for or supervised by adults. However, this belief is untrue as children with disabilities are three to four times more likely to be abused or neglected than typically developing children, which can have devastating effects on their development [3].

Children with developmental disabilities present unique challenges to parents, which can result in a less secure attachment and more punitive control. Subseqently, these outcomes are correlated with higher rates of abuse [1]. Additionally, children with disabilities require extra care and supervision, which can lead to parental stress. Through their literature review, Algood and colleagues (2011) found that parents of children with disabilities were more likely to experience emotional, physical, and financial stress. They also noted the importance of parents of children with disabilities creating a system of social support. Simply being aware that parents of children with developmental disabilities may experience higher levels of stress can help us to be vigilant when maltreatment is suspected and sensitive to the needs of these families.

Not only are children with disabilities more likely to be abused or neglected, children that are abused are at an increased risk for disability [2] [4] [6] [7]. This bidirectional relationship highlights the importance of our need to be aware of these increased risks.

We have a responsibility to recognize the signs of abuse and to be knowledgeable about the reporting process. Our role in understanding and reporting child abuse is difficult, but essential to supporting the healthy development of children. You can become familiar with some of the signs of abuse in children from the table below. If you believe a child is being abused or neglected you need to report it.  You are not in charge of investigating, so you do not need to have a certain amount of facts before you can report abuse or neglect.  Since you are not investigating, you do not need and should not push the child for more details than needed.  If you suspect immediate danger you can call your local emergency number. Also, most child protective workers will ask if you think there is an immediate danger. If you say yes, they will send someone out much faster.

In summary, do not be fooled by the misconception that children with disabilities are at a lower risk for abuse and neglect. This is untrue and our fostering of this misconception could prevent children from receiving the help that they may need. We must be aware of the signs of abuse and vigilant in reporting when we suspect abuse or neglect has occurred.

table of signs of abuse
Table 1. Signs of abuse in children from Fresno Council on Child Abuse :


[1] Algood, C. L., Hong, J. S., Gourdine, R. M., & Williams, A. B. (2011). Maltreatment of children with developmental disabilities: An ecological systems analysis. Children and Youth Services Review33(7), 1142-1148.

[2] Larson, S. A., & Anderson, L. (2006). Children with disabilities and the child welfare system: Prevalence data. Impact: Feature Issue on Children with Disabilities in the Child Welfare System19(1).

[3] Murphy, N. (2011). Maltreatment of children with disabilities the breaking point. Journal of Child Neurology26(8), 1054-1056.

[4] Musheno, K. (2006). Children with disabilities and the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. Impact, 19, 13.

[5] National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2010b). 

[6] Sedlak, A. J., Mettenburg, J., Basena, M., Petta, I., McPherson, K., Greene, A., & Li, S. (2010). Fourth national incidence study of child abuse and neglect (NIS–4): Report to Congress, executive summary. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.

[7] Sobsey, D. (2002). Exceptionality, education, and maltreatment. Exceptionality,10(1), 29-46.

This post was written by Ashley Anne Marshall, Catherine Corr, PhD, and Deserai Miller, LCSW. Ashley Anne Marshall graduated from the University of Dayton, where she received her bachelor of arts in psychology and family development.  She is currently a student in the Child Studies program empirical research track in Peabody College at Vanderbilt University.  Catherine Corr, PhD, is currently a research associate in the department of Special Education at Vanderbilt University.  Deserai Miller, LCSW, earned her Master’s degree in social work with a specialization in schools from the University of Illinois and is currently pursuing a doctorate degree in early childhood special education.  Ashley Ann, Catherine, and Deserai are all guest bloggers for the OneOp Family Development Early Intervention team.

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