Child abuse, along with many other aspects of violence and crime, is extremely difficult to accurately measure. The number of officially reported child abuse cases is just a portion of the actual number of cases in a community. And unfortunately, a significant predictor of how many official cases of child abuse are reported is the amount of money governments spend on human services. The more child protection service workers and mandated reporters there are the more official cases of child abuse are reported, independent of the actual number of child abuse cases.
A recent essay by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz in the New York Times does a nice job of making this very point.
Stephens-Davidowitz highlights the U.S. state of Nevada, which during the recent U.S. recession experienced a 17.5% drop in official cases of child abuse when the State’s budgets where cut. Was child abuse becoming less of a problem in the state? When you look at indicators of child abuse that were not as influenced by the child abuse reporting system, the trend went in the opposite direction. From 2006 to 2009, child fatalities from abuse and neglect in Nevada increased 50%.
How can we accurately measure the problem of child abuse or at least the trend?
Stephens-Davidowitz (who is currently an intern at Google) asserts that Google searches can reveal trends and help measure problems like child abuse. His own research based on Google searchers suggests that child abuse trended up in the United States during the recent recession despite a reported decline in official cases. Given both the difficulty and importance of understanding hard to measure problems like child abuse, new and innovative approaches to measuring the problems are needed. Will things like Google be part of the answer? I think so but time will tell.