Child abuse has become a national issue. But close scrutiny of the problem raises doubts about the current crusade to combat it. Before expanding the power of the state to intervene in the home, concerned citizens ought to take a hard look at the evidence.

While it is hardly possible to overstate the horror of many particular instances—children mutilated, scalded, beaten, and murdered—serious child abuse does not occur as often as some journalists and government officials would have us believe. Of the 2.1 million children who were reported to state authorities in 1986 as abused or neglected, only about 30 percent had been physically abused (and only about 10 percent of those children—3 percent of the total—had suffered an injury serious enough to require professional attention). According to Douglas Besharov, former director of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, “nine-tenths of the cases labeled ‘physical abuse’ are really situations of excessive or unreasonable corporal punishment that, although a legitimate matter of government concern, are unlikely to develop into a dangerous assault against a child.”

Far more numerous than the instances of serious child abuse are the false allegations of child abuse. Nationwide, approximately 65 percent of all reports of child abuse and neglect are dismissed as “unfounded” after official investigation. But even if exonerated, those falsely accused of child abuse must submit to an intrusive and potentially traumatic investigation. Investigators routinely strip-search the children involved and question parents in detail about private conduct. Unwarranted suspicions may also be planted in the minds of neighbors, teachers, and relatives who are questioned about any peculiarities they may have noted in a child’s behavior. In some cases, children have been preemptively removed from a home, only to be returned much later after a lengthy investigation has established that the initial charges were false.

Nor can it be assumed that the innocent are always cleared by investigators. Frequently, those accused of child abuse are presumed guilty until proven innocent. Most state statutes provide only the foggiest definition of child abuse and neglect, permitting state workers and judges unprecedented latitude in determining the guilt of the parents. Poor families find it especially hard to establish their innocence of noncriminal neglect. The rights of the accused are further jeopardized by child-abuse statutes allowing the courts to recognize a lower standard of evidence than that allowed in criminal proceedings. Parents can lose their children without facing a single criminal charge.

Amid all the furor caused by inflated numbers and false accusations, few can think clearly about the root causes of child abuse. In fact, many leaders of the campaign against child abuse are keeping strangely quiet about important research into its underlying causes. Contrary to the frequent claim that mistreatment of children occurs equally among all social groups, national statistics reveal that families reported for abuse or neglect are four times as likely to be on public assistance as the general population. Researchers in this country, Canada, and Europe are also discovering that child abuse is far less likely to occur in intact families than in stepfamilies or single-parent homes. A 1985 study found that the risk of abuse was 40 times higher for a stepchild than for a child living with both natural parents. According to a 1985 study for the National Institute for Mental Health, violence against children actually appears to be decreasing in America’s intact families.

In perhaps the most provocative study to date, researchers at the University of New Mexico recently reported in the American Sociological Review that internationally the murder of children is linked to rising female employment. At a time when child psychologists are discovering that day care often weakens maternal bonding to infants, researchers are stressing the importance of healthy parent-infant bonds as a safeguard against abuse. Many children need protection, and state officials should help provide it. But to protect children properly, government must do more to shield innocent parents from false accusations, and society must address the cultural causes of abuse.