When report cards are sent home to parents on a Friday, incidents of child abuse go up significantly on the following Saturday. That’s the deeply troubling finding of a study published this week in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
For the study, researchers at the University of Florida analyzed reports made to the Florida Department of Child and Families abuse hotline during the 2015-2016 academic year for children aged 5 to 11 years. The researchers focused on that age group because pediatricians had told them that they believed children aged 5 to 11 were most at risk of physical abuse after report card releases.
Of the 167,000 calls to the hotline that fit those criteria, 1,943 — or about 1 percent — were later verified as cases of physical abuse, which included “physical injury, bizarre punishment, asphyxiation, burns, bone fracture, or internal injuries,” the study’s authors explain.
Six in 10 of the children in those cases were boys, and their mean age was 7½ years.
Using data on report card release days for Florida’s public schools, the researchers then looked to see if there was any connection between those days and the reports of physical abuse. They found there was — but only when the grades were sent home on a Friday.
When report cards were released on Friday, the verified cases of child abuse on the Saturday that followed were almost four times higher than on other Saturdays. No such increase in abuse cases was associated with the release of report cards earlier in the week, however.
“Our hypothesis is that Fridays are substantively different than weekdays for most families and that these conditions may increase the chances of physical abuse if report cards are added to the mix,” said Melissa Bright, the study’s lead author and a research scientist at the University of Florida, in an interview with Reuters reporter Lisa Rapaport.
One possibility for that increased risk on Saturdays is that kids don’t have school the next day, and parents may think their child’s injuries are less likely to be noticed.
Bright and her colleagues conclude that school districts could help reduce the likelihood of physical abuse by sending grades home earlier in the week.
Limitations and implications
The research comes with some important caveats. It is an observational study, and therefore can show only an association between two things — in this case, the release of the report cards and an increase in verified child abuse incidents — rather than a direct cause-and-effect relationship.
Also, the study was not designed to determine if the children who were abused had received poor grades. And the data on physical abuse was limited to incidents that resulted in calls to Florida’s child abuse hotline.
Still, the findings underscore the fact that corporal punishment and child abuse remain all too common in the United States.
In an editorial that accompanies the study, Dr. Antoinette Laskey, a specialist in child protection and family health at the University of Utah, stresses that “changing a report card release date may cause some change in the number of physical abuse cases, but it will not solve the larger issue: It is still socially acceptable to hit a child to correct their behavior.”
To transform attitudes toward corporal punishment, doctors and other health care professionals need to become more skilled and willing to talk with parents about the importance of using “safe, effective, positive” forms of discipline with their children, she says.
“Many families were raised with spanking, slapping, switching, or ‘whooping’ as a way of life,” Laskey writes. “Helping parents to see a new way of doing things that is actually helpful to a child’s development and to understand what we now know about the harm that comes from corporal punishment is important to ending this behavior.”
Although parents do not usually intend to cause physical abuse when they administer corporal punishment, “it should also be recognized that rarely are people calm and deliberative in the moment of anger when they are hitting their child,” she says.
As I reported in Second Opinion last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents about 67,000 pediatricians across the United States, recently issued an updated policy statement, which states unequivocally that parents should not use spanking or any other form of corporal punishment — defined as “noninjurious, open-handed hitting with the intention of modifying child behavior” — on their children.
The pediatricians also warn parents to avoid verbal abuse — language that “belittles, humiliates, denigrates, scapegoats, threatens, scares, or ridicules the child.”
FMI: You’ll find abstracts of the study and the editorial on the JAMA Pediatrics website, but the full papers are behind paywalls.