Journal of Community Health

, Volume 29, Issue 2, pp 141-153

First online:

Community Responses and Perceived Barriers to Responding to Child Maltreatment

  • Lillian BensleyAffiliated withWashington State Department of Health, Office of Epidemiology Email author 
  • , Katrina Wynkoop SimmonsAffiliated withWashington State Department of Health
  • , Deborah RugglesAffiliated withWashington State Department of Health
  • , Tammy PutvinAffiliated withWashington State Department of Health
  • , Cynthia HarrisAffiliated withWashington State Department of Health
  • , Melissa AllenAffiliated withWashington State Department of Health
  • , Kathy WilliamsAffiliated withWashington State Department of Health

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Although child maltreatment has important effects on physical and psychological health, even serious cases often go unreported. Little is known about actions that individuals take when they know of an abused child, factors influencing whether they take action, or general population beliefs about how best to prevent maltreatment. A random-digit-dialed telephone survey of 504 Washington State civilian, English-speaking adults living in households with telephones was conducted in 2002. Respondents were asked whether they had ever known an abused child and if so, how they responded and any barriers they experienced to responding. Regardless of whether they had known an abused child, they were asked how they would respond in a hypothetical situation and hypothetical barriers. They were also asked what they believed to be effective in preventing maltreatment. Half (49% ± 5%) of the respondents indicated that they had known a child they believed to be abused and of these, four-fifths (84% ± 5%) indicated that they took some action, most frequently reporting the abuse to Child Protective Services, talking to the parents about the abuse or how to parent, or calling the police or other law enforcement. The most frequently reported barriers were fear of retaliation by the abusive parent, being afraid of making the child's situation worse, and not wanting to intrude on family privacy. About nine-tenths of respondents believed that mental health services and drug and alcohol treatment, support services such as food banks and crisis nurseries, and parenting education classes were effective in preventing abuse. These results provide evidence that most people are willing to intervene to help an abused child. However, barriers to intervening (particularly fear of retaliation) exist and may account for some of the failures to report abuse.

child abuse maltreatment community health education prevention social responsibility