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Home Economics: Study suggests link between housing woes and child abuse

Rising home foreclosures and mortgage delinquencies have contributed to an increase in child abuse, a Children's Hospital of Philadelphia PolicyLab study suggests.

Rising home foreclosures and mortgage delinquencies have contributed to an increase in child abuse, a Children's Hospital of Philadelphia PolicyLab study suggests.

The study, the subject of a July 16 article in the journal Pediatrics, used data submitted from 38 of 45 pediatric medical centers around the country.

The data, which covered 2000 through 2009, show that every 1 percent increase in 90-day mortgage delinquencies over a one-year period was associated with a 3 percent increase in children's hospital admissions for physical abuse and a 5 percent increase in children's hospital admissions for traumatic brain injuries suspected to be caused by child abuse.

"It is well-known that economic stress has been linked to an increase in child physical abuse, so we wanted to get to the bottom of the contrasting reports by formally studying hospital data on a larger scale," said Joanne Wood, an attending physician at Children's Hospital and the lead author of the study.

Two major themes emerge from the study, Wood said:

"First, we see a clear opportunity to use hospital data along with child-welfare data to ensure a more complete picture of child-abuse rates both locally and nationally.

"Second, the study identifies another economic hardship - mortgage foreclosures - that is associated with severe physical abuse."

This, she said, highlights the need to better understand the stress that insecurity about housing places on families and communities, so that those affected can be better supported in difficult times.

The Children's Hospital study was cited by a bipartisan organization called First Focus, which says its purpose is to make children and their families a priority in federal policy and budget decisions.

In April, First Focus published a report by the Brookings Institution's Julia Isaacs that showed that, five years into the foreclosure crisis, 2.3 million children have lost their homes and 6 million more are at risk to lose theirs.

Isaacs' analysis found that many of these families are pushed into homelessness or are continually at risk for it. Children in states with the highest number of foreclosures have fared worse, the study showed.

More than a half-million children in California live in houses that have gone through completed foreclosures, and 500,000 more are living in owner-occupied properties with mortgages that are delinquent by 60 days or more.

In Florida, an estimated 193,000 children have gone through foreclosures, while 397,000 live in houses at risk.

Although it is no comfort to the families who have been affected, Pennsylvania and New Jersey have not experienced the volume of foreclosures and delinquencies that the hardest-hit states have.

In Pennsylvania, where 3 percent of houses with mortgages originated between 2004 and 2008 had completed foreclosures by February 2011, 33,000 children were affected.

Seven percent of the mortgages were 60 days delinquent, affecting 85,000 more children.

In New Jersey, foreclosures had been completed on 2 percent of mortgages originated in those years by February 2011, affecting 28,000 children.

An additional 10 percent of the loans were 60 days delinquent, putting 114,000 more children at risk, according to Isaacs' data, provided by the Center for Responsible Lending and the American Community Survey.

Foreclosure can affect children in different ways, Isaacs said.

Families receiving foreclosure notices are much more likely to move than others, and children who move frequently do less well in school, she said.

A study of foreclosures in Baltimore found that 97 percent of the city's schools had at least one student living in a property that received a foreclosure notice in the 2008-09 academic year. Most of the schools had fewer than 10 students affected by foreclosures, but two had 50 or more students.

Recent research in New York shows that students who move as a result of foreclosure change to schools of lower quality than the ones they had to leave.

Homeowners receiving foreclosure notices "are under a lot of financial and psychological stress as they struggle to stay in their houses, and, if that fails, to find a new one quickly," Isaacs said.

Based on research dating to the Great Depression, economic hardship can affect the way parents and children interact.

Parents sometimes engage in harsher and "less supportive parenting, which in turn can lead to negative behavior on the part of children, making it harder for them to interact well with peers in school," Isaacs said.

Teachers and principals interviewed by the Government Accountability Office reported concerns about children's social adjustments, as well as challenges in adjusting the pace of instruction for new students and getting records transferred in a timely manner, she said.

First Focus has called for a "children-focused response" to the foreclosure crisis.

Meghan McHugh, senior director of policy and state partnerships for First Focus, said the federal government needs to establish and fund initiatives that "help families at risk of homelessness to stay in their homes."

For families and children already homeless, McHugh said, policy initiatives "must focus on improving access to affordable housing, homeless children's chances for success in school, and delivering additional supportive services families need to stay together and get back on their feet."