Is child abuse on the increase?

6 March 2019

The question of whether child abuse is increasing or decreasing in England and Wales has always been difficult to answer due to the lack of comprehensive scientific evidence. However, new research from the University of Oxford has found that since the 1900s there has been a large overall decrease in child abuse – but, worryingly, that trend may now be reversing.

This new research, published today in The Lancet Public Health, uses 150 years of previously unused data to examine long-term trends in child abuse. Until now researchers have only been able to look at changes in child abuse over short time periods (e.g. 10 years). This means that any trends identified might have been unreliable due to short-term fluctuations. Using recently digitised archival data, this study is the first to examine such long term trends in child maltreatment in England and Wales. Oxford researcher Michelle Degli Esposti says: “I looked to history for answers; dusting off cobwebs in government and NSPCC archives to dig out over 150 years of previously unused data.”

So, are children any safer now compared to 150 years ago? Using these newly gathered data, Degli Esposti (Departments of Experimental Psychology & Social Policy and Intervention) and colleagues found that since the 1900s there has been a substantial decrease in child abuse. For example, child homicides and crimes against children both decreased by around 90%.

Despite these dramatic reductions, the researchers remain cautious. Their findings also note a change in the downward trends in the early 2000s, showing that child abuse could now be on the increase. In 2016, adolescents were the most vulnerable age group to die by homicide, and neglect and emotional abuse were the most common types of registrations to the child protection register.

Degli Esposti and colleagues note the limitations of their data. Further research is needed to establish whether child abuse has become more common over the last 20 years or whether child protection services have become better at responding to child abuse. Either way, this study is a strong reminder that child abuse is a major public health problem and despite a period of great historic progress, it should continue to be priority for policy-makers and practitioners alike.


Long-term trends in child maltreatment in England and Wales, 1858–2016: an observational, time-series analysis
Michelle Degli Esposti, David K Humphreys, Benjamin M Jenkins, Antonio Gasparrini (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine), Siân Pooley, Manuel Eisner (Cambridge), Lucy Bowes
The Lancet Public Health [post-embargo: ]

University press contact:
Chris McIntyre, Media Relations Manager, University of Oxford
Tel: +44 (0)1865 270046 Email:

Corresponding author contacts:
Michelle Degli Esposti
Postdoctoral Research Officer, Department of Social Policy & Intervention, University of Oxford