News Release

Intergenerational transmission of abuse and neglect more complicated than previously believed

According to new study by professor Cathy Spatz Widom published in Science

Peer-Reviewed Publication

John Jay College of Criminal Justice

A study led by Cathy Spatz Widom, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at John Jay College, found that offspring of parents with histories of child abuse and neglect are themselves at risk for childhood neglect and sexual abuse but not physical abuse. Titled "Intergenerational Transmission of Child Abuse and Neglect: Real or Detection Bias?" the study's findings were reported in the March 27 issue of the journal Science.

As part of a prospective longitudinal study, Widom followed a large group of children with documented cases of childhood abuse and neglect and a demographically matched group of children without documented histories of abuse or neglect into adulthood. Widom and her team interviewed both groups of individuals who are now adults in their 40s and early 50s and a sample of their offspring.

Researchers found that the parents with documented cases of childhood abuse or neglect reported more neglect toward their children than parents without such histories, but did not report more physical and sexual abuse. The offspring of these parents with a history of abuse and neglect were more likely to report having been sexually abused and neglected than offspring of parents without those histories. Given these surprising findings, the researchers speculated that a shift in societal attitudes toward physical abuse may account for the decline in the reports of this type child maltreatment.

Because self-reports are not always consistent with official reports, the researchers also looked at Child Protective Services reports. They found that parents with histories of abuse or neglect and children of parents with these histories were twice as likely to be reported to Child Protective Services. However, what is striking is that these analyses involved only parents and children who reported either engaging in or experiencing maltreatment, leading the researchers to speculate that these adults and their families may be disproportionately scrutinized.


This research was supported in part by grants from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Justice, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

Science is the world's leading outlet for scientific news, commentary, and cutting-edge research, with the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general-science journal. Through its print and online incarnations, Science reaches an estimated worldwide readership of more than one million. In content, too, the journal is truly international in scope; some 35 to 40 percent of the corresponding authors on its papers are based outside the United States. Its articles consistently rank among world's most cited research. AAAS -- the American Association for the Advancement of Science -- is Science's publisher, and a leading voice for the interests of scientists worldwide.

About John Jay College of Criminal Justice:

An international leader in educating for justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice of The City University of New York offers a rich liberal arts and professional studies curriculum to upwards of 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students from more than 135 nations. In teaching, scholarship and research, the College approaches justice as an applied art and science in service to society and as an ongoing conversation about fundamental human desires for fairness, equality and the rule of law. For more information, visit

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