Studies on trends in child maltreatment that used information obtained from regularly updated databases in the United States have found a marked decrease in rates of sexual and to some extent physical abuse. The results, especially on sexual abuse, seem to represent a real decline rather than being attributable to changes in reporting or disclosure behavior or to methodological artifacts . In Germany, no such databases exist, and the sources of available information are limited and difficult to compare. The present study is the first to examine trends in multiple types of child maltreatment in this country, based on the findings of two relatively recent surveys that were conducted 6 years apart. This is especially relevant, since Germany has seen measures being taken after the abuse scandals in 2010.
The overall prevalence rates reported in the first survey, which have been described in detail by Häuser et al. , were largely replicated in the second one, thereby supporting the reliability of the reported prevalence rates in the general population and for the use of the CTQ as a reliable measure. Both samples provided evidence that various types of child maltreatment, especially physical and emotional neglect, are common, but that the prevalence of different types varies considerably. The comparison between the two samples revealed a decrease over the 6 years in the overall rate of having experienced at least one type of maltreatment, but no difference in having experienced more than one type. Therefore, the overall rate might have decreased, while combinations and probably more severe types might have remained stable. However, with percentages of 31 and 35.3%, an alarming number of people are affected and results underline the significance of child maltreatment as a major health problems. The mean age of respondents was older in the earlier survey (50.6 vs. 48.4 years), but as there was no substantial difference between weighted and unweighted data, the effects of the age difference appear to be negligible.
In line with other findings in the literature , about 14% of participants in both samples reported having experienced multiple types of maltreatment, with similar patterns of co-occurrences. The co-occurrence of multiple types of maltreatment was rather the rule than the exception. The size of the correlations between the different types of maltreatment ranged from small (.24), seen between emotional neglect and sexual abuse, to large (.67), seen between emotional abuse and physical abuse. The interrelatedness was highest between physical and emotional abuse and between physical and emotional neglect; less so between emotional or physical abuse and neglect; and least between sexual abuse and either type of neglect.
In general, for the youngest age cohorts (aged 14–25 years), comparisons between the samples showed no significant difference for any type of maltreatment, supporting the conclusion that on a population level, prevalence rates had remained stable. Since the samples were spaced only 6 years apart, none of the respondents who were older than 25 at the time of the later survey would have been children at the time of the earlier one, so trends over this time period would be revealed only in the youngest age cohorts.
With respect to sexual abuse, the finding of no significant differences in rates differs from the finding of Stadler et al. , who noted a sharp decrease in the rates reported by younger respondents. That study, however, was based on a much longer time span, with the second survey conducted almost 20 years after the first , whereas the present study addresses a much shorter time period and provides more recent data. The Stadler findings were consistent with official crime statistics , which similarly reported a decrease of cases over the same period of time. However, as in the present study, Stadler et al. obtained their information about childhood experiences retrospectively from an adult sample, which makes comparisons with the incidences reported by agencies difficult. Additionally, the study has been criticized because of the limited comparability of the two surveys due to different methodologies.
In the current study, one of the findings from the comparison of age cohorts within each sample was that in both surveys, reports of physical neglect were more prevalent among older respondents, especially those aged over 65, and steadily decreased towards the youngest cohort; while between-sample comparisons showed that such reports were significantly lower in the each of the three oldest cohorts in 2016 compared to their 2010 counterparts. However, this decrease could be due to a smaller representation in 2016 of the generation who had experienced privation in the (post-) war years. The psychometric properties of the physical neglect scale of the CTQ have been criticized for lack of reliability [24, 26], and assenting to statements such as “I did not have enough to eat” may in some cases be indicative of general food shortages rather than of parental neglect. Additionally, the effect sizes were small . Therefore, this finding should be interpreted with caution.
Another finding of interest was a significant increase in reports of emotional abuse, primarily attributable to a higher rate among women aged 26–45 years. This increase does not seem to be attributable to higher exposure rates, as participants in this age cohort in the later survey would not have been children at the time of the earlier survey (the youngest would have been 20 years old). It is more likely due to a growing awareness of this type of abuse and consequently a higher level of disclosure. Especially after the abuse scandals in 2010 in Germany, there was an increase in public and political awareness of the topic . Media campaigns have been launched and a range of measures have been taken (see “Background” section). Even though the medial and political focus was on sexual abuse, legislative changes were not targeted exclusively on sexual abuse, but also other types of maltreatment. Also reliable data on different types of maltreatment from the child welfare sector is now available. This might have also increased the general awareness. Therefore, it is likely that awareness for all types of maltreatment, especially those that have rarely been in the focus before, such as emotional abuse has increased. Another explanation might be that the increase is due to normal statistical variations between the samples.
The prevalence rate reported here is still considerably lower compared to those found for Europe  and worldwide . This type of maltreatment is difficult to assess, and therefore has not been in the focus of researchers or of the public as strongly as have other types, such as sexual abuse. Comparisons within and between the samples of rates of the other types of maltreatment—physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional neglect—revealed no significant differences, indicating that they remained stable over the 6 years.
The findings of the present study differ from the official data available from the criminal justice and child welfare systems. However, those sources only capture cases that have been brought to the attention of authorities, and thus account for only a fraction of the real total. Further, their findings are mixed, as they are based on different objectives and different focuses. Crime statistics on child maltreatment involving either sexual abuse or physical abuse, which have been maintained by police since 2001, show a decrease of about 10% from 2010 to 2015 [14, 32], but include only those cases that meet legal definitions, and do not capture any cases involving physical neglect, emotional abuse, or emotional neglect. In contrast to the decline seen in the police statistics, data from the child welfare sector show a rise in all types of maltreatment: between 2012 and 2015, local child welfare agencies reported increases of 13.0% in cases of confirmed physical abuse and of 24.6% in confirmed cases of neglect [17, 33], and between 2010 and 2015, they reported increases of about 17% in the number of emergency measures taken in response to physical abuse and about 12% on emergency measures taken in response to neglect [16, 34]. In sum, the findings of data sets from different administrative sources show trends in different directions. However, because of their different aims and scopes, their results are not necessarily in contradiction to each other or to the findings from the population surveys. It could be that cases are becoming less severe, thus leading to a reduction in the number that meet the criteria for criminal charges; also, there may have been a shift in directing cases to the attention of child welfare authorities rather than the courts, as a better alternative to prosecution. Especially, after the abuse scandal in 2010 measures for early intervention and legislation, clarifying when to notify child protection, investigating and providing support to the families, have been implemented (see “Background” section). Germany is rather family services oriented as in contrast to many Anglo-saxon countries that are rather child protection oriented , this may explain some of the discrepancies. Additionally, as in contrast to most of the other European countries there is no mandatory reporting in Germany. Finally, in the US, data show that short-term increases in rates may also due to changes in the law or the implementation of new data acquisition programs , and those effects could be a factor here as well.
In summary, even though the numbers found in the present studies are smaller in comparison to meta-analyses [20, 31, 36,37,38] the percentages of about one-third of the general population that has experienced at least one type of maltreatment is alarming and underline the significance of child maltreatment as a major public health problem. The measures that have been taken after the abuse scandals in 2010 do not seem to have impacted the prevalence rate substantially. However, such measures need time until an impact on the population level can be observed. For example corporal punishment has been legally banned in 2000. In 2009, only 31% were aware of this ban . Still, in 2016 percentages of positive attitudes towards the use of corporal punishment was high, given the ban in 2000 . But studies have shown that knowledge about the ban of corporal punishment has increased after the act has been initiated [41, 42] and that broad media campaigns are needed to disseminate such changes . Albeit, such broad information campaigns, as seen after the abuse scandals in 2010, may also affect prevalence rates of reported child maltreatment. Increases, as observed for emotional abuse may reflect a changed understanding and cultural climate, making the recollection more salient.