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History is filled with cases of child labor, slavery and abuse—and sadly many cases still remain today. At the turn of the century, the World Health Organization estimated that 57,000 children were the victims of homicide in the year 2000 alone. Now, researchers from North Carolina State University are using modern-day forensic analysis to find out how children were treated, or often mistreated, in past cultures.
The new study, “Skeletal and Radiological Manifestations of Child Abuse: Implications for Study in Past Populations,” looks at skeletal remains of children that showed indicators of child abuse. Using skeletal or radiological indicators of injuries, the study shows why these injuries were likely the result of abuse, rather than accidents.
“For example, some combinations of injuries are highly indicative of abuse, such as multiple rib fractures at different stages of healing,” said lead author and NC State profess Ann Ross. “That’s a red flag.”
In addition to the injuries, skeletal indicators that reflected malnutrition helped researchers assess fatal starvation.
“Unfortunately, we have a lot of experience in studying the skeletal remains of children in criminal investigations to determine how they were treated and how they died,” Ross said. “We can use what we’ve learned in modern populations to provide insight into the behavior of historic and prehistoric populations—particularly in regard to child labor, child abuse and child murder.”
Using modern-day case studies, the researchers tried to prove the causes of child injuries from skeletal remains, but even the authors admit that can be a challenging task. In one case what looked to be physical abuse, turned out to be a case of neglect, after the child likely developed rickets or scurvy.
“This sort of neglect, or absence of care, is still abuse,” Ross said. “But it’s important, in a criminal context, for us to understand what happened.”
Cases of child abuse were much more prevalent and severe in past cultures, according to the paper, often because the victims had very little rights and were often treated as property of their parents.
“Before the mid-twentieth century, inflicted injuries to children was [sic] overlooked in part because children were often viewed as property,” Ross said.
Click on the link to preview or purchase the study, “Skeletal and Radiological Manifestations of Child Abuse: Implications for Study in Past Populations.”