The economic recession has wrought a dramatic spike in severe infant head trauma, according to a report recently released by Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

A team of researchers examined rates of abusive head trauma (AHT) among kids 5 years and younger in a sampling of 74 counties in Northern Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The team gathered data from hospitals in each of the counties over a five-year period between 2004-2009, which they identified as within the span of the recession.

The results are stunning — 422 children were diagnosed with abusive head trauma, with the overall AHT rate rising from 8.9 per 100,000 children pre-recession to almost 15 per 100,000 children during the recession years studied. This translates to an increase from approximately 65 cases of severe head trauma reported per year prior to the recession to about 108 cases reported during the recession.

The average age of the children abused was 8.9 months and in more than 75% of cases the victims were less than a year old.

These findings were not isolated to infants; a substantial number of the children abused were older than a year (the study includes children up to 6 years old). The abuse was so severe in the majority of cases that 63% of children were admitted to a pediatric intensive care unit and 16% died as a result of their trauma.

In addition to examining the AHT rates, the team collected quarterly unemployment rates of the counties studied. The researchers found that the spike in AHT occurred during periods of increased unemployment, budget cuts to programs that fund child abuse prevention services, and depressed home prices.

The report confirms anecdotal evidence that in times of economic hardship, children are at greater risk of abuse. When parents and caregivers experience the multitude of stressors linked to periods of recession — unemployment, unstable housing, severe budgetary problems, and reduced access to goods and services — they are less able to provide the emotional and material supports their children need. Moreover, a move into poverty is linked to increased rates of substance abuse and depression among caregivers.

The long-term consequences of abuse and neglect of children are well documented. Negative outcomes include cognitive impairments, mental health disorders, low educational attainment, higher rates of enrollment in welfare, and increased use of drugs and alcohol.

We know from research of prior periods of recession that a social safety net is crucial to curbing the harmful outcomes of economic hardship. These programs provide a diverse array of support services to overextended caregivers who are most at risk of abusing their children. Critical services include cash assistance for such items as food and housing, as well as mental health services and substance abuse treatment.

The Pittsburgh hospital study’s numbers paint a disturbing portrait of the future our children face; this sample is quite clearly the proverbial tip of the iceberg. According to the most recent Census data, more than 37% of families with children are living in poverty, the highest level on record for the group. Such dismal statistics demonstrate that intervention programs are more crucial than ever. With cuts to safety net programs being enacted nationwide, it is imperative that lawmakers commit to investing in children and families now, and strengthen preventive services across the board