Children who grow up in broken homes, as well as those whose parents are frequently engaged in violent rows are at the greatest risk of serious abuse and neglect, a major report reveals today.
The majority of abused children come from families where there is a history of domestic violence between the adults, the research for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) shows.
Those who grow up in single parent homes, or who experience family breakdown, are up to six times more likely to be abused than youngsters who come from stable homes.
The findings focus attention on Britain's child protection system which faces critical scrutiny after the tragic death of Victoria Climbié, who was beaten, tortured and starved to death by her carers.
An inquiry into her death, which concluded its first phase last week, is expected to result in a overhaul of the way social workers, police and health professionals attempt to safeguard vulnerable children.
The NSPCC report, which follows the most comprehensive study of child maltreatment ever carried out in the UK, makes 16 recommendations to improve the system, the first of which underlines the "strong link" with domestic violence.
It says that professionals, who work with families where men are violent towards their wives, should always regard the children to be "at risk" even if there are no signs of abuse.
Mary Marsh, chief executive of the NSPCC, said: "Violence between adults caring for a child can sound a warning bell that a child is at risk of serious maltreatment. We must all be alert to the ways in which destructive family relationships can damage a child and act on any concerns that a child is at risk of abuse.
"Watch out for children who are frequently dirty or hungry, constantly 'put down', insulted or humiliated or afraid of parents or carers."
The study follows a report two years ago which demolished the widespread belief that fathers are chiefly responsible for sexual abuse against children. Abuse by brothers or stepbrothers, was found to be twice as common. The new report, based on interviews with 2,869 young people aged 18 to 24, analyses how many suffered physical, sexual or emotional abuse.
An overwhelming 80 per cent of those who suffered serious physical or sexual abuse had also witnessed domestic violence at home. For nearly half of them, the conflict between their parents was constant or frequent.
Children who grew up in lone parent or broken families were three to six times more likely to have suffered serious abuse than other youngsters, although much of this abuse could have preceded family breakdown.
Nine out of 10 respondents said they had a warm and loving family. Those who were maltreated were more likely to say there were money worries at home or that their parents had problems with alcohol or drugs.
Significant numbers of children suffer because of the lack of warmth and constant criticism from their parents or carers. The report says that children who are maltreated are more likely to leave school at 16 and suffer anxiety, depression or unhappiness as young adults. A few youngsters who experienced multiple maltreatment over several years, could be damaged for life.
Ms Marsh, who last week had to apologise for the NSPCC's failings in the Victoria Climbié case, said the "terrible levels of child cruelty" revealed in the report were not inevitable. They could be reduced if youngsters knew they had someone to turn to.
"We can help prevent children from coming to harm by ensuring adequate help and support is available to vulnerable families – particularly when experiencing difficulties such as domestic violence, relationship breakdown, stress, money and health problems."Reuse content