Screening injured children for physical abuse or neglect in emergency departments: a systematic review


Ruth Gilbert, Centre for Evidence-based Child Health and MRC Centre of Epidemiology for Child Health, UCL-Institute of Child Health, 30 Guilford Street, London WC1N 1EH, UK


Background  Screening markers are used in emergency departments (EDs) to identify children who should be assessed for possible physical abuse and neglect. We conducted three systematic reviews evaluating age, repeat attendance and injury type as markers for physical abuse or neglect in injured children attending EDs.

Methods  We included studies comparing markers in physically abused or neglected children and non-abused injured children attending ED or hospital. We calculated likelihood ratios (LRs) for age group, repeat attendance and injury type (head injury, bruises, fractures, burns or other). Given the low prevalence of abuse or neglect, we considered that an LR of 10 or more would be clinically useful.

Results  All studies were poor quality. Infancy increased the risk of physical abuse or neglect in severely injured or admitted children (LRs 7.7–13.0, 2 studies) but was not strongly associated in children attending the ED (LR 1.5, 95% CI: 0.9, 2.8; one study). Repeat attendance did not substantially increase the risk of abuse or neglect and may be confounded by chronic disease and socio-economic status (LRs 0.8–3.9, 3 studies). One study showed no evidence that the type of injury substantially increased the risk of physical abuse or neglect in severely injured children.

Conclusions  There was no evidence that any of the markers (infancy, type of injury, repeated attendance) were sufficiently accurate (i.e. LR ≥ 10) to screen injured children in the ED to identify those requiring paediatric assessment for possible physical abuse or neglect. Clinicians should be aware that among injured children at ED a high proportion of abused children will present without these characteristics and a high proportion of non-abused children will present with them. Information about age, injury type and repeat attendances should be interpreted in this context.