Studies Illuminate Far-Reaching Ramifications of Abuse of Girls

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One-fifth of high school girls in the United States say they have been sexually or physically abused, and 8 percent of teenage girls say they've been forced by a date to have sex against their will, says a new national survey.

Teenage girls who have experienced abuse are far more likely than their peers to become depressed, have suicidal thoughts, use drugs or alcohol, and suffer from eating disorders, according to the survey released this month by the Commonwealth Fund, a New York City-based foundation that supports research on health and social issues.

In the nationwide survey conducted for the Commonwealth Fund by Louis Harris and Associates Inc. between December 1996 and June 1997, 6,748 girls and boys in 5th through 12th grades completed in-class questionnaires on a range of topics, including violence, risky behaviors, mental health, and eating disorders.

The poll also found that high school girls who have been abused are three times more likely to "binge and purge" than girls who haven't been mistreated. The survey, which has a margin of error of 1 percentage point, does not define abuse.

Girls who said they had been abused were also twice as likely as other girls to be depressed, the report says.

In general, the study found that risky behaviors, such as smoking and drinking, tended to be equally divided between the sexes.

Kathryn Taaffe Young, an assistant vice president for the Commonwealth Fund, said the results show the need for prevention starting in the earliest grades.

In a related study, a New York City-based reproductive-health research group suggests that a history of sexual abuse could have an effect on teenage girls' academic careers.

Adolescent girls who said they had been sexually abused were 1-1/2 times more likely than other girls to report high levels of school absenteeism, says the report published this month by the Alan Guttmacher Institute. Abused girls were also 1-1/2 times less likely to participate in extracurricular activities, and abused girls were twice as likely to earn lower grades than girls with no history of sexual abuse, the study says.

Researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle analyzed a 1992 Washington state survey of 3,128 girls in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades. Most of the students who completed questionnaires were from urban schools; 82 percent were white, and the remainder were Asian-American, American Indian, African-American, or Hispanic.

The researchers found that, on average, the girls who reported a history of abuse were more likely than those with no history of abuse to say they were engaging in sex before age 15. Teenage girls who had been subjected to sexual or other physical abuse were three times more likely than other girls their age to have been pregnant, the study found.

About half of the nation's 16- and 17-year-olds face risks such as poverty, welfare dependence, or the absence of a parent that make them more inclined to encounter serious problems later in life, says a U.S. Bureau of the Census report.

The study, "America's Children at Risk," which relies on data collected from the bureau's March 1996 Current Population Survey of 55,000 U.S. households, looks at how teenagers of that age fare in life when faced with six risk factors: poverty, welfare dependence, one-parent families, absent parents, an unwed mother, and parents who did not graduate from high school.

Teenagers experiencing more than one of these risk factors during their childhood are more likely than those who don't encounter them to drop out of school, get pregnant, or be unemployed, the report released this month found.

Only about 1 percent of 16-and 17-year-olds free of those risk factors are out of school and out of work, for example; but more than 15 percent of adolescents burdened with three or more of the factors are unemployed and out of school.

"Most adolescents navigate the perilous course from childhood to adulthood without serious problems," the report says. "But the more obstacles they have to overcome as children, the more likely they are to stumble as adolescents."

The state of children's health in the United States is no cause for celebration, though there are signs of progress, according to the American Health Foundation, which has issued its "1997 Child Health Report Card."

After analyzing a wide range of health habits, including disease rates, health-care utilization, and child-care patterns, the foundation gives children's health a C grade overall, representing a slight improvement from last year's C-minus.

The report card, which assigns letter grades in 23 categories, found that conditions were worsening in eight areas, including childhood obesity; physical activity in high school; alcohol, tobacco, and other substance abuse; and child abuse and neglect. Little advancement had been made in five areas: enrollment of preschoolers in Head Start, motor vehicle deaths, mental disorders, child poverty, and cholesterol levels, the report released this month found. But the report card issues better marks in 10 areas, such as infant mortality, immunizations, and teenage pregnancy rates.

The New York City-based foundation, which promotes health education and research, analyzed the degree to which the status of a particular health problem was moving away or toward public-health goals set by the federal government for 2000.

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