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The Decline in Child Sexual Abuse Cases

Lisa Jones and David Finkelhor

OJJOP - Juvenile Justice bulletin, January 2001



The analysis of child sexual abuse cases presented in this Bulletin reveals the following:

Substantiated cases of child sexual abuse decreased from a national estimated peak of 149,800 cases in 1992 to 103,600 cases in 1998, a decline of 31 percent.

A decline in substantiated cases has occurred in the majority of States, with no clear regional pattern. Out of 47 States with complete data, 36 recorded a decline of more than 30 percent since their peak year. The average decline for all States was 37 percent.

For most States, the decline was gradual, rather than abrupt, and occurred over several years.

Although cases of other types of child maltreatment have also declined in recent years, the decrease in child sexual abuse cases has been more marked. Substantiated cases of physical abuse declined 16 percent from a 1995 peak, compared with a 31-percent decline in child sexual abuse cases.

In addition to the decline in the number of substantiated cases, child sexual abuse reports also decreased from an estimated 429,000 in 1991 to 315,400 in 1998, a 26-percent decline.

Possible explanations for the decline include a real underlying decline in the incidence of child sexual abuse or changes in attitudes, policies, and standards that have reduced the amount of child sexual abuse being reported and substantiated. It is possible that both of these processes are affecting trends in child sexual abuse.


While the evidence demonstrates that a dramatic decline in reports and substantiated cases of child sexual abuse has occurred, the reasons for the decline are less clear. The available data suggest that this decline is not simply explained by trends in other types of maltreatment but is instead something particularly affecting child sexual abuse cases. It could be that the observed decline is the result of a decrease in the actual incidence of child sexual abuse, a change in reporting behavior, and/or policy and program changes within CPS. Although it may be difficult to sort through the possible causes of the decline, doing so will provide a better gauge of efforts to protect children from sexual victimization.

Additional research is crucial to a better understanding of the causes of the decline in child sexual abuse. Further analysis of CPS administrative data could help determine the relationship between trends in initial reports, screened reports, and substantiated reports. Analysis of changes in the types of reporters, the ages of alleged victims, the characteristics of alleged perpetrators, and the characteristics of the abuse would provide information on the types of cases that have seen the greatest declines. Evaluation research is needed on changes in CPS policies and procedures so that the impact of these changes on child victims and their families can be better understood. Finally, the issues discussed in this Bulletin highlight the need for better justice system data about this crime, such as will be available when the National Incident-Based Reporting System becomes national in scope or as could be provided by a regularly conducted population survey concerning crimes against children.

Despite the dramatic nature of the decline in child sexual abuse cases and the importance of identifying its sources, a discussion of these issues has not yet made it to the public arena. Greater publicity has been given to other social indicators for which the declines have been less dramatic. Rates of general crime, child poverty, and teen births have declined at an equal or lesser rate than child sexual abuse, yet these declines have received more attention and have generated more discussion. This Bulletin is an attempt to direct similar attention to trends in child sexual abuse, in the hope that increased public attention will result in better assessment of the progress made to date in protecting children and ultimately will lead to improved future efforts.

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