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Child Sexual Abuse Has Declined 

Quotes and highlights from: 
Child Sexual Abuse Has Declined, David Finkelhor and Lisa M. Jones; in: 
Child Sexual Abuse. Ed. Angela Lewis. At Issue Series. San Diego;  Greenhaven Press, 2005. 

David Finkelhor is a professor of sociology and the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. Lisa M. Jones is a research assistant professor of psychology at the same center. 

Between 1992 and 2000, the number of substantiated cases of child sexual abuse declined by 40 percent. The decline may be partially due to decreased reporting and changes in the procedures used by child protective services (CPS) agencies. However, there is strong evidence that a real decline in child sexual abuse occurred. 

For example, the number of self-reports of sexual abuse by victims has decreased. Also, many other indicators of crime and family problems declined during the same period, suggesting a general improvement in the well-being of children. Large-scale prevention and intervention
efforts may be contributing to the decline.

The number of sexual abuse cases substantiated by child protective service (CPS) agencies dropped a remarkable 40 percent between 1992 and 2000, from an estimated 150,000 cases to 89,500 cases, but professional opinion is divided about why. 

It is possible that the incidence of sexual abuse has declined as a result of two decades of prevention, treatment, and aggressive criminal justice activity. 
It is also possible that there has been no real decline, and that the apparent decline is explained by 
a drop in the number of cases being identified and reported 
or by changes in practices of child protection agencies. 

Identifying the source or sources of the decline in the number of substantiated sexual abuse cases is important. The possibility that a real decline occurred is heartening and could point the way to more effective strategies for preventing all kinds of child maltreatment. 

On the other hand, if the decline is due solely to decreased reporting or changes in CPS procedures, it could mean that more children arefailing to get the help and services they need....  

Key Findings

Detailed data provided by four state CPS agencies offered little evidence that the decline was due either to more conservative judgment by CPS about the types of sexual abuse cases they would investigate or substantiate or to increasing reluctance by CPS to
become involved in cases in which the perpetrator is not a primary caregiver. 
There also was no strong evidence that the decline was largely due to a diminishing reservoir of older, ongoing cases available for new disclosures. 
There was some evidence that the sexual abuse decline in one state could be partly explained by changes in CPS procedures and data collection methods. According to national data, however, this
explanation does not successfully account for the declines seen in the majority of states. 
There was mixed evidence that reporting of sexual abuse to CPS declined because of a "backlash," that is, a greater public and professional skepticism about reports of sexual abuse. 
Evidence from a number of different sources, including
National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) data showing a 56-percent decline in self-reported sexual assault against juveniles, is consistent with a real decline in sexual abuse. 
Finally, additional studies and improved data are needed to make crucially important decisions for public policy based on the factors that are most responsible for the decline.... 

Evidence of a True Decline 

No solid and convincing explanation exists for why sexual abuse cases declined in the 1990s, although it is important to try to find out why a decline occurred. The answer, if it can be determined, is not likely to be a simple one. In all likelihood, multiple factors were involved in the trend. Based on the strength of current evidence, one of those factors was probably a true decline in the
occurrence of sexual abuse. Changes in the practices of
professionals who report suspected abuse and of the child protective system probably also have played a part, but how large a part is difficult to ascertain.

The evidence for some true decline in incidents of sexual abuse comes from several directions. One is the decline in self-report measures of sexual assault and sexual abuse. The NCVS and the Minnesota Student Survey are both crucial indicators that are independent of the filtering or policies of social agencies. 

Although validity problems are always present with the
self-reporting of sensitive information, there are no strong reasons to think that candor about sexual abuse has declined.

Another strong piece of evidence for a true decline is the
improvement in many other indicators of crime, sexual behavior, and family problems over the same period of time. The decline in these areas suggests general movement toward improvement in the well-being of children. An actual decline in the number of sexual abuse cases
seems more plausible in the context of such a trend than it would if the other factors had not improved.

More attention has been focused on child sexual abuse during the past two decades [1980-2000] than on any other form of child maltreatment. It should not be surprising that its decline would come before and be greater than that of other forms of maltreatment. 

Prevention and intervention efforts have included school-based prevention education, treatment programs for juvenile and adult offenders, and greatly enhanced resources for criminal justice investigation and prosecution. It is reasonable to think that, given the scale of these efforts, they have had some success in preventing or intervening in sexual abuse.

The relatively inconsistent evidence for other explanations of the decline in the number of sexual abuse cases also supports the possibility of a true decline in sexual abuses.... 

The other explanations do not lack evidence. Indeed, some states clearly have made statistical and administrative changes that have contributed to the decline. There is evidence both that allegations involving very young children have declined more, perhaps because such cases have less credibility, and that cases involving young perpetrators may have declined because they are seen as outside the purview of the child protection system. Evidence from at least one state is consistent with the possibility that some of the decline in substantiated cases of sexual abuse may be due to a backlash against those who report it.

Taken together, however, the evidence for these other explanations seems to exist only in some places or to explain only a small portion of the decline in substantiated cases. The decline has been so widespread geographically and has occurred across so many categories of children, offenders, types of abuse, and types of evidence that a true decline can be considered as at least one part of the overall picture. 

Concerns About Future Funding 

Many observers of the decline in the number of substantiated sexual abuse cases, including state officials, have seemed resistant to the possibility that the numbers represent a true decline, preferring almost any other explanation as an alternative. This attitude may
stem from a concern that if people believe sexual abuse is waning, their vigilance and concern about the problem and willingness to support funding will disappear. Increasing numbers of cases were part of what mobilized people and resources during the 1980s, so declining numbers of cases might have the opposite effect.

Although social problems go through a well-recognized
issue/attention cycle and some changes have occurred in the media attitude toward sexual abuse, there are reasons to doubt that a true decline in incidence of the current magnitude could, if recognized, result in a massive desertion of interest or funding. 

For one, the public and professional interest in the issue of sexual abuse has roots that go far beyond the matter of whether it involves 50,000 or 150,000 cases per year, and relate to the now well-established role that it plays in discussions of family problems, gender relations,
sexuality, and mental health. The high-profile public and professional role this problem has achieved in recent years will not easily change. 
Second, the other social problems discussed above
that also have experienced recent declines do not appear to have suffered any social policy desertion as a result. Homicide, crime, and teen pregnancy are all still issues of ongoing serious policy attention, despite their declines, because they remain serious problems even at reduced levels. 

The declines may, in fact, have spurred policy interest because problems that fester for a long time without improvement in spite of considerable policy attention become frustrating. Policymakers and the public can become discouraged and decide that such problems are beyond immediate solution.  

Signs of success from social initiatives can provide the public and policymakers with energy and justification for expanded efforts to reinforce what appears to be working. Of course, the factors influencing public interest and policymaking are complex, but there is no strong reason to believe that evidence of a true decline in sexual abuse by itself will have negative effects on the policy
environment around the problem. 

The Need to Identify Reasons for Decline 

Because social policy benefits from understanding the factors that result in success, the hypothesis that sexual abuse has declined should be accepted, and identifying the reasons why it has declined should be a priority. It is extremely important that lessons be drawn from a change of this magnitude in a social problem that has been considered so widespread and corrosive to the well-being of children, families, and communities. Several initiatives might be
considered to deepen our understanding.

First, more intensive studies need to be undertaken in individual localities where a full inventory of explanations could be considered, with both quantitative and qualitative evidence available. In individual localities, it may be easier to observe how policy and programmatic changes, including prosecution initiatives, treatment resources, and educational programs, may have been sequenced with the onset or acceleration of a decline in sexual abuse. 

In addition, localities with different trend patterns (steady
declines, increases, no change, and fluctuating patterns) should be compared with one another, and it might be useful if such localities were in the same state and were comparable in other ways. Some local studies might center around the case records of investigative agencies that have maintained stable policies, catchment areas, and detailed recordkeeping practices over a long period, from which it
might be ascertained more accurately how case characteristics have changed over time. 

It would also greatly help the analysis of the current decline and future trends if data systems relating to relevant factors would be expanded, enhanced, and improved. Currently, data on sex crimes against children are artificially divided between the child protective system and the law enforcement system in a way that prohibits a comprehensive assessment of trends in the whole problem. 

Data from state child protection systems are not gathered in ways that are comparable across jurisdictions; therefore, comparisons of the effects of different policy environments are difficult. In the justice area, systematic information is not readily available on the demographics of persons prosecuted, convicted, incarcerated, or treated for sex crimes against children.

In addition, an understanding of the reasons for the decline has been greatly hampered by the failure of communities to evaluate their varied prevention and intervention efforts. More effort should be made prospectively to observe trends and outcomes as communities implement various prosecution, treatment, community, and school-based educational efforts. In this way, a better inventory of
the more and less successful strategies could be tracked in
conjunction with the relative decline in different locales.

Researchers may not be able to fully answer the question of why this most recent decline has occurred; however, it is important to be better prepared to understand the sources of any continuing or future declines. To what extent do prevention education, increased public awareness, greater prosecution, and incarceration play roles? 

Answering such questions can help policymakers formulate policies that will extend and accelerate the decline in sexual abuse and, perhaps, in other forms of child maltreatment. 


[Cfr: Jones, Lisa, and David Finkelhor, The Decline in Child Sexual Abuse Cases, Juvenile Justice bulletin, January 2001. In Ipce Library: Highlights & Conclusions.]


* Paul R. Abramson. A House Divided: Suspicions of
Mother-Daughter Incest (Based on a True Story). New York: Norton, 2001. 

* Devon B. Adams. Summary of State Sex Offender Registries. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2002. 

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* Kevin Bales. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global
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* David Race Bannon. Race Against Evil: The Secret Missions of the Interpol Agent Who Tracked the World's Most Sinister Criminals:
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* Kathryn Brohl. When Your Child Has Been Molested: A Parents' Guide to Healing and Recovery. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004. 

* Amitai Etzioni. The Limits of Privacy. New York: Basic Books, 1999. 

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* Stephen G. Michaud. The Evil That Men Do: FBI Profiler Roy Hazelwood's Journey into the Minds of Sexual Predators. New York: St. Martin's, 1999. 

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* Jeffrey Bartholet. "The Web's Dark Secret," Newsweek, March 19, 2001. 

* Sandra G. Boodman. "How Deep the Scars of Abuse? Some Victims Crippled; Others Stay Resilient," Washington Post, July 29, 2002. 

* Tom Chiarella. "My Education," Esquire, May 2003. 

* John Cloud. "Pedophilia," Time, April 29, 2002. 

* Kevin Culligan. "Sacred Rage and Rebuilding the Church: Jesus Shows How Emotions Can Move Us to Action," National Catholic Reporter, September 13, 2002. 

* Theodore Dalrymple. "Our Great Societal Neverland," National Review, December 22, 2003. 

* Judy Dutton. "Why She Slept with Her Student," Redbook, August 2002. 

* Catherine Edwards. "Sex-Slave Trade Is Thriving," Insight on the News, August 13, 2001.

* Marilyn Elias. "Gays and the Catholic Church Sex Abuse
Crisis," USA Today, July 16, 2002.

* Annette Foglino. "Teachers Who Prey on Kids: Why They're Still Going Free," Good Housekeeping, December 1, 2003.

* David France. "Confessions of a Fallen Priest," Newsweek,
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* Bill Hewitt. "Breaking the Silence: Often Shamed and Ignored, Victims of Sexual Abuse by Priests Are Speaking Out, Putting Pressure on the Catholic Church to Confront the Problem Once and for All," People Weekly, April 1, 2002.

* Toni Cavanagh Johnson. "Sexualized Children and Children Who Molest," SIECUS Report, October/November 2000.

* Tamara Jones. "The Predator in the Classroom: It's Called
'Pass the Trash,'" Good Housekeeping, May 2003.

* Linda Marsa. "Treat the Abuser, Reduce the Risk?" Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2002.

* Liza Mundy. "America's Dirty Little Secret," Redbook,
September 2001.

* Warren Richey. "Megan's Law Faces High-Court Test," Christian Science Monitor, November 13, 2002.

* Kit R. Roane. "The Long Arm of Abuse," U.S. News & World Report, May 6, 2002.

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* Jessica Snyder Sachs. "Preventing the Unthinkable: Are You Doing All You Can to Protect Your Child from Sexual Abuse?" Parenting, October 1, 2003.

* Allen Salkin. "'My Female Pastor Molested Me,'" Cosmopolitan, August, 2002.

* Brandon Spun. "Closed Doors and Childhoods Lost," Insight on the News, January 28, 2002.

* Richard E. Vatz. "Sexual Predator Statutes and Psychiatric
Confusion," USA Today Magazine, July 2001.

* Wendy Murray Zoba. "The Hidden Slavery," Christianity Today, November 2003.

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