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Child Sexual Abuse Has Declined
Quotes and highlights from:
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
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....
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
Although validity problems are always present with the
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 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.
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
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
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
In addition, localities with different trend patterns (steady
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.
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.]
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