Child Sexual Abuse in the United States- Problems and Progress

By Kate Blain - June 2007

Reports of child sexual abuse are on the increase, and that’s a plus. That it still is underreported is a problem.So say experts who deal with abused children. Getting to the truth is not easy.

A study by David Finkelhor, Ph.D., director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) at the University of New Hampshire, Dunham, New Hampshire, seems to sum up the problem of evaluating child sexual abuse in the United States in one sentence: “There is no single source for statistics on child victimizations.”

Experts say that the sexual abuse of children is underreported – even more so than other crimes against society’s most vulnerablemembers – but the same experts are encouraged by an increasing tendency to report abuse and the decreasing rate of its occurrence in this country.

The statistics may be improving, but they are still disturbing. According to a 2001 National Crime Victimization Survey, 1.9 of every 1,000 children in the United States are raped or sexually assaulted each year. CCRC studies estimate that from 1990-2003, the number dropped from 2.3 per 1,000 children to 1.2. That’s a 46 percent drop in substantiated cases, but it still leaves children being sexually assaulted at a rate three times higher than that for adults.

"Better abuse reporting means “something’s working,” stated Finkelhor. He attributes the decline in cases to economic improvements, prevention efforts, incarceration of offenders and the use of psychiatric medications for both juvenile and adult offenders.

Marsha Gilmer-Tullis of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children added to that list the fact that teachers, law enforcement officials and medical personnel are now mandated reporters, required by law to report suspected abuse. Education is the key, she said. Where children were once told to avoid strangers, families now understand that abusers are more often known to a child than not.

Charol Shakeshaft, Ph.D., of Hofstra University, who studies sexual abuse by educators, broke down the statistics as follows: 25 percent of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by a parent or “parent substitute”; another 25 percent is by other relatives; and the rest is mostly by acquaintances. Only a small percentage of abusers are unknown to their victims.

Child sexual abuse crosses all boundaries of race or age. Girls are abused much more often than boys, comprising from 78-89 percent. A third of those who perpetrate sexual abuse on children are juveniles themselves.

Whether socioeconomic status plays a role in abuse likelihood is debatable; but the experts agreed that whatever factors cause a child to be vulnerable can ontribute to sexual abuse. Finkelhor cited parental alcoholism and marital conflict as contributing factors; a major American research project, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, pointed out that “household dysfunction” such as domestic violence, mental illness of a parent or drug use in a child’s home often went hand-in-hand with sexual abuse occurrence – abuse which, in turn, was revealed to “have a powerful relation to adult health a half-century later.”

“If you’re a child being bullied, your family’s struggling [or] your esteem is not as high as it should be, you’re vulnerable to being groomed or seduced by somebody who’s able to hook into those insecurities,” Gilmer-Tullis concluded.

Finkelhor said that children in dysfunctional homes are also more likely to have an “impaired level of supervision” by parents, making them easier targets for abusers. In addition, children tend to classify persons as strangers or friends according to how often they see them, so a child might believe he or she “knows” a passing acquaintance and thus be vulnerable to an abuser.

For a vulnerable child, no place is safe from sexual abuse. Although Shakeshaft said there’s little data on the careers abusers are likely to choose or the sites where abuse most often occurs, the experts agreed that it’s irrelevant: Perpetrators make it their business to find children, wherever they are.

“Individuals who are going to prey on children are going to put themselves in situations where they have access to children. That could be anything [from] volunteering [to] sports programs,” said Gilmer-Tullis. She believes parents too often worry about their children’s safety on the playground, but aren’t concerned enough about other situations.

Perpetrators of sexual abuse, most of whom are male, speak a language that vulnerable children often want to hear.Gilmer-Tullis recalled instances in which predators acted appalled at a parent’s limits on a child, telling the child, “But you’re so mature.” Abusers also build trust by claiming to understand the
child better than anyone else, and flatter their victims with compliments.

Shakeshaft split sexual abusers into two categories: fixated abusers, who get their sexual gratification from children and are hard to stop from acting out; and opportunistic abusers, who are less likely to commit abuse when closely supervised.

Again, the experts disagreed on whether offender-based prevention programs work. Finkelhor said it’s possible that in-creased arrests might deter abusers, or that intensive therapy programs and monitoring could help; Shakeshaft noted that abusers rarely stay in places where they can be well-monitored. Gilmer-Tullis stated that “nothing is going to prevent an abuser from trying to approach a child.”

She added that most abusers have preferences for specific traits in children (for instance, a perpetrator might seek out nine-year-old girls with brown hair), “and those preferences are not going to go away. That’s why education is so important for children.”

Prevention programs that focus on teaching children and those around them to guard against sexual abuse seem to be having positive effects.
Shakeshaft’s studies on sexual abuse by educators list many points to make with children, from avoiding adults who want to spend time alone with them to becoming aware that behavior changes in their friends might indicate that they have been abused.

“Rumors are an important source of information on educator sexual misconduct,” she notes in one study.

Child-focused programs need to be expanded, said Finkelhor, who hopes to see progress on Internet safety regulations, help for juvenile offenders and more discussion of sexual abuse of teenagers.

Finkelhor also believes that better abuse reporting can be encouraged by making the process easier on the victim, “decreasing the burden and trauma of the investigation.”

“Speed up the investigation and trial; make sure the kids are interviewed by sensitive and trained individuals; reduce the likelihood of retaliation [by abusers]; make sure [victims] get counseling in the aftermath,” he adds.

Children who come forward to say they have been abused are likely to be telling the truth, said Gilmer-Tullis. Finklehor noted that young victims who report sexual abuse should be applauded: “Kids who come forward need to be honored for their courage. There are big reforms we need to make there.”