Child sex abuse on decline for last 20 years

Despite high profile cases involving Penn State, the Boy Scouts and other organizations, incidents of child sex abuse have been declining in the US for the last 20 years.

NEW YORK — Increased public awareness of how child predators operate, along with better law enforcement and policies to protect children, may be helping to reduce child sex abuse despite this year's headlines about cases connected to institutions like Penn State, the Boy Scouts and the BBC.

A recent report from the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center found incidents of child sexual abuse have been declining in the U.S. for 20 years, with some statistics showing decreases as steep as 60 percent.

The findings may be surprising given the high-profile cases in the news. But many of those incidents took place years, sometimes decades, ago. Ironically, experts say, publicity surrounding such scandals may help reduce the problem.

"One or two or even five or 10 high publicity cases are not going to stop the problem in its tracks," said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and a UNH sociology professor. "But there is a lot of evidence that the greater awareness and actions taken to improve safety in the wake of these things does reduce the amount of abuse."

The October report from the Crimes Against Children Research Center showing a decrease in child sexual abuse since the early 1990s is based on information from government agencies, FBI crime reports and national surveys. It includes data from state child protective agencies showing a 62 percent decline in substantiated sex abuse claims between 1992 and 2010, and a national crime survey that found a 69 percent decline in sexual assaults against teens from 1993 to 2008.

Finkelhor said that in decades past, pedophiles often behaved with impunity: "They thought nobody would ever detect them because they never heard of people getting caught, but nowadays they get caught, they get prosecuted, they get incarcerated," which "has a big deterrent effect."

In addition, said Finkelhor, "we've increased guardianship. Parents and leaders and staff people working in organizations are much more aware of the problem than they used to be and therefore take steps to reduce the likelihood that this will occur."

In some cases that made headlines, parents allowed children to have sleepovers or go on trips with adults who later turned out to be pedophiles. At Penn State, the school's former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of molesting children he met through a charity he founded. Revelations also emerged this year about a prestigious New York City private school, Horace Mann, where students said they were molested in teachers' homes and on school trips.

Michele Galietta, director of clinical psychology training at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a researcher on a 2004 report by John Jay about sex abuse by Catholic priests, agreed that public awareness has a major impact on child sex abuse: "Publicity around big scandals like Penn State, the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, sensitizes people to the fact that a predator is more likely to be a neighbor, family friend, or familiar person" than the old stereotype of a creepy stranger or kidnapper.

Galietta added that while child sex abuse remains a serious problem, "because the stories are everywhere, it forces people to have conversations. Especially with boys, it used to be such a shameful thing, they could never tell anyone. Now if someone were to approach them, they wouldn't feel like they had to keep it secret."

Devorah Goldburg, spokeswoman for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, also agreed that high-profile cases have made parents and others more conscious of warning signs, such as "if someone with a youth organization is spending more time with one person than another, or giving them special invitations."

Kelly Clark, a lead attorney in a successful $20 million lawsuit over the Boy Scouts' failure to report sex abuse accusations against Scout leaders from 1959 to 1985, cited the Catholic Church as an example of an institution where reforms changed a culture that once protected molesters.

"The fact is, we don't see a Catholic priest getting arrested once a month these days," he said. "The Catholic Church is undoubtedly a safer place than it was 20 years ago. It's not because the bishops got the holy spirit but because they got sued over and over again and the insurance company said, 'We can't have this.'"

The program used by the Catholic Church, VIRTUS, is a three-hour course that trains individuals to recognize signs of behavior that suggest potential sexual abuse and intervene. (The word VIRTUS is Latin for moral excellence.) VIRTUS was developed by the church's insurance company, the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, and it's mandatory for anyone who interacts with kids in church-sponsored activities.

Sister Pat Hudson, a therapist and VIRTUS consultant, says that "after people are trained, they have a keen awareness. So many times, cases have come forward where people have said they noticed something," such as adults who are overly affectionate or who single certain kids out for gifts.

Behaviors like that can be signs of "grooming," where adults cultivate children's trust as a gateway to sexual activity. VIRTUS stresses the importance of communicating concerns both to the perceived offender and to those in charge.

Many children's organizations also now mandate screening — including criminal background checks — for volunteers as well as employees. In addition, the "two-adult rule" — forbidding an adult to be alone with a child unless someone else is present — has become standard in children's activities, including team sports.

Finkelhor noted that "the priest abuse problem declined precipitously starting in the late 1980s, suggesting that as people started to pay attention to it there, the problem got reined in. The recently released data from the Boy Scouts show a decline in recent years there too as they've started to pay more attention to the problem. And there's data that shows recidivism among sexual offenders has been declining as well, which suggests we're doing a better job keeping them from reoffending." Finkelhor has served as a consultant on child abuse both to the church and the Boy Scouts.

The Boy Scouts now require volunteers to complete youth protection training, which focuses on preventing sex abuse, every two years, according to spokesman Deron Smith.

At the BBC in England, the late Jimmy Savile, a popular children's entertainer, has been accused of molesting dozens of young girls in the 1970s and '80s. Victims say their original complaints were ignored, and police said the case has created a "watershed moment," with many adults reporting other claims of sex abuse they suffered as kids.

Brian Claypool, an attorney for families in Miramonte, Calif., where a teacher allegedly fed students semen-laced cookies, says headlines about these types of cases create "a ripe opportunity for our country to wake up." But he'd like to see "an independent agency or portal where parents can make a report of suspected child abuse. The one common thread in all these huge scandals is the first place where this is being reported is inefficient and ineffective. The people you report to have a conflict of interest to not do anything about it."

He added: "It's not a matter of if it can happen again, but when will it happen again, and will we find out about it?"

Details on the recent report

Here are details on data from the report, written by UNH professors David Finkelhor and Lisa Jones and published in the center's October 2012 bulletin.

—The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, which aggregates data from state child protective agencies, shows a 62 percent decline in rates of substantiated sexual abuse between 1992 and 2010. The raw numbers showed a drop from 150,000 to 63,000 cases, primarily in cases involving abuse by family members and other caregivers, who are statistically the most likely perpetrators in child sex abuse cases, although they are less likely to be the subject of news stories.

—The National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, a sample survey of professionals who work with children conducted by the federal government once a decade, documented a 47 percent decline in sexual abuse between 1993 and 2005.

—FBI statistics based on local law enforcement crime reports show a 35 percent drop between 1992 and 2010. The FBI does not break down rape by age of victim, but over 50 percent of victims of reported rapes are under 18, so a drop in FBI rape statistics is considered a good indicator of a drop in sex crimes against minors.

—The National Crime Victimization Survey, which collects information annually from a nationally representative sample of tens of thousands of U.S. households every six months, asks about sexual assault among 12- to 17-year-olds and found a 69 percent decline in the annual rate of sexual assaults against teens 1993-2008.

—The Minnesota Student Survey, conducted every three years among sixth, ninth and 12th grade public school students in selected school districts, asks about sexual abuse by family members and non-family members. The survey found between 1992 and 2010 that there was a 29 percent decline in sexual abuse by non-family members and a 28 percent decline in abuse by family members.

—The National Survey of Family Growth gathers information every few years from national samples of women ages 15-44 about sexual and reproductive activity. Between 1995 and 2008, NSFG found a 39 percent decline in the women age 15-25 who reported that their first experience with intercourse was before age 15 with a person three or more years older.

—The National Survey of Children Exposed to Violence, conducted in 2008, found 2 percent of children ages 2-17 had been sexually assaulted, down from 3.3 percent in a similar survey five years earlier.

One survey in the UNH report did not find a significant decline: The National Survey of Adolescents, in two studies 10 years apart, reported what UNH researchers described as a "non-significant decline" in sexual assault for girls, from 13.2 percent in 1995 to 11.5 percent in 2005, and a "non-significant rise for boys" from 3.5 percent to 3.8 percent.

The UNH researchers noted that other indicators of child welfare that could be associated with sexual abuse have also declined, including teen suicide, down 30 percent from 1990 to 2010; teen runaways as measured by police arrests, down 60 percent; and teen births, down 55 percent from 1991 to 2010.

In addition, violent crime rates overall in the U.S. have been declining for the past two decades. However, the researchers noted that there was conflicting data on whether there have been similar declines in the non-sexual physical abuse and neglect of children.

Although many high-profile child sex abuse cases have involved molestation of boys by men, including cases from Penn State, the Boy Scouts, and the Catholic Church, Finkelhor said that statistically, "about four girls are victimized for every one boy, and 95 percent of all offenders are males." However, he noted that girls are more often victimized within the family while boys are often victimized outside the family.