Preventing Childhood Sexual Abuse

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Chances are that you or someone you know has been sexually abused. David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, writes in the Future of Children that approximately 3% of children are likely victimized in a single year, and 25-40% of women and 8-13% of men report a history of sexual abuse. Many potentially negative consequences can result from this type of abuse; thus, prevention and treatment should be a matter of public policy.

What type of person sexually abuses a child? The answer might not be what you think. Finkelhor explains that only 14% of sexual abuse victims who come to law enforcement attention are victimized by a stranger, while 26% are victimized by a family member and 60% are abused by someone in the family's social network. And it's not just adults who perpetrate--about a third of abusers are juveniles. Also, only a small percentage of new offenders have a prior record. Luckily, many abusers are relatively low-risk for re-offending once caught.

Some of these figures might seem frightening to parents who feel a lack of control over their children's safety. However, parents can use proactive strategies to protect their children, and if abuse happens, it should be reported promptly (regardless of who the perpetrator is) and followed immediately by professional treatment for victims. Having practiced social work with youth offenders and victims and their families, I understand it can sometimes be difficult to take the matter outside the family, but it really is in everyone's best interest.

Policy makers have tried to alleviate the problem by focusing primarily on offender management (for example, registering sex offenders, conducting background employment checks, controlling where offenders can live, and imposing longer prison sentences) and school-based educational programs (for example, teaching children how to identify dangerous situations, refuse an abuser's approach, and summon help). Surprisingly, there is little evidence to suggest that offender management prevents sexual abuse, despite its popularity. In addition to more research into these practices, Finkelhor recommends using law enforcement resources to catch more undetected offenders and concentrating intensive management efforts on those at highest risk to re-offend. School-based programs, on the other hand, have been shown to achieve some of their goals, but studies are inconclusive about whether these programs actually reduce victimization. For more information on how to prevent child abuse, see the Future of Children issue on Preventing Child Maltreatment.

1 Comment

I served for many years as an Assistant Public Guardian and as a conflict Bar attorney in the Cook County (IL) Juvenile Court. I just discovered this forum and am impressed with the range of articles and comments including the foregoing. However, what evidence do you have that once offenders are caught, repeat offenses by such sexual predators are not common? I thought evidence existed to the contrary. Of course, it is very common today to have the names, photos and residences of convicted predators listed on the Internet. That can serve as a reliable future safeguard for children's caregivers, who might find a stranger or other person in their community listed who may otherwise have contact with children. However as with any system, injustice to some listed can occur. Though it may be difficult to change the psyche of a child molester, some may be listed indefinitely as sexual perpetrators who have not committed such acts for decades. In addition, someone could be listed who had consensual sex with an underage child as a teenager, a 17 year old male with a 15 year old female, for example, and still be listed with older adults as a sexual perpetrator, with no mitigating factors stated. Thank you for providing this important forum.

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