A couple of weeks ago, I was working on a paper in which I needed to cite current statistics on the incidence of child sexual abuse by gender. I remembered having heard someone somewhere recently stating that the percentages had been updated. In asking a group of my colleagues, I got the usual one in four girls, one in seven boys, but these were the numbers I already knew and that most of us have been stating for years. That didn't answer my question as to whether these percentages had changed.
Alisa Klein from the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) obviously has a good memory for these sorts of things, because some several days after my first query, she sent along the link above.
For many years, child sexual abuse professionals including those within Child Advocacy Centers have held to a similar mantra – one in four girls and one in seven boys are victims of sexual abuse or assault before the age of 18. These alarming statistics have been a rallying point for communicating the prevalence of child sexual abuse in the United States. While these statistics were absolutely true many years ago, we must ask ourselves two primary questions -- Are they still accurate? If not, what should we do?
I've been quoting the 1:4 / 1:7 statistics since quite early in my career, feeling relatively safe in the knowledge that these alarming numbers were pretty solid in the research. But of late, I've been focusing on other research that seems to suggest that things may be changing. A few years ago, David Finkelhor won ATSA's Significant Achievement Award for his tremendous contributions to our field. During his address, Dr. Finkelhor told us of his research regarding declining rates of child sexual abuse (Finkelhor & Jones, 2006; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2009). I remember being shocked when he told us that rates had declined by 50% or more over the past quarter century.
Then, in the Spring of 2008, Andrew Harris from Public Safety Canada sent out an email asking for new Static-99 data sets, suggesting that declines in sexual recidivism had potentially rendered inaccurate the widely used outcome tables. It seemed that the tables were over-estimating risk, requiring empirical adjustment. Since that time, the Static-99 group has released new tables, but controversy remains as to how best to interpret such findings.
However, to get back on track, it would seem that these two related but not entirely related research streams should give us cause to think. My first thought was that this is really good news -- our efforts (vis a vis improved risk assessment techniques and advances in treatment best practices) are having an effect. However, the cynic in me asked whether there might be some other reason for these findings.
In workshops and classes I teach, I typically cite a number of reasons for decreased incidence of child sexual abuse and lower rates of reoffending:
- Many of the people currently in positions of authority either came of age during the 60s or are the children of those people. While some may remember that period as being typified by hippies, free love, and flower power, we need to remember that it was also a period of incredible social change. Of greatest importance was the realization that, as people, we needed to pay better attention to how we regarded one another (equal rights) and how we interacted with one another -- particularly regarding interpersonal violence and how well we protected those among us who are more vulnerable.
- The information age has helped us to get the message out to parents and citizens that there are things they can do to increase public safety.
- Research as to how best to treat offenders (including what to focus on) has blossomed in the past 20 years, to the point that we now have a much better clue what to do to help our clients to refrain from further sexually abusive behavior.
- We have much more effective tools for managing risk in the community (e.g., containment approaches, collaboration between stakeholders, Circles of Support & Accountability and other re-entry initiatives).
That's the perspective of Robin the Optimist. However, Robin the Not-So-Optimistic must concede that we have seen increases in both the rates of incarceration of offenders and the lengths of sentences they are assessed. In the USA, sexual offenders in almost half the states also face indefinite, involuntary civil commitment. So, it is also arguable that the rates of offending and abuse have also decreased because we have taken many of the riskiest offenders out of the risk pool.
Frankly, I like Chris Newlin's perspective better:
We have the data to support that two decades of coordinated efforts and resources are making a difference, so now we must adopt appropriate new messaging. "There are solutions that work, we are making incredible progress, and everyone has a role to play in efforts to end child abuse."
Nowhere in the piece does Chris actually suggest new statistics (although he hints that the ratios may have dropped). Rather, in closing his brief message, Chris suggests that we reframe our approach to the issue, in stating that the time has come for professionals to move out of "crisis mode" (in which we need to inform the public of the alarming statistics regarding child maltreatment and neglect) and to start trumpeting our successes and hope for continued advances in developing real solutions to this most troubling of social issues.