Summary: This project explores the dramatic decline in sexual abuse cases that has occurred across the U.S. during the 1990s. The goals of the study are to draw greater national attention to the declining trend and examine a number of possible reasons for why it is occurring.
After a fifteen-year increase, summary data put out by the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) show a 39% decrease in sexual abuse substantiations. Estimates from these data, extrapolated to the total U.S. child population show that substantiated cases of sexual abuse have dropped from almost 150,000 cases in 1992 to approximately 93,000 cases in 1999. The trend is not universal, but it is affecting the majority of states. Thirty-eight states experienced a total decline of 30% or more in substantiated sexual abuse during the 1990s. While declines have also occurred in other types of child maltreatment, the decline in sexual abuse has been much more consistent and has occurred over a greater period of time. Awareness of this remarkable trend and discussion of the possible reasons for its occurrence have been limited.
Goals and Objectives
The goals of the current project are:
- To examine the evidence for the trend in detail;
- Consider different hypotheses that might explain the trends;
- Alert policy makers and researchers to the need for further examination of this issue.
Two components of the research were used to develop a comprehensive list of possible causes for the decline:
- A telephone survey of state CPS officials was conducted in 43 states;
- A small expert panel was convened to gather further ideas on the declining trends. The panel included researchers, professionals involved in child abuse and neglect data collection, and state and federal child protection officials.
These sources offered a number of suggestions about why the decline might be occurring. The following were six explanations that were suggested frequently and that had logical plausibility and some anecdotal support:
- A real decline in incidence;
- A depleting reservoir of older, on-going cases available for new disclosures;
- A sexual abuse backlash that make reporters more reluctant to report sexual abuse;
- Increasing conservatism by CPS regarding more “questionable” cases or cases with weak initial evidence;
- Increasing exclusion by CPS of cases where the perpetrator is not a primary caregiver;
- Changes in CPS data collection methods or definition—such as going from three to two-tiered classification system.
- It is likely that the answer to the question why sexual abuse cases have declined in the 1990s is not a simple one. In all likelihood, multiple factors are involved in the trend. But it is important to identify which are playing a prominent role. The possibility that a real decline may have 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 more children failing to get help and services. In order to examine each of these possible causes more closely we are currently exploring a number of different sources of data:
- National data on related social variables such as adult sexual victimization, partner violence against women, general crime, teen pregnancy, child poverty, and divorce are being examined. These data show similar improvements over the same period of time as the decline in sexual abuse. These are all conditions that can be considered precursors or outcomes of sexual abuse, or could be affected by similar causal factors;
- Detailed state-level administrative data on child abuse investigations and substantiations from Oregon, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Minnesota. These were states with large declines and substantial data existing on cases of child abuse since the early 1990s. Information was obtained on sexual trends by victim age, victim gender, perpetrator relationship to the child, perpetrator age, and by other variables considered important to examining hypotheses for the national decline;
- Data on self-reported sexual assault by juveniles from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). The NCVS asks about rape and sexual assault for juvenile victims ages 12-17, and these include acts that are counted within the broader definition of child sexual abuse;
- Data from the Minnesota School Survey. This self-report survey has been given to schoolchildren in Minnesota every three years beginning in 1989. Included in the survey are two questions about sexual abuse experiences;
- Police report data to the National Incidence Based Reporting System (NIBRS) in South Carolina. NIBRS data in this state are available for 1990-1999 and provide information on trends in reports of sexual abuse to the police in this state.