Seminar on Child Sexual Abuse

Seminar on Child Sexual Abuse

Ralph C. Underwager
Hollida Wakefield

October, 1996

I. History and Scope of the Problem

A. Children have been abused by adults throughout history (Bakan, 1971; Wakefield & Underwager, 1988).

B. Beginning with the passage of the initial British child labor laws in the mid-nineteenth century, care and concern for children began to be addressed through government institutions and policies. The concept of a protected childhood in the home took hold in American and Western European culture. The history of the development of the system responding to child abuse demonstrates the scope and limitations of social change policies in a democratic society (Nelson, 1984).

1. Orphanages and institutions were built, adoption services, foster care systems, reformatories, and juvenile courts were established and compulsory education laws were passed.

2. In the United States, following the passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) in 1974, laws mandating reporting suspected child abuse were passed in all fifty states by 1976.

3. These laws made child abuse in the United States a national issue beginning in 1972 and focused federal intervention on the goal of assuring every child an abuse free life (Nelson, 1984).

4. The result in the United States was that there was a twenty-fold increase in the number of reports of all forms of child abuse and neglect.

a. In 1993 there were approximately three million reports of child abuse and neglect compared to 1963 when 150,000 cases were reported (Besharov & Laumann, 1996).

b. Of these total reports, nearly half were for sexual abuse (Lamb, 1994).

c. As a result of the reporting laws, child abuse and neglect deaths have fallen from 3000 to 5000 a year to about 1100 a year (Besharov & Laumann, 1996).

d. Much child abuse still goes unreported in the United States.

e. But there has also been a significant increase in the number of reports that are unfounded. In the United States the rate of unfounded reports is now between 60% and 65%. In 1974, the unfounded rate was 45% (Besharov & Laumann, 1996).

f. This dramatic increase in unfounded reports overloads the system and prevents help from reaching children who actually are being abused. The protective service agencies are making mistakes on both sides.

5. Most of the other Western industrialized nations have also witnessed substantial increases in the number of reported incidents of child abuse.

C. How common is child sexual abuse?

1. Incidence and prevalence

a. Incidence is the rate of new cases occurring during a prescribed period of time for a given population.

b. Prevalence is defined as the ratio of all active cases present in a specific population at a particular point in time.

c. Reported incidence rates are generally lower than prevalence rates.

d. Both reported incidence rates and prevalence rates of child sexual abuse are very inconsistent.

e. The incidence rate for 1992 in the United States was 0.7 and is lower in other countries (Lamb, 1994).

2. Estimates for prevalence range from 62% for women and 30% for males to 5% for females and 3% for males (Wakefield & Underwager, 1988).

3. The discrepancy in estimates is due to differences in methodology and definitions between studies. Studies differ on the ages of the victim and perpetrator, whether the study included noncontact experiences, the characteristics of the samples, and the method of data gathering.

4. A study with good methodology and a community sample of 3132 found a lower prevalence rate: 5.3% (6.8% for females and 3.8% for males) (Siegel, et al., 1987).

5. Studies in other countries have reported prevalence rates ranging from 7% to 36% for women and 3% to 29% for men (Finkelhor, 1994).

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