Fantastic (Under-reported) News: Child Abuse WAY DOWN!

Hi Readers — Yes, it’s true! According to this story by the Associated Press, a “massive” federal study finds that child abuse has declined a whopping 26% from 1993 to 2006. What’s more, child sexual abuse is down even more dramatically: 38%!

The reasons seem to be a combination of higher awareness of the crime, less tolerance of it, less shame in reporting it, and more professionals (cops, teachers, social workers, therapists) focused on its prevention and detection. On the perp side, more arrests for the crime seems to have helped, as have therapeutic drugs that tamp down criminal urges. (I always like to say when the criminally insane feel less insane, they become less criminal. But I’m not sure that’s PC.)

According to David Finkelhor, a guy I quote a lot in my book who is head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, “We’ve seen substantial declines over a long period and that’s tremendously encouraging.” In other words: This is not a fluke. Child abuse has been going down for a while.

What’s less encouraging is the fact that this study was not the lead story in every American news outlet. (Yoo hoo! Nancy Grace!)  If child abuse was UP 26%, I doubt it would have been buried. And certainly the story of a single, horrific case can make headlines for days, or weeks. But, as this AP article points out, it’s possible the multi-million dollar report was issued without much fanfare — not even a press release —  because dollars do not flow to problems that are decreasing. You can’t write a grant saying, “Now that there are fewer kids in danger we need more money.”

Cynically I must add that good news about kids and safety does not sell newspapers, or TV air time or parenting magazines or…anything. In fact, it is such an odd story, it violates the whole “Is you child in peril?! Stay tuned!” news template.

So let’s not minimize the problem that still exists — a 26% drop is not a 100% drop, after all. But let us celebrate some good news, even if no one else will. — Lenore

32 Responses

  1. Of course saying the criminally insane become less criminal when they become less insane isn’t PC. I don’t read this blog to be bombarded with PC. I’d go read MSNBC or something if I wanted that.

    I think this is just confirming what we’ve already known: crimes are falling; fears are misplaced. Of course, this won’t make the news. The only thing that will be said is that “crimes against children are up dramatically” to be used for arguments for greater police power.

  2. 1993 to 2006 is a long time. That’s a drop of 2% a year for abuse, and 3% a year for sex abuse. Which isn’t bad, but is neither terribly dramatic.

  3. Thank you for sharing this good news!

  4. @jb It’s true that the time range is long, but what that also indicates is this: it’s not just an aberration. See? Lots of ways to interpret statistics.

  5. Thank you for spreading the good news. It’s just more proof of the fear mongering that is prevalent in today’s society!

  6. Woot! 🙂 Thanks for making my Wed morning even better, Lenore.

  7. Yeah! This confirms my experience in social work – the biggest risk factors for children have way more to do with poverty than with abuse. (I would never claim that abuse does not happen – have attended far too many Emergency Room visits with kids.) But really, the majority of my case load was associated with neglect – which was associated with poverty.

    Newspapers would much rather report on child molesters (“them”) than on the deficits of a culture that accepts child hunger, poverty, and homelessness as somewhat inevitable (“Us”)!.

  8. I think a long term downward tend is far better news than a one off drop. Indicates a cultural change that may stick.

    I note none of the people offering explanations for the drop were actually on the research team so I’d take their explanations with apinch of salt. More likely to reflect the philosophical leaning of their organizations than any actolusl findings from the research.

    It’s a huge shame (and a real problem for the scientific method) that money drives research publishing so much. I would argue that organizations should be able to use the good news to get money too – as in, look it works, with more money it will work better – but that doesn’t really address the issue fully.

    Thanks for bringing this story to wider attention Lenore. I would have completely missed it otherwise.

  9. Well, of course it’s been under-reported. I’ve spent more time in the newsroom than I have in the chow line (which is saying something) and I always say that it’s like the old saying about laws and sausages – if you love the news you don’t ever want to see a reporters/ editors meeting at a newspaper. Trying to pitch a good-news story is about like a Chihuahua trying to pass a peach pit, or getting approval to follow a “smoking gun” lead on a scandal involving one of the publisher’s golf partners. Which is why I refer to myself as a “recovering journalist.”

  10. That’s great news but, unfortunately, when it does hit the mainstream media they will just spin it to show how being an over-vigilant helicopter parent is a good thing because by keeping those kids under constant lock and key they are safer.

    Any time I mention the fact that crimes against kids are going down or the chance of a child being kidnapped is very rare on any other site I’m told that’s because more people keep their kids inside and it will be my kid that’s a statistic.

    Sadly, I can’t find a way to combat it. The heli parents don’t look at statistics they only understand Nancy Grace and the fear mongers who plaster a pretty face all over the news for weeks and months and tell us how dangerous our world is.

  11. Great news, but with the downturn in the economy I wonder if those stats will rise. I remember reading a news blurb that after Katrina, that there was a rise in child abuse from stress/neglect by the parents of the population affected by it.

    I know in our public school system, the school’s social worker does a lot of outreach to parents of what I like to call ‘fragile families’ termed by a Princeton study that do lie in the at risk column due to economic stresses and lack of family stability. Once a month at the local elementary they have a parent’s workshop on positive discipline open to everyone.

  12. (I always like to say when the criminally insane feel less insane, they become less criminal. But I’m not sure that’s PC.)

    It is 100% true. I would say half my drug clients are self-medicating their mental health issues. Almost all of my truly insane clients were off their meds at the time they committed the crime. You get them compliant with their meds and they largely stop committing crimes. Get them compliant with their meds so that they can get a job and they really stop committing crimes.

    And nothing has been looked into for depression as a cause for some violent behavior and/or antidepressants as an aid. We know that bipolar and depressed children often act violently. Why should that stop at adulthood (particularly when so many criminals have the emotional development of a 12 year old)? As someone who once took Zoloft, I can attest that my patience level and the point when anger set in went up when I was on the meds. That could mean a world of difference considering so many child abuse (and other domestic violence) cases are the result of a momentary of loss of patience and anger rather than systematic abuse.

  13. Well, I will do my part to get the news out via Twitter, Facebook, and *shocker* good old-fashioned face-to-face conversations. It’s nice to now have research in hand to show that our world is not getting scarier by the hour!

  14. This is wonderful to know!! Because of how our society is getting worse I am mildly shocked that it hasn’t increase. But this is good news!!

  15. Another reason why it’s not touted is because the improvement happened during both Democratic and Republican administrations, so neither can claim credit (or use as a hammer against the other).

    You’re right of course about the criminally insane. But the action that follows from that observation is to spend more resources on mental health. That’s not really a sexy issue. Especially when the “beneficiary” can be painted by Nancy Grace and Co. as some whack-job lunatic who deserves the needle rather than medical care. Forgetting of course that crimes that are prevented by adequate mental health care never ever make the news because there’s no story. “Seemingly normal man takes his medication, see his therapist, doesn’t harm himself or others, news at 11.” I think not.

  16. All I have to say is, thank you, Forrest Gump!

  17. It’s important to note that researchers did NOT cite children being kept indoors or under a more watchful eye as one of the reasons for a decrease in child sexual abuse!

  18. I just took a look at the report (which can be found here: ) and wanted to clarify something Lenore posted – according to the report child abuse cases are down 19%, it is the *rate* of child abuse that is down 26% (due to a growing child population these two figures are different).

    This doesn’t change the overall message – Great News! We should shout about it more! – But statistics are slippery things so it’s important to be precise.

  19. A 2% drop per year consistently (or on average) of ANYTHING over 13 years is HUGE!

    Of course we all want to see it go down 100%, but I don’t understand the point of breaking it down by year and then saying it’s “only” 2 or 3%. It’s still really significant.

    Thanks helenquine for digging into and clarifying the statistics. Specifying that it’s the rate and not the total incidence is definitely important.

  20. That’s all kinds of awesome, and a constant decline definitely implies some cultural shifting. I wonder how much the acceptance of “childfree” has helped here. I’m 25, and I have a lot of friends who have decided never to have children because they don’t like them, or were abused themselves and know they’d be bad parents, or are simply disinclined to parent. A generation ago, would people have considered intentional childlessness? I see this in every family reunion, because everyone my mom’s age and older thinks I should be pregnant by now (I’ve been married for 18 months) and when I respond that I definitely don’t want kids in the next 5 years, and maybe not at all there’s a definite generational divide in the response. My aunts are shocked, and my cousins think that’s normal.

    I would guess we’ll see an uptick in abuse in about 10 years, as the people who got stuck with abstinence-only “education” accidentally have kids, especially since the recession means they’ll have less money than people the same age 5 years ago.

  21. Emaloo,

    People are ambivalent about children and rightly so. That’s fine. Just don’t go completely negative as a whole. I think just as you put it, we are identifying factors that affected our own childhoods. Both good and bad, I believe it can be worked, whether it be personally in a marriage or even intervention through community resources such as the social worker helping parents I mention in my previous post..

    Being in the same age range, seven years older with four children, I get comments on the other end of the spectrum.

  22. Renee: I think Emaloo was merely saying that today’s parents are more likely to be parents because they really wanted kids, as opposed to because it’s “what everybody does” or because of unintended pregnancies.

    Jen: You have to ask your questioners whether or not they believe in elementary-school arithmetic. Strangers commit less than 10% of all child sexual abuse, and even less of other forms of child abuse. Therefore, even if stranger abuse had been completely eliminated it could lead to no more than a 10% drop. Helicopter parenting can only protect kids against stranger abuse, so it couldn’t possibly produce reductions of the size we’re seeing.

    One caveat: we’re talking about reported/detected abuse. One trend that a lot of people don’t realize is happening is that the divorce rate has gone down quite a bit in the last few decades (and it’s never been as high as the popularly-accepted figure of 50%; that came from a period in the 80s when there were roughly two GenX marriages per Boomer divorce; that ratio is meaningless since it’s not logically possible for one couple’s marriage to end in another couple’s divorce). An awful lot of allegations of abuse, particularly sexual abuse, arise in divorce proceedings. So we may be seeing a decline in situations in which abuse becomes particularly visible. On the other hand, it’s very likely that we’re also seeing a decline in false allegations used as hardball tactics in divorce/custody cases, as well as a decline in false allegations due to improper therapy techniques.

  23. Great to see a significant drop. That’s the news for you. If it’s not bad news, why report it?

  24. I have a hard time reading an article on this subject that does not consider the advent of the INTERNET as an outlet to be a cause for the decrease as well.

  25. @Renee,

    My point was more that more parents these days want to be parents, as ebohlman said, and therefore, you’d expect less neglect. I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear. I can’t imagine what you must put up with on the other end of the spectrum. I’m sure it’s just as irritating to be told you had kids too young or too many as it is to be told you aren’t having them soon enough!

  26. […] counted Bush Administration losses correctly; I couldn’t have said it better either; at least child abuse is down!; where genetic testing and “pro-life” collide; trees are loving global warming (much […]

  27. Emaloo — for the records, yes it is. 🙂 (Mom of 5, beginning at age 25, with friends who had kids at 19.)

  28. It was on the front page of the San Diego Union Tribune

  29. We did cover this on Strollerderby – it’s great news! And makes me feel even better about raising my kids with *less* fear of abuse than I was brought up with, instead of more.

  30. […] Now, this is some good news! […]

  31. […] Good news for us, reports Lenore Skenazy, which means bad news for newspapers and politicians: Child abuse is down, WAY DOWN. […]

  32. The worst part of the article is the negative comments. No one believes the stats. Not that stats can’t be twisted, but people refuse to believe that abuse is down. Someone actually said “abusers are just getting better at hiding it!” What a sad life those commenters must lead.

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