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Explanations for the Decline in Child Sexual Abuse Cases

NCJ Number
Date Published
January 2004
12 pages
Using available data sources, this report reviews six possible explanations for the decline in child sexual abuse cases.
The number of sexual abuse cases substantiated by child protective service (CPS) agencies dropped by 40 percent between 1992 and 2000. Reasons for this decline have been speculative. This report explores the strengths and weaknesses of six plausible explanations for the decline by using data from four different sources: National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), child protective service data from four States, National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), and the Minnesota Student Survey. The six explanations for the decline in child sexual abuse cases include: (1) increasing conservatism within child protective service (CPS); (2) exclusion of cases that do not involve caretakers; (3) changes in CPS data collection methods or definitions; (4) less reporting to CPS due to a sexual abuse backlash; (5) a diminishing reservoir of older cases; and (6) a real decline in the incidence of sexual abuse. Highlighted findings include: (1) detailed evidence provided by four State CPS agencies offered little evidence that the decline was due to more conservative judgment by CPS or to increasing reluctance by CPS to become involved in cases where the perpetrator is not a primary caregiver; (2) no strong evidence to show that the decline was largely due to a diminishing reservoir of older, ongoing cases available for new disclosures; (3) some evidence that the sexual abuse decline in one State could be partly explained by changes in CPS procedures and data collection methods; (4) mixed evidence that reporting of sexual abuse to CPS declined because of a greater public and professional skepticism about reports of sexual abuse; (5) evidence from several sources showed a 56 percent decline in self-reported sexual assault against juveniles which is consistent with a real decline in sexual abuse; and (6) additional studies and improved data are needed to make crucially important decisions for public policy based on the factors that are most responsible for the decline. Figures and references

Date Published: January 1, 2004