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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Child Abuse: The Beginning of the End?

A recent study conducted by the government found that rates of child abuse have declined over 25% from 1993 to 2006. As a sociology graduate, I have always been fascinated by the reasons for statistical trends. Although the study in question focuses more on numbers than hypotheses, I thought a topic as important as this could use a brief examination.

Child abuse rears its ugly head in many forms. In particular, child abuse is manifest in three main categories: physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. The disturbing crime is prevalent in our society. In 1993, approximately 743,200 victims reported incidents of abuse. Over the course of 13 years, that number dropped to an estimated 553,000 victims. A major flaw in a study of this kind is that the researchers have to assume that all cases of child abuse are reported. Of course, this is not the case and the total number of victims is certainly higher. Nevertheless, this dramatic drop in reported cases gives great hope to the fight against child abuse.

First among the theories explaining the dramatic drop in child abuse rates is the idea that there is greater public awareness of the issue. Linda Spears, vice president for public policy for the Child Welfare League of America, states: "It was a hidden concern before-people were afraid to talk about it if it was in their family." She also surmises that the decline is due to social programs designed to help child abuse offenders.

A second thought is that rates have dropped because of a crackdown on child abuse during the 1990's. Although the "war on drugs" has yielded questionable results in terms of substance abuse rates, David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire, states that intensified efforts by the criminal justice system resulted in higher rates of arrest and prison terms for child abusers. Additionally, child protective services also saw an increase in their workforce. The result of Finkelhor's "troop surge" has apparently been a drop in child abuse rates.

Finkelhor also offers another theory which may have contributed to the decline in child abuse. Rather than focusing on the efforts of the public sector alone, he points out the potential benefits of pharmaceutical companies in the private sector. He believes that advances in medicine have given child abusers additional tools to overcome their behavior.

Stigma also plays a role in this issue-for better or worse. As long as our society focuses only on punishing offenders, there can be no great change in future behavior. However, when the possibility of rehabilitation enters the picture and we offer our support (while disdaining the act), future rates of child abuse can be dramatically curbed. This effect of stigma is something that is hard to overstate. In another place, I called for a "war on stigma" in addition to the wars we clamor for to combat various social ills. We can certainly do more to eliminate the evils of our society by looking at the entire picture and seeking to understand all of the issues.

A 26% decrease in reported child abuse rates does not signal the immediate end of the problem. It certainly does not ease the pains of those who have been and those who are currently victims. However, progress is progress. In this case, the results may be due to greater public awareness, a crackdown on child abuse by the public sector, advancements in medicine by the private sector, and/or a changing role of stigma in our society. Whether due to these theories or others yet unmentioned, the results of this study certainly offer hope for our future. It would be a great thing indeed if these results could be added upon, signaling the beginning of the end of child abuse.

* Information for this blog is taken from

* For a more detailed discussion on the role of stigma in combating social ills, see my 2009 article in the Hinckley Journal of Politics at:


  1. Could the drop be related to demographic changes? For example, if the baby boomers were the primary group of child abusers... and as they get older they are around children less, that would drop the rates, no? Do we know what demographic groups involve the most abuse?

  2. Demographics could certainly play a role. The number of theories which could be explored easily number in the tens. One group in particular has an exceptionally high rate of abuse. A child who lives with a mother who is cohabiting with another man is astronomically more likely to be abused that if the child lived in a traditional nuclear family.