Sex Abuse in U.S. in 20-Year Decline; Teen Births at All-Time Low

LOS ANGELES—In the wake of the ever-expanding child sex abuse scandal at Penn State, AP reporter David Crary reminds us that the United States has experienced a dramatic drop in such cases over the past 20 years.

“Of the two most authoritative national reports,” he wrote, “one shows incidents of child sex abuse down more than 55 percent since 1992 and the other documents a 38 percent drop between 1993 and 2006. There are many reasons: more vigorous efforts by police and prosecutors, growing public awareness, effective treatment of abusers, better screening of people who deal regularly with children.”

The Penn State episode reveals that an extremely disturbing level of institutional denial still exists in the country, and no one in the child protection field is ready to claim victory when tens of thousands of minors are still abused annually, but the statistics nonetheless reveal marked progress in dealing with a crime whose victims are all but powerless to stop.

The perception that things have never been worse, while inaccurate, is understandable considering the media’s proclivity to report bad news first, but according to Chris Newlin, executive director of the National Children's Advocacy Center in Huntsville, Ala., there is a real world reason why the reality of the situation needs to be promoted.

"We should change our messaging," he said. "We should be saying, `We have meaningful programs that are making a difference in reducing child abuse, and now is the time to continue–if not increase–your support of these efforts.'"

One of the worst by-products of the false perception is the tendency for victims or their parents not to report assaults. Sometimes they stay silent out of guilt, shame or fear; sometimes because they do not think anything will be done. Unfortunately, the Penn State episode will only reinforce the latter apprehension. But the fact remains that nationally, and state by state, the numbers indicate substantial decreases in the number of sexual abuse cases handled by professional agencies.

For instance, in Pennsylvania, reported Crary, “the number of substantiated sexual abuse reports handled by the Office of Children, Youth and Families dropped from 2,501 in 2000 to 1,963 in 2010.”

Pennsylvania data also supports national data that indicates most victims of child sex abuse know their abusers.

“Studies suggest that only about 5 percent of child sex abuse is perpetrated by a stranger, with about 40 percent committed by family members and the rest by an acquaintance of either the child or the family,” reported Crary. “Those demographics represent a major challenge if further inroads are to be made against child sex abuse, according to Mark Chaffin, a pediatrics professor who directs research at the University of Oklahoma's Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.”

Teen Pregnancies

A just-released study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows teen pregnancies hit an all-time low in 2010. The data was culled from 100 percent of birth records collected in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. 

“The birth rate for teenagers aged 15–19 has declined for the last three years and 17 out of the past 19 years, falling to 34.3 births per 1,000 teenagers in 2010—a 9 percent decline from 2009 and the lowest rate ever recorded in nearly seven decades of collecting data,” said the CDC in a press release issued Thursday. “Birth rates for younger and older teenagers and for all race/ethnic groups reached historic lows in 2010.”

Other findings from the study include:

* The total number of births in the United States declined 3 percent, from 4,130,665 in 2009 to 4,000,279 in 2010.

* The overall fertility rate also fell by 3 percent from 66.2 births per 1,000 females aged 15–44 in 2009 to 64.1 in 2010. This is the third straight decline for the overall fertility rate in the United States. 

* The total number of births to unmarried mothers declined for the second year in a row to 1,633,785, down from 1,693,658 in 2009.

* The birth rate for unmarried mothers also fell to 47.7 per 1,000 unmarried mothers in 2010 compared to 49.9 in 2009. The percentage of births to unmarried mothers also declined slightly in 2010 to 40.8 percent compared to 41 percent in 2009.

* The birth rate for women in their early twenties fell 6 percent in 2010.  The rates also fell for women in their late twenties and thirties. However, the birth rate for women in their early forties increased to 10.2 per 1,000 women 2010 compared to 10 in 2009, making it the highest birth rate for this age group since 1967.

* The preterm birth rate declined for the fourth straight year in 2010, to just under 12 percent of all births (11.99) – a 6 percent drop from 2006.

* The low birthweight rate was essentially unchanged between 2009 and 2010 at less than 8.2 percent in 2010, but is down slightly from the record high of 8.3 in 2006.

Though no one would dare say that either child sexual abuse or teen pregnancies are societal issues that no longer need to be dealt with, there remains a dedicated faction of social conservatives who continue to promote the unsupported notion that the country is headed in the wrong direction when it comes to sexual abuse and under-age sex. They usually (and increasingly) point to porn, and especially internet porn, as the original sin, the gateway drug that leads to all other sins, and declare that we are in the middle of a national health crisis as a result.

Maybe, instead of pointing to bogeymen of their own making, they should take a hard look at the data, and take a moment to listen to Sarah Brown, CEO of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, who made the following comments yesterday in reaction to the CDC results.

"I am aware of no other social problem that has improved so dramatically over so many years," said Brown. "Progress in reducing teen pregnancy has been nothing short of remarkable—the teen birth rate has declined a stunning 44 percent between 1991 and 2010. There have been impressive declines in all 50 states and among all racial/ethnic groups. Not so long ago, teen pregnancy was viewed as intractable and inevitable. This report shows that too early pregnancy and child-bearing are 100 percent preventable.

"The magic formula of less sex and more contraception is responsible for this great good news," she continued. "Teens are being more careful for a number of reasons, including the recession, more media attention to this issue—including the '16 and Pregnant/Teen Mom effect'—and more attention to and investment in evidence-based programs. But at the end of the day, the thanks and admiration go to teens themselves."

The full CDC study can be accessed here.