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Awareness, enforcement help reduce child sex abuse

Increased public  awareness of how child predators operate, along with better law enforcement and  policies to protect children, may be helping to reduce child sex abuse despite  this year's headlines about cases connected to institutions like Penn State, the  Boy Scouts and the BBC. A recent report from the University  of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children  Research Center found incidents of child sexual abuse have been declining in  the U.S. for 20 years, with some statistics showing decreases as steep as 60  percent. The findings may be surprising  given the high-profile cases in the news. But many of those incidents took place  years, sometimes decades, ago. Ironically, experts say, publicity surrounding  such scandals may help reduce the problem.

"One or two or even five or 10  high publicity cases are not going to stop the problem in its tracks," said David  Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and a UNH  sociology professor. "But there is a lot of evidence that the greater awareness  and actions taken to improve safety in the wake of these things does reduce the  amount of abuse."The October report from the  Crimes Against Children Research Center showing a decrease in child sexual abuse  since the early 1990s is based on information from government agencies, FBI  crime reports and national surveys. It includes data from state child protective  agencies showing a 62 percent decline in substantiated sex abuse claims between  1992 and 2010, and a national crime survey that found a 69 percent decline in  sexual assaults against teens from 1993 to 2008.Finkelhor said that in decades  past, pedophiles often behaved with impunity: "They thought nobody would ever  detect them because they never heard of people getting caught, but nowadays they  get caught, they get prosecuted, they get incarcerated," which "has a big  deterrent effect."In addition, said Finkelhor,  "we've increased guardianship. Parents and leaders and staff people working in  organizations are much more aware of the problem than they used to be and  therefore take steps to reduce the likelihood that this will occur."In some cases that made  headlines, parents allowed children to have sleepovers or go on trips with  adults who later turned out to be pedophiles. At Penn State, the school's former  assistant football coach Jerry  Sandusky was convicted of molesting children he met through a charity he  founded. Revelations also emerged this year about a prestigious New York City  private school, Horace Mann, where students said they were molested in teachers'  homes and on school trips.Michele  Galietta, director of clinical psychology training at John  Jay College of Criminal Justice and a researcher on a 2004 report by John  Jay about sex abuse by Catholic priests, agreed that public awareness has a  major impact on child sex abuse: "Publicity around big scandals like Penn State,  the Catholic  Church, the Boy Scouts, sensitizes people to the fact that  a predator is  more likely to be a neighbor, family friend, or familiar person" than the old  stereotype of a creepy stranger or kidnapper.Galietta added that while child  sex abuse remains a serious problem, "because the stories are everywhere, it  forces people to have conversations. Especially with boys, it used to be such a  shameful thing, they could never tell anyone. Now if someone were to approach  them, they wouldn't feel like they had to keep it secret."Devorah  Goldburg, spokeswoman for the National Center for Missing and Exploited  Children, also agreed that high-profile cases have made parents and others more  conscious of warning signs, such as "if someone with a youth organization is  spending more time with one person than another, or giving them special  invitations."Kelly  Clark, a lead attorney in a successful $20 million lawsuit over the Boy  Scouts' failure to report sex abuse accusations against Scout leaders from 1959  to 1985, cited the Catholic Church as an example of an institution where reforms  changed a culture that once protected molesters.*********Many children's organizations  also now mandate screening -- including criminal background checks -- for  volunteers as well as employees. In addition, the "two-adult rule" -- forbidding  an adult to be alone with a child unless someone else is present -- has become  standard in children's activities, including team sports.Finkelhor noted that "the priest  abuse problem declined precipitously starting in the late 1980s, suggesting that  as people started to pay attention to it there, the problem got reined in. The  recently released data from the Boy Scouts show a decline in recent years there  too as they've started to pay more attention to the problem. And there's data  that shows recidivism among sexual offenders has been declining as well, which  suggests we're doing a better job keeping them from reoffending." Finkelhor has  served as a consultant on child abuse both to the church and the Boy Scouts.The Boy Scouts now require  volunteers to complete youth protection training, which focuses on preventing  sex abuse, every two years, according to spokesman Deron  Smith.At the BBC in England, the late Jimmy  Savile, a popular children's entertainer, has been accused of molesting  dozens of young girls in the 1970s and '80s. Victims say their original  complaints were ignored, and police said the case has created a "watershed  moment," with many adults reporting other claims of sex abuse they suffered as  kids.*******By BETH J. HARPAZ, Associated Press

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