A recent Sports Illustrated cover story focusing on young athletes subjected to child sexual abuse reminds us once again that the pernicious scourge of child sexual abuse continues to haunt the playing fields, playgrounds, and backrooms of our nation.
Among the social ills facing our nation, child sexual abuse stands alone in its epidemic proportions, and the devastation it sets upon its young victims cannot be overstated. Despite high-profile and well-publicized instances within institutions like the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts of America, and Penn State, among others, child sexual abuse remains among the least discussed and most impactful problems our nation faces, while it tarnishes the lives of large swaths of each new generation.
Whether you measure the harm of the individual victims, or the costs to society as a whole, there is ample reason to prioritize child sexual abuse in our national dialogue and adopt policies and practices that help protect children.
The most compelling way to understand the power and enormity of child sexual abuse is through the experience of individual victims. Because child sexual abuse primarily leaves emotional scars instead of physical, its full impact on victims remains under-appreciated. Child sexual abuse occurs at a tragically high rate and can rob young people of self-determination, self-esteem, and potential, sometimes setting in motion a lifelong chain of events and decisions.
Many victims don’t readily speak of the trauma they suffer as a result of child sexual abuse. This reluctance has a variety of roots: manipulation by the abuser, fear of not being believed, misplaced shame, fear of stigma, and just plain discomfort with a painful topic.
Nevertheless, despite the absence of reports from those victims who do not disclose what happened to them, the data on frequency of child sexual abuse remains staggering. Adult retrospective studies show that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18, meaning that more than 42 million adult survivors live in the United States today.
Although research on the relationship between child sexual abuse and other social problems is still emerging, existing studies suggest that it is a major risk factor for such pressing community challenges as sexual and domestic violence, poverty, sex work, incarceration, mental illness, health problems, and homelessness. Sexually abused girls, for instance, are four times more likely to develop psychiatric disorders than girls who are not sexually abused. Further, children and adolescents who have been sexually victimized are at increased risk for unplanned pregnancy, HIV infection, and revictimization. Cumulative costs related to child sexual abuse are estimated at $23 billion annually in the United States.
By far, the most vexing aspect in the struggle to prevent child sexual abuse is the fact that it is most likely perpetrated by the very adults responsible for protecting the victims. Indeed, in as many as 93 percent of child sexual cases, the perpetrator is a relative, family friend, coach. or teacher — someone known and often trusted by the victim. This reality makes both preventing child sexual abuse and identifying and prosecuting offenders especially difficult, setting child sexual abuse apart from other crimes.
Despite this complexity, plenty can be done to significantly prevent instances of child sexual abuse and pave the way for better outcomes for victims.
Our top priority should be a focus on prevention, and a good place to start is organizations that serve young people. Newspaper headlines provide countless examples of sexual abuse of children participating in organizations like the American Boychoir, Boy Scouts, and Second Mile. Too few of the institutions in which we trust adults to care for our children have effective policies, practices, and accountability systems in place to prevent child sexual abuse.
Even where people are aware of the threat of child sexual abuse, most lack the knowledge and tools to address it in our respective spheres of life; guidelines and established practices can make the difference.
New Jersey needs a state standard for child sexual abuse prevention practices for youth-serving organizations, including after-school programs, sports programs, and schools. Moreover, the state and federal government should require all youth-serving organizations that receive state or federal government funding to adopt such policies and practices and have systems of accountability to ensure they’re followed.
A second critical step is to expand victims’ access to justice through the courts. It often takes years for a victim of sexual abuse or assault to come forward; victims need time to recognize the extent of the harm done to them and have the courage and security to pursue justice. Both criminal and civil statutes of limitations must reflect the nature of the crime and recovery, giving victims ample time to seek justice.
Although New Jersey rightly has no statute of limitations for criminal charges of sexual assault, its civil statute of limitations provides recourse for very few. Victims wanting the opportunity to pursue civil lawsuits against abusers and the institutions that protect them in New Jersey have only two years from age 18 or discovery of the abuse to file a lawsuit. These laws protect institutions like the Catholic Church and the American Boychoir while individual victims struggle against tremendous obstacles to recovery, including costly therapy.
Sen. Joe Vitale has sought to correct this injustice by introducing legislation that would expand the legal avenues for child sexual abuse victims. The most meaningful thing that New Jersey legislators and Gov. Chris Christie could do to demonstrate their concern for child sexual abuse victims is to pass Sen. Vitale’s legislation to expand the civil statute of limitations, demonstrating that the needs of victims takes priority over protecting abusers or institutions that protect or enable them.
Finally, we must ensure that our law-enforcement professionals have ample training and resources to investigate reports of sexual violation thoroughly, promptly, and in a manner that respects the sensitivity of the crime.
Every police agency should have a critical mass of trained male and female personnel to address child sexual abuse and assaults, making sex offenses among the highest law-enforcement priorities to reflect the large-scale devastation such crimes create.
In addition to adequate personnel, prosecutors should have prompt and high-quality forensic support. In New Jersey’s poorer counties like Essex, for example, prosecutors often have to wait several months for state lab analysis of DNA evidence that would help police identify suspects in existing unsolved cases, bring perpetrators to justice, and prevent potential future assaults.
Despite the enormity and complexity of the problem of child sexual abuse, we’ve only just begun to take steps to prevent it and provide recourse for victims. For the most part, our political leaders have focused energy and resources on punishing perpetrators through the criminal justice system rather than prioritizing the needs of victims and would-be victims.
If our leaders have a true commitment to child safety and the best interests of crime victims, they will enact these recommendations and look for more ways to prevent incidences of child sexual abuse and provide paths to justice for victims.