December 16th, 2010

Crimes against children are decreasing

If you took the nation’s pulse only by reading newspapers, you’d probably believe that bullying and crimes against children are on the rise. In fact, those reports, sensationalized or not, may be positively impacting the rates of crimes against children.

In a study conducted by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, researchers found that rates of bullying and reports of sexual assault against children had declined in the years between 2003 and 2008. Based on two nationally representative sample of children ages two to 17, the study saw a reduction of bullying from 22 to 15 percent and sexual assault of 3.3 to 2 percent. There were reductions in physical assault, peer and sibling victimizations, psychological and emotional abuse by caregivers, exposure to community violence and the crime of theft.

While the studies do not provide a reason for the decline, the research suggests that awareness efforts are having an effect.

“One of the biggest declines appeared to be in peer perpetrated violence – physical forms of bullying or peer assaults or witnessing assaults,” says Heather Turner, Ph.D., professor of sociology at UNH and the study’s co-principal investigator.

“While we can’t determine from the data the reasons for the decline, it points to the possibility that we may be doing something right and that our efforts to increase policing in communities and the efforts to address bullying in schools are working to some extent.”

The new data shows that declines in violence documented since early 1990s are still continuing.

“There had been other indications of reductions in child abuse and exposure,” says Turner. “From the early 1990s to the mid 2000s, we saw physical and sexual abuse cases drop by over 50 percent. But some people were hypothesizing that a lot of the changes occurred in the 1990s and that things were leveling off and we are not seeing the decline in the 2000s.”

Comparing the numbers between 2003 and 2008 showed that declines are still occurring. The only area where they did not show a decline was in physical abuse and neglect by caregivers.

“In our data, we were less likely to see a drop in adult-instigated violence, domestic violence, etc.,” says Turner. “But that does not necessarily mean that there were no declines. It is possible that the number of maltreatment episodes that we uncovered was too small to detect a trend.”

The next step will be to run a third survey, starting in January, to bring the numbers up-to-date.

“We will be able to take a look at what happened between ’08 and ’11. Given the turns in economy, will that keep us from moving forward with respect to progress in reductions? Will we see increases or fewer declines?”

While the survey is good news, Turner warns that society should not get complacent. “It is important to point out that while declines in childhood exposure to violence do represent good news,” she says, “the rates are still way too high. In the 2008 survey, we found that almost 50 percent of children were exposed to physical assault and 6 percent of children were exposed to sexual victimization in the last year. Over 30 percent were exposed to property victimization just in the past year.”

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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