Barnardo’s, the United Kingdom’s leading charity helping vulnerable children, has observed a more than two-fold increase in the amount of children seeking help after sexual abuse over the past five years. In 2010, UK police officials referred a total of 1,190 children to the charity, which was able to help 3,200 children last year, Chief Executive Javed Khan told the BBC.
Khan ascribed the increase in self-reporting, among children as young as ten years old, to the rash of high-profile sexual abuse cases, from former Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash to Bill Cosby’s alleged rapes, finally throwing sex abuse into the national spotlight. The reporting is not just in the United Kingdom, we are seeing an increase across the United States as well.
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The UK charity has struggled to meet the rise in demand for its services. Barnardo’s has opened 11 new locations over the past year, offices where expert specialists engage in community outreach, counseling and legal advocacy for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Despite those expansions, and “reports to police about child sexual abuse [reaching] record levels,” Khan says “current services do not reflect th[e] surge.”
Researchers have long known that sex abuse, of all forms, is far more common than any statistics would imply. Estimates suggests that about 1 in 10 young Americans will become the victims of sexual abuse, including a study by David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center, showing as many as 1 in 5 girls will be victimized during childhood.
In 2015, the US was home to 73.6 million residents under the age of 17; 10% would represent approximately 7.4 million children. Despite the shocking prevalence of childhood sex abuse, and in the face of growing public awareness, it remains the most under-reported crime in America.
Only 12% of all rapes, whether or not the victim is a child, are reported to the police, according to a study conducted in 1999 by researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina. There is little evidence, beyond recent reports from charities like Barnardo’s, that any progress has been made in this direction.
In 2008, a study performed at the University of California, Davis found that a much higher proportion of victims (81% of girls and 69% of boys) had disclosed their experiences to friends, but “few had disclosed to professionals” or adults. Of the abuse cases that are reported, most involve strangers, but as we’ve long known, childhood sex abuse is far more likely to be committed by family members, relatives and acquaintances than people a victim has never met before.
That’s quite possibly the greatest barrier standing between victims and the help they need. How can you turn to an adult, when the very adults you could trust are those who have victimized you? Here are 3 other things that researchers believe prevent young victims from stepping forward.
Boys are less likely than girls to disclose their experiences of sexual abuse, often because they fear being labeled as “homosexuals” after being victimized by male offenders. When offenders are female, boys may find it difficult to draw a clear distinction between warranted sexual contact and abuse, since boys, traditionally, are thought of as active, sexual agents in our society.
Over time, however, this disparity between male and female survivors seems to disappear. Male victims of childhood abuse actually appear more likely to disclose unwanted sexual contact than girls, but only after they’ve become adults.
Younger children are less likely to disclose sexual abuse, although some evidence has shown that older children wait longer to report the abuse. When young children report abuse, they often do so unexpectedly, after some sort of “precipitating event,” according to Tonya Lippert at the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center. Older children, on the other hand, seem to plan their disclosures, which may explain the delay, between onset of abuse and disclosure, often observed with older survivors.
Age at onset of abuse is also important. Younger children generally lack the cognitive abilities necessary to recognize abuse as such, and girls abused between the ages of 14 and 17 are twice as likely to report abuse than girls who were younger when the abuse began.
Since parents, family members and other caregivers are likely to stand as intermediaries between young survivors and the authorities, it’s only reasonable to assume that the support survivors receive from their caregivers has some effect on the likelihood of disclosure. Research has shown that to be true.
In a 1992 study conducted at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, researchers found that children with sexually-transmitted diseases were 3.5 times more likely to disclose sexual abuse when they had supportive caregivers. Children who expect negative reactions from their caregivers are less likely to report abuse, and when they actually experience a negative reaction, they are more likely to recant their account of sexual abuse.
“We’ve just never had an increase like this,” says Stephen Scott, former director of Prevent Child Abuse Iowa. Over the last year, confirmed child abuse reports in the Midwestern State have increased by an astounding 26%, the Des Moines Register reports. That’s the largest jump in more than 20 years.
It’s probably not, however, that child abuse is becoming any more common in Iowa. Families and victims, experts say, are stepping forward at an increased rate due to growing public awareness of the issue, spurred in no small part by two high-profile cases of fatal child neglect in the last year-and-a-half.
In 2017, 16-year-old Sabrina Ray died of malnourishment in a foster home. A year earlier, Natalie Finn, also 16, starved to death under her mother’s “care,” despite multiple reports of concern about her health submitted to Iowa’s Department of Human Services.
While increased awareness is certainly a good thing, many experts are worried that the State’s DHS won’t be able to keep up with the increase in confirmed abuse reports. In March 2018, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed a legislative package that included $4.3 million in cuts to the Department of Human Services’ budget.
Mike DeWine, Ohio’s Attorney General, is pushing to expand a program designed to catch child abuse cases in their earliest stages. The collaboration between DeWine’s Office and the Ohio Hospital Association, known as the Timely Recognition of Abusive Injuries Collaborative, helps doctors and other medical professionals identify so-called “sentinel injuries” – less-severe injuries that serve as a warning that abuse could be occurring in the home.
There’s already good indication that the initiative is working. Interviewed for WOSU, Ohio’s public radio station, Dr. Jonathon Thackeray, a representative of Dayton Children’s Hospital, said that his own facility’s recognition of sentinel injuries has increased dramatically.
“Before we started this work,” Dr. Thackeray said, “we recognized that 1.5 percent of children with a sentinel injury came back within a year with a second injury. Today we can tell you we’ve quadrupled that identification rate. We’re now recognizing that over 6 percent of infants with sentinel injury are returning with a second injury.”
Dr. Thackeray is quick to note that child abuse isn’t becoming more common in Ohio; it’s just that doctors and nurses are getting better at identifying the early warning signs. Statewide, the recognition of sentinel child abuse injuries has jumped by 50%, Thackeray continued, from 60 identified injuries per month to 90.
As part of the Timely Recognition of Abusive Injuries Collaborative, Ohio hospitals have introduced a protocol for examining potential child abuse victims and reporting guidelines. Those procedures are now being rolled out to eight pediatric facilities in the State.
The former principal of an Oklahoma elementary school has been charged with child abuse. In court documents filed on June 5, 2018, state prosecutors say Douglas Parker, who currently serves as the pastor for Dale Baptist Church, mistreated a 6-year-old girl by “forcefully grabbing and pulling her, wrapping his hands around her neck and chin and forcefully moving her head, and / or forcefully pushing her nose and face into the wall causing injury.”
Harold Jones is “totally shocked and surprised,” KFOR reports. In an interview, the former principal for Dale Public Schools and a good friend of Parker said he was astonished by the allegations, describing Parker as a “gentle man.” Parker no longer serves as the principal for Virginia Smith Elementary in Harrah, Oklahoma; the Harrah School Board refused to comment on the recent charges against him.