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Journal Issue: Sexual Abuse of Children Volume 4 Number 2 Summer/Fall 1994

Current Information on the Scope and Nature of Child Sexual Abuse
David Finkelhor

Gaps in Knowledge About Sexual Abuse

Almost all the questions touched on in this brief review are subject to some controversy and debate. To resolve these matters, more definitive information is needed about the incidence and prevalence of sexual abuse, about historical trends, about fabricated allegations, and about factors that point to vulnerability. More definitive information requires improved studies and better data. Currently we have serious shortcomings in our major sources of information about sexual abuse. The following four kinds of studies are needed to remedy this shortcoming:


  1. Improved annual incidence data about reported cases. This paper earlier discussed the need for systematic annual data collection from all states about sexual abuse cases. Ideally these data need to concern cases reported both to child abuse authorities and to police. These data need to include detailed information regarding the characteristics of the children and perpetrators and the disposition of the cases. To be comparable, these data must be collected using uniform procedures, definitions, and terminology. The answers to important policy questions concerning substantiation rates, fabricated reports, and the state's management of child abuse cases require comparable and reliable data.
  2. Large-scale and ongoing retrospective studies of adults. Retrospective studies of adults provide the best window on undisclosed abuse and can be important for tracking true historic trends. They are also crucial for understanding the long-term effects of sexual abuse. Among methodological improvements, inquiries about histories of sexual abuse must be refined to maximize the candor and accuracy of recall by participants and to identify all those who were actually victimized. Studies are needed to learn about how the wording and placement of questions, the manner in which the interview is conducted, and the methods used to train interviewers influence candor and accuracy.
  3. Surveys of children and their caretakers. Recent studies have illustrated the feasibility of gathering information on child victimization directly from children as young as age 10 and their caretakers for children of all ages.77,78 These studies provide much needed information on undisclosed abuse, as well as its short-term effects. They can also be used to understand better how to improve disclosures and to gather consumer-satisfaction information from persons who have been involved in investigations.
  4. Longitudinal studies of children and families. Studies need to follow children from birth through adulthood with special attention to detecting sexual abuse and other victimizations along the way. Studies of this kind are one of the few ways to test propositions about family and personal characteristics that put children at risk. They also provide the ultimate test of the utility of preventive interventions.