Our Opinion: The ‘epidemic’ of child sexual abuse

News Tribune editorial

Child sexual abuse in Missouri is characterized as a “silent epidemic” by members of a task force that studied the issue.

The 14-member task force on Thursday released its report, which contains 22 recommendations in seven separate categories.

State Rep. Marsha Haefner, R-St. Louis and a task force member, said child sexual abuse is a “complex issue” that requires a multi-faceted response. Those facets are reflected in the recommendations concerning awareness, education, mental health, public policy and state law.

With respect to the complexity of the problem and the scope of recommendations, we intend to explore the issue in a series of opinion pieces, rather than a single editorial.

Perhaps the best way to begin that exploration is by looking at the magnitude and insidious nature of the problem.

The report references studies that “suggest 25 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys experience sexual abuse during their childhood years.”

Although the magnitude of the problem is an estimation — admitted by the word “suggest” — we understand the inability to be more specific. The Center for Sex Offender Management estimates only a third of offenses are reported to law enforcement.

An obstacle to bringing the scope of the problem to light is that predators typically seek dark places behind closed doors.

The report affirms the public perception that children most often are abused by someone they know. “A third or more of victims are abused by a family member, and only 7 percent are molested by a stranger,” the report reads, adding 75 percent of abuse occurs inside of homes.

In addition to being a clandestine crime, child sexual abuse often is chronic. The offense typically is repeated and rarely a one-time event.

Why are the victims reluctant to identify their abusers?

“Children who are being abused often face significant barriers to disclosing the abuse,” the report reads. Those barriers are identified as: shame and guilt; fear of not being believed or being removed from the home; and manipulation and threats by perpetrators.

The crime not only victimizes children, it also creates a significant social cost. Consequences of abuse include anxiety, depression, teen pregnancy, risky behaviors, and alcohol and drug abuse. In addition, sexually abused children are more likely to perpetuate the cycle of abuse.

The task force did not overstate the problem by characterizing it as “complex.”

And it did not dilute its imperative that everyone has a stake in working to raise awareness, improve public policy and enact laws to protect our children.

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