- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 16, 2011

NEW YORK — Amid the furor over the Penn State sex abuse scandal, it’s an easily overshadowed fact: The United States has made huge strides over the past 20 years in reducing the prevalence of child sex abuse.

Of the two most authoritative national reports, one shows incidents of child sex abuse down more than 55 percent since 1992 and the other documents a 38 percent drop between 1993 and 2006. Among the many reasons given were more vigorous efforts by police and prosecutors, growing public awareness, effective treatment of abusers, and better screening of people who deal regularly with children.

Child-protection advocates aren’t ready to celebrate because tens of thousands of children continue to be sexually abused each year, often with long-lasting emotional scars.

Some advocates, however, suggest that the progress should be highlighted more than it has been, and they hope the Penn State scandal will serve as a catalyst for initiatives.

Chris Newlin, executive director of the National Children’s Advocacy Center in Huntsville, Ala., said most Americans have no idea that abuse rates have declined so markedly - in part because the message they hear is one of a worsening crisis.

“We should change our messaging,” he said. “We should be saying, ‘We have meaningful programs that are making a difference in reducing child abuse, and now is the time to continue - if not increase - your support of these efforts.’ “

Robert Edelman, who has worked with many abused children as a mental health counselor with the Village Counseling Center in Gainesville, Fla., says much more needs to be done to persuade child victims to report the abuse they have suffered.

“Many child victims and their parents that I treat do not believe that anything will happen and do not move forward legally due to their level of fear, shame and guilt,” he said.

Indeed, reluctance to report sexual abuse is one of several factors that complicate the task of quantifying it. Additionally, the national surveys must cope with reporting procedures and definitions of child sex abuse that vary from state to state.

One of the key barometers is an annual report from the Department of Health and Human Services known as NCANDS (National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System). The latest report, based on input from state child protection agencies, tallies the number of child sexual abuse cases at 65,964 in 2009 - down more than 55 percent from the peak of about 150,000 in 1992.

Using the NCANDS data, the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center says the rate of sexual abuse per 1,000 children has dropped from 1.9 in 1995 to 0.89 in 2009.

Another authoritative gauge, issued in 2010, is the latest installment of the National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, a congressionally mandated study that has been conducted periodically by HHS. It estimated that the number of sexually abused children decreased from 217,700 in 1993 to 135,300 in 2006 - a 38 percent drop.

The incidence study’s numbers are larger than NCANDS because it surveys not only child protection services, but also a wider range of teachers, police officers, health care professionals and day care workers.

Sociologist David Finkelhor, director of the UNH Crimes Against Children Research Center, said many people in child-protection services remain skeptical and suggested that some advocates might be wary of trumpeting successes out of concern that the cause of combating abuse might seem less urgent.

“For a long time, the standard way of getting people to pay attention to a problem was talking about how epidemic it was, and there’s a fear that somehow people would abandon the problem after learning that progress is made,” he said.

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