The problem of child abuse is serious and real, but the solutions have been phony. Child savers misstate the nature and extent of child abuse in America in order to gain public support for phony solutions. Some have even admitted as much. As noted in the introduction to these Issue Papers, they call it “health terrorism.” A first step toward real solutions is understanding what the numbers really mean.
The most commonly-used number concerning child abuse is the number of children investigated as possible abuse victims as a result of “reports” to state child protection hotlines. According to the most recent such survey, about 3.5 million children were the subjects of these investigations.
But more than four out of five of these children – more than 81% – were subjects of reports that turned out to be false. And of the rest, those labeled “substantiated” or “indicated” by protective workers, very few are the kind that leap to mind when we hear the words “child abuse. By far the largest category is “neglect”. Often, these are cases in which the primary problem is a family’s poverty. (See Family Preservation Issue Paper 5).
It gets even worse when you add in all the reports that were screened out by child abuse hotlines because either the evidence was too flimsy or they clearly did not constitute abuse or neglect even if true. When you include those cases, then 91% of children who were subjects of calls to child abuse hotlines were not, in fact, victims of any form of abuse or neglect.
In other words, out of every 100 children investigated as possible victims of abuse, 91 simply weren’t – the report was screened out or found false after investigation. Six were “substantiated” victims of neglect, which often means simply that the family was poor. Three were said to be victims of sexual abuse or of any form of physical abuse, from the most minor to the most severe.
Sometimes even researchers with the most distinguished scholarly credentials will engage in “health terrorism.” Thus, a widely-circulated graphic that purports to compare trends in physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect – and purports to claim a huge decline in the first two, makes both the rate of physical and sexual abuse and the decline look far greater than they really are. They do this by, literally, making numbers up. The actual known figures for neglect are compared to double the real rate of physical abuse and triple the real rate of sexual abuse. But you have to stare long and hard at the graphic to notice the disclosure, buried in the fine print. You can see the graphic for yourself, and compare it to a graphic using the real numbers here. 
Some numbers are repeated so often that people are surprised to find how little data there are supporting them. Studies attempting to estimate the percentage of people sexually abused during childhood have come up with results ranging from one percent to 62%.
 In addition, these studies use widely varying definitions of abuse, and usually include abuse by anyone, not just cases subject to the jurisdiction of child protective services.
But because large numbers attract more attention than small numbers, the claim appears repeatedly that “one out of three girls and one out of ten boys will be sexually abused” during childhood.
More recently, the figure has evolved into one out of four girls and one out of six boys. The figure turns up in one news story after another –with no attribution other than the child savers who are pushing the number –or sometimes no attribution at all.
When NCCPR finally found the study that apparently spawned this number, it turned out to include a definition so broad that it includes a 19-year-old kissing a 17-year-old goodnight after a date.
In fact, were these figures true, it would mean that at least 40% to 60% of all the children in America either will be sexually abused or have a sibling who will be sexually abused during their childhoods (since those one in four girls and one in six boys typically are not only children). Since, from a child saver’s point of view, all of those siblings are “at risk” for being sexually abused, and since, from a child saver’s point of view, the parents are, at a minimum, negligent for “allowing” the abuse, this raises an intriguing question: Where do the child savers propose to put all these children?
It’s not just common sense that challenges these numbers. The best evidence we have concerning the true prevalence of sexual abuse comes from two comprehensive reviews of the scholarly literature. The first is a review of 20 different studies conducted by seven Canadian researchers. They found that the studies with the best methodology consistently found that between 10% and 12% of girls under age 14 are sexually abused by someone (not necessarily a parent or guardian) during their childhoods. The study that produced the “one out of three” claim was singled out for criticism by these researchers.
More recently, another comprehensive review of the literature put the actual figure, again involving sexual abuse by anyone, at 9% to 11% for girls and 5% to 6% for boys.
The real figures concerning child abuse in America are cause for concern and action. Hyping bad data and, sometimes, literally making
numbers up, is the kind of “health terrorism” that serves only to panic us into seeking “solutions” that hurt the very children they were intended to help.
Or as the authors of the second literature review on sexual abuse cited above put it:
We believe … that valid estimates in this field, even if they are lower than expected by some interested parties, will indeed not minimize this issue’s importance, but, rather, will represent our best hope to steer effective policies and practices to prevent, ameliorate, and solve the problems experienced by people who have been sexually abused.
More examples of the harm of getting the numbers wrong, and other child saver hype can be found in Family Preservation Issue Paper 3.
Updated, December 31, 2022
1.U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Child Maltreatment 2019, About 19% of reports were “substantiated” a term which means a lot less than that term implies. Details in the next issue paper.
- Richard Wexler, “Graphic Evidence that Child Welfare Surveillance Doesn’t Work,” The imprint, Aug. 30, 2021.
- These studies are cited in Diana Russell, The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women (New York: Basic Books, 1986), pp.72.
- For example, Emily Fox, “Texas program fostering child abuse awareness kicks off in Plano,” Dallas Morning News, Aug. 11, 2010.
- For a full discussion of this study, and a link to the study itself, see this NCCPR column in Youth Today.
- William Feldman et. al., “Is Childhood Sexual Abuse Really Increasing in prevalence?” An Analysis of the Evidence, Pediatrics, Vol. 88, No. 1, July, 1991, pp.29-33.
- Kevin M. Gorey and Donald R. Leslie, “Working Toward a Valid Prevalence Estimate of Child Sexual Abuse: A Reply to Bolen and Scannapieco” The Social Service Review 75:151
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