Finkelhor on the prevention of childhood sexual abuse
In the next issue of Future of Children, published by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, well known researcher David Finkelhor discusses child sexual abuse prevention efforts. The article does not yet appear on the web site, but here is a summary of the article where he discusses the strengths and limitations of sexual offender management and school-based educational programs.
The prevention of childhood sexual abuse.
Finkelhor D. Future of Children 2009; 19(2): 169-94.
(Copyright © 2009, David and Lucille Packard Foundation)
David Finkelhor examines initiatives to prevent child sexual abuse, which have focused on two primary strategies–offender management and school-based educational programs. Recent major offender management initiatives have included registering sex offenders, notifying communities about their presence, conducting background employment checks, controlling where offenders can live, and imposing longer prison sentences. Although these initiatives win approval from both the public and policy makers, little evidence exists that they are effective in preventing sexual abuse.
Moreover, these initiatives, cautions Finkelhor, are based on an overly stereotyped characterization of sexual abusers as pedophiles, guileful strangers who prey on children in public and other easy-access environments and who are at high risk to re-offend once caught. In reality the population is much more diverse. Most sexual abusers are not strangers or pedophiles; many (about a third) are themselves juveniles. Many have relatively low risks for re-offending once caught.
Perhaps the most serious shortcoming to offender management as a prevention strategy, Finkelhor argues, is that only a small percentage of new offenders have a prior sex offense record that would have involved them in the management system. He recommends using law enforcement resources to catch more undetected offenders and concentrating intensive management efforts on those at highest risk to re-offend.
Finkelhor explains that school-based educational programs teach children such skills as how to identify dangerous situations, refuse an abuser’s approach, break off an interaction, and summon help. The programs also aim to promote disclosure, reduce self-blame, and mobilize bystanders. Considerable evaluation research exists about these programs, suggesting that they achieve certain of their goals. Research shows, for example, that young people can and do acquire the concepts. The programs may promote disclosure and help children not to blame themselves. But studies are inconclusive about whether education programs reduce victimization.
Finkelhor urges further research and development of this approach, in particular efforts to integrate it into comprehensive health and safety promotion curricula. Finkelhor also points to evidence that supports counseling strategies both for offenders, particularly juveniles, to reduce re-offending, and for victims, to prevent negative mental health and life course outcomes associated with abuse.