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 CNS Special report:
 Coverage of John Jay report, National Review Board study.

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Transmitted 02/23/2004 4:07 PM ET

Laws changed with evolving child sex abuse awareness

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The awareness of and research on sexual abuse of children as a problem in the United States is intimately tied up with the evolution of laws in that area in the last half-century.

On Feb. 27 the National Review Board on sexual abuse formed by the U.S. Catholic bishops is releasing a study that goes back more than 50 years to examine the incidence of sexual abuse of minors by priests and deacons.

While the study goes back to 1950, U.S. public awareness of sexual abuse of children as a significant social problem did not emerge until the 1970s or '80s -- and then only as a result of attention to physical maltreatment of minors by family members that emerged in the 1960s.

"It was not until the 1960s ... that child maltreatment issues prompted nationwide interest in protecting the physical and mental well-being of children," says a 2002 paper, "Current Trends in Child Maltreatment and Reporting Laws," by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information.

The paper says, "In 1963, the first model statute mandating the reporting of child abuse was drafted. ... By 1967, every state had enacted reporting laws that included physicians as mandated reporters.

"In general," it adds, "these statutes were limited to nonaccidental physical injury. Other forms of maltreatment, such as neglect and sexual and emotional abuse, were added later. Reporting laws were also expanded in the late 1960s and early 1970s to include social workers, teachers and a range of health service professionals as mandated reporters."

In 1974 the federal government took a more direct role in U.S. child maltreatment policy with the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, allocating federal funds to states to help them implement programs to identify, treat and prevent child abuse.

Since the passage of that federal act, reporting of possible child abuse or neglect has risen dramatically, from 60,000 reports nationwide in 1974 to nearly 2.8 million in 2000, according to the 2002 paper.

Of 879,000 minors identified as victims of substantiated abuse or neglect in 2000, it says, 10.1 percent were sexually abused.

Several experts on sexual abuse and its prevention told Catholic News Service that legal, societal and professional attention to the sexual abuse of children in the United States and Canada really emerged in the late 1970s and the 1980s as a follow-up to the growing attention to physical abuse of children.

Mark Chopko, general counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said there were three main phases in the evolution of U.S. child abuse reporting laws since 1960, each resulting in dramatic increases in reporting.

The first was the initiation of basic reporting laws in all states in the 1960s. The federal law in 1974 brought a substantial boost to the development of child protective services in the states.

In the years that followed, the third phase was marked by substantial refinement and expansion of child protection services and mandated reporting legislation in the states, including the specific inclusion of sexual abuse of minors among the offenses that must be reported. Where many states initially listed physicians as the only mandated reporters, many have added educators, social workers, nurses and a variety of others to that list. In some states any person who knows or reasonably suspects that a child is being abused or neglected is required to report it.

Kathleen McChesney, who had a 30-year FBI career before she became director of the U.S. bishops' national Office of Child and Youth Protection, said key developments in law enforcement over the past 30 years include:

-- "More people willing to come forward and report."

-- A lessening of the stigma of being an abuse victim, although "there still remains a stigma."

-- "New technology to support cases that wasn't available many years ago," using things such as DNA testing to get beyond the conflicting stories of the victim and the accused.

-- "Law enforcement officers around the country have been trained in dealing with victims" and their families sensitively, making it easier for other victims to come forward.

McChesney said greater communication and transparency in the criminal justice system also support more prosecution of such crimes.

The cumulative result of all those changes has been "a more efficient, effective criminal justice system" for dealing with sex crimes against minors, she said.

A number of states have extended the statute of limitations for prosecuting such offenses in recent years, in part out of growing awareness of how many years it takes before some childhood victims are able to say what happened to them. Many states also have toughened penalties for such crimes.

Psychologist William L. Marshall, a Canadian expert on sexual assault and treatment of offenders, said his country's criminal justice approach has been different from the United States in several key respects.

Since the 1970s U.S. and Canadian psychologists have rewritten the books on how to diagnose and treat offenders, he said. Many older theories were simply disproved through empirical studies, and effective treatment now takes a comprehensive, dynamic approach to behavioral and cognitive modification.

He said Canada's criminal laws on sexual offenses were recodified nationally in 1983 and since then Canada has made a systematic effort to focus resources on treatment during and after prison, with significant results in reducing recidivism.

By contrast, state legislation in the United States is "all over the spectrum" and is usually geared more toward punishment than treatment, he said.


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