We’re still not spending enough to prevent child sexual abuse

Spc. Rhianna Ballenger/U.S. Army via AP

Child sexual abuse costs the U.S. billions per year for incarceration, yet for every $3,125 we spend in punishment, we only spend $1 in prevention research.

Since 2019, the U.S. federal government has increased its investment in child sexual abuse prevention research from essentially $0 to $2 million. We appreciate that Congress allocated $2 million for child sexual abuse prevention research for FY 2022, an increase of $500,000 from last year.

At the same time, it is still not enough to ensure that we research, develop and evaluate enough prevention strategies to effectively keep kids across the U.S. safe from sexual abuse.

This funding is critical. Child sexual abuse is a widespread problem that needs increased attention and resources now before more kids get hurt. Twelve percent of the world’s children will experience some form of child sexual abuse before the age of 18. Kids who experience sexual abuse have a greater risk of mental, physical and behavioral health problems associated with increased morbidity and mortality and reduced quality of life. The U.S. economic burden of child sexual abuse was $9.3 billion in 2015, costing each victim more than $280,000 in lost earnings and other economic impacts over their lifetime, according to my previous research.

As the director for the Moore Center for Child Sexual Abuse Prevention at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, I’ve spent more than 30 years arguing that child sexual abuse is preventable, not inevitable. Certainly, we need to fully support child and adult survivors and hold adults who offend sexually against children accountable. But reactive strategies can’t be our only solution. We also need to invest in preventing child sexual abuse from happening in the first place.

I understand that federal resources are finite. But consider this: in our latest paper, published in the journal Sexual Abuse on March 23, my colleagues and I found that the U.S. spends an estimated $5.4 billion to incarcerate about 144,453 people for sex crimes against children each year and stands to spend nearly $49 billion to keep them incarcerated until their projected release dates. This includes $5 billion for federal prisoners, $33 billion for state prisoners and $10.7 billion for inmates in sex offender civil commitment facilities.

When you consider that most people incarcerated for sex crimes against children remain imprisoned for about eight years, this means that during the same length of time as their $50 billion incarceration we will spend only $16 million on child sexual prevention research. For every $1 we spend in prevention research, we spend almost $4,200 in punishment.

Child sexual abuse is indisputably a criminal justice problem as well as a public health problem. We need both reactive and preventive solutions to get out in front of this crisis.

We have made progress. The FY 2020 and 2021 funding — which was allocated to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — supports five U.S. research teams evaluating child sexual abuse prevention strategies, including online, school-based, and community-based programs.

However, even with this year’s $2 million in funding, we need more to make a real difference in child sexual abuse rates. Last April, Congressman Frank Mrvan (D-Ind.) led a letter to the House Appropriations Committee signed by 31 members of Congress in support of increasing child sexual abuse prevention research funding to the goal amount of $10 million. Reaching $10 million in annual prevention funding would allow for a critical mass of research to flourish across the U.S., helping ensure that we develop an array of effective prevention strategies that work across our diverse country.

Getting there may take time and until we do, I am grateful for each increase. We all want American children to grow up free from abuse. Increasing the federal budget for child sexual abuse prevention research to $10 million annually puts us closer to realizing this goal.

Elizabeth L. Letourneau, Ph.D., is a professor in the department of mental health and director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Johns Hopkins University.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on March 29 to correct the number of people incarcerated for sex crimes against children each year and on April 19 to correct the total amount spent incarcerating people convicted of sex crimes, the amount states spent to incarcerate people convicted of sex crimes and the amount spent for inmates in sex offender civil commitment facilities. 

Tags Abuse Child abuse Child sexual abuse Sex crimes Sexual abuse Violence against children

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