With 45 million U.S. victims of child sex abuse, we can’t put their millions of abusers in jail

Jerry Sandusky arrives for the fourth day of his trial in Bellefonte, PA, last week. He’s accused of 52 counts of sexual abuse with 10 boys over 15 years. Associated Press distributed this photo by Nabil Mark of the Centre Daily Times.


You might want to keep this in mind when you cringe at the heartbreaking testimony from the trial of former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky: You can’t throw five pebbles in a concert, a congregation or a conference without hitting someone who’s been sexually abused.

Throw five more pebbles and you’ll hit someone who has sexually abused a child.
It’s likely that about 45 million victims of child sex abuse are walking around the United States today (one in four women and one in six men). That number is the population of New York, Florida and Louisiana
combined. And there probably are millions of people who have sexually abused children. They’re our acquaintances, our neighbors, our friends, our relatives. About 60% are known to children, 30% are family members, and 10% are strangers. It’s not a ratio of one abuser to one victim — the trials of priests, coaches, teachers, and scout leaders have shown us that. But the ratio’s likely to be a lot closer to one-to-one than we might imagine, especially since most experts believe that child sexual abuse is grossly underreported.
Of course most of us would like to throw everyone who sexually abuses a child in jail, even though by itself, it’s not the “worst” type of abuse (see Myth #1, below) in terms of how it affects kids’ lives. When we hear about child sex abuse, most of us feel an instant, deep and abiding outrage; seeing a parent screaming angrily at a child or learning of a woman who’s suffered domestic violence while her children watch just doesn’t elicit quite the same response. But there’s just no room for a million or even a half-million more prisoners in U.S. jails that are already overcrowded with 2.3 million inmates.
More important, throwing people in jail for child sex abuse just plain hasn’t made a friggin’ dent in the problem of child maltreatment.
So, how DO we really, truly stop harming children, intentionally or unintentionally?
Five myths, two reasons why our current child protection system sucks, and a couple of starts at solutions.
Myth #1. Child sex abuse is the worst, most damaging type of child abuse. It depends. Harvard University neurobiologist Dr. Martin Teicher published a paper in Biological Psychiatry in which he concluded the following order of impact of child abuse in a group of more than 500 participants. Sexual abuse by a family member was worst in terms of effects, such as depression, anger, hostility, etc. Three were the same — being verbally abused by parents, witnessing domestic violence and being sexually abused by someone outside the family. Last on this list: Being physically abused by parents. But there was something even worse than being sexually abused by a family member: verbal abuse combined with witnessing domestic violence (also known as “complex trauma”, because there’s more than one type of trauma — see Myth #2.)
But, really. Who cares? To a child enduring any of it, it’s all bad. And it messes up kids, who, unless they receive immediate help, have to maneuver through their entire lives with emotional scar tissue that restricts and shapes their every move.
Myth #2. Child sex abuse happens in isolation. Not so, according to the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experience Study, a groundbreaking epidemiological study, and many studies that have come on its heels. Where there’s child sex abuse, there’s likely to be another issue occurring that’s going to be harmful to the child, such as living with a parent who’s an alcoholic or addicted to some other drug or who’s been diagnosed mentally ill.
The point is: Focusing only on child sex abuse or only on domestic violence or only on alcoholism as we do now puts a spotlight on an elephant’s trunk or tail or foot when we need to look at the whole damn elephant that’s sitting in the middle of the room to figure out how to move it.
Myth #3. Children are resilient. They get over things. Au contraire. Children are not innately resilient to severe and chronic trauma. At the root of a great bulk of this nation’s chronic diseases — diabetes, heart disease, many types of cancer, autoimmune diseases — as well as depression, suicide, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence is severe trauma suffered in childhood. I’m not talking just car accidents here. The CDC’s ACE Study measure 10 types of childhood trauma — the five usual suspects (physical, sexual, verbal abuse plus emotional and physical neglect) and five types of household dysfunction (a parent with mental illness or drug addiction, a family member in jail, a mother who’s a victim of domestic violence, and loss of a parent through divorce or abandonment). (There are, of course, many other types of trauma, but the ACE Study measured only these.) If a child has three or four different types (an ACE score of 3 or 4….what’s your ACE score?), his or her risk of chronic illness skyrockets, as does the rest of the list above. Eighteen states have done their own ACE surveys and are finding similar results.
Source: Washington State Family Policy Council
What’s the link between abuse and chronic disease? Damaged brains. (You can find tons of information about this on Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child web site.) There’s no doubt that the toxic stress of severe and chronic childhood trauma stunts the growth or fries the circuits of children’s brains, which causes kids to fall behind in school because they can’t learn, or fail to develop healthy relationships with peers, or develop problems with authority because they are unable to trust adults. Sometimes all three. Resilience factors — having a solid relationship with a caring adult, exercise, a good education, etc. — can repair damage, but how much resilience, appearing at what age, and at what intensity and duration is still unknown.
Myth #4. Child maltreatment is uncommon and doesn’t happen in nice families. In the CDC’s ACE Study 70 percent of the 17,000 mostly white, middle- and upper-middle class college-educated people with jobs and great health care had at least one childhood trauma. Of those, 87 percent had more than one. Eighteen states have done their own ACE Surveys and have found similar results.
Myth #5. All child abusers are evil predators. Most of them are nice people, respected community leaders, friendly neighbors, but with terrible, terrible secret compulsions and addictions. But when those secret compulsions and addictions come to light, the “nice” switch flips into the “off” position in our minds, and they’re all evil predators. As Moira O’Neil from the Frameworks Institute says, people revert to “stranger thinking” — no matter how much they may have respected people accused of child sex abuse, those accused and convicted all become perverts. And the only thing to do with perverts is to throw them all into prison.
That attitude may make emotional sense, but it’s doing little to solve our problem. (see reason #2 in “why our current child protection system sucks”, below.)  (Also, I’m not including the cults such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints where child rape, incest and sex abuse is ritualized, women and children are enslaved, and teenage boys ostracized to eliminate competition with adult men. I believe that because we haven’t developed good solutions for child maltreatment in our mainstream world, the child maltreatment extremes in our society are extremely hideous.)
The research is inconclusive about what causes people to sexually abuse children. It’s not like somebody wakes up one day and says: “From now on, I’m going to be an evil predator and hurt children.” (Many adults think they’re doing kids a favor….”teaching” them about sex or just “playing”.) And not all abusers say they’ve been sexually abused. Definitely more research needs to be done in this area. The following isn’t research, but it’s interesting enough that I hope someone does some research:  When a group of 15 sex offenders in Florida took the 10-question ACE Survey, their average score was 9 out of a possible 10.  Seems to me that’s indicative of a hellish childhood that produced a warped adult. Someone I talked with about this who’s familiar with the ACE Study said she wondered why they all didn’t have cancer. They obviously traveled a different road that some might say is worse  than cancer: They sexually abused children, did time in prison, and are now ostracized the rest of their lives.
IF YOU THINK I’M SAYING PEDOPHILES SHOULDN’T GO TO JAIL, READ THIS: I’m saying that the system we have now that is supposed to protect our children from maltreatment actually helps create pedophiles and other people who harm children intentionally or unintentionally, and that we have to change our system. I’m referring not only to Child Protective Services, but to our entire social system. We’ll know when we’ve arrived if we can regard and deal with child maltreatment the same way we do Alzheimer’s disease.
Two reasons why our current child protective system sucks. There are many. But here are two:
1. We’ve set up our “child protective” systems so that children have to suffer for a very, very long time before anyone steps in to “protect” them, if ever. Many studies, including the ACE Study, show that the only way most children escape abuse is to grow up and leave home.
If our good intentions are put into play while children are still at home, “protection” more often than not adds a few points to the kids’ ACE scores: ripping children away from their parents, putting them in a series of foster homes or halfway houses, and then, when kids get in trouble, putting them in juvenile detention where they’re assured of enduring more trauma. My quarrel is with the system…not the people who are trying to do their best to protect children. As far as I’m concerned, they are like warriors in a foreign land who don’t have the support they need on the home front.
Of course, many CPS agencies are moving into doing more prevention of child maltreatment, such as implementing Nurse Family Partnership in their communities. Generally speaking, though, we as a society so do not want to deal with child maltreatment (especially all the types measured in the ACE Study) that we ignore it, pretend we don’t see it, don’t talk about it (never in polite company) and deny it every single day in too many ways to list here. Some people blame the family “bubble”, others say we’re just not that far down the road from the time when women and children were chattel, others say it’s because it’s too painful to deal with our own memories, and many, many people who endured trauma in childhood love their parents and don’t want anyone (especially themselves) to call them “bad” or “evil” or cart them off to jail, even though they may be very angry about what they experienced as children.
The result is that all of our pent-up rage erupts onto whatever “evil predator” is on trial so that we fool ourselves into thinking something’s actually being done to reduce child abuse. We righteously deny our way into escaping our responsibility to create a system in which childhood trauma is actually prevented. The evidence? Every trial reveals just how many people knew or suspected for months or years. The Catholic Church can stand as an example of an organization that still hasn’t come to grips with the pedophiles in its midst. And, no, stronger child abuse reporting laws just don’t do the trick. We may convict a few thousand pedophiles, but what about the millions who are still out there, and the millions who are being created right now in families across the country?
2. We ignore the fact that most people who abuse their children or create serious family dysfunction are often hopelessly stuck acting out the consequences of their own childhood traumas. Remember: children are not resilient. They don’t “get over” childhood trauma. They grow up to be adults, have their own children, and if there’s nobody to show them a different way, they will more than likely pass their traumas to their children, or other people’s children, like a disease. They’re not “bad” parents or “bad” people. They need help just as much as their children.
A start at solutions. 
1. We just have to talk about child maltreatment — all of it, sexual or otherwise — without flinching or running around trying to find an “evil predator”. Screenwriter/playwright Amos Kamil wrote a long story in the New York Times Magazine about teachers accused of sexually abusing students in New York City’s Horace Mann School, and did a great job at describing and contextualizing the events, as well as depicting the accused teachers as troubled human beings. The story also shows how irresponsible the school’s other teachers and administrators were in dealing with the sexual abuse. And, the story reveals a stark difference between the lives of those whose accusations were believed and resulted in immediate action to dismiss the teachers, with those who were not believed.

 Thirty or even 40 years later, many students who have talked about surviving their teachers’ abuse say they still live in its shadow. “I spent decades feeling unlovable,” said E. B., the creator of the anti-Somary Web site. “I drank and drugged for many years, because I just couldn’t face all the anger it brought up.”

Andrew, my friend from the camping trip, said: “You spend a lot of your life feeling like an outsider — it shatters you. These people who were supposed to be the good guys were actually the bad guys, and nobody would talk about it.”

M., the one who says Somary abused him for years, also feels the effects. “I have had so many issues that I think I can trace back to this,” he said, including drug abuse and broken marriages. “I have been running from this thing most of my life.”

And the part about the students who say there were not traumatized:

 At Horace Mann, students who spoke up at the time and saw quick action from the school seem to have suffered few, if any, ill effects. “I was not traumatized by the experience in the least,” Seth, the student at the center of the John Dorr Nature Lab confrontation with Stan Kops, told me. “In fact, I was just relaying the story to a friend the other day at lunch. I think the school acted swiftly and appropriately.”

The football player who blew the whistle on Mark Wright’s “private-part inspections” also says he was not traumatized. Though the administration did not inform him of its action, Wright was gone almost immediately, and the student says he was satisfied with the outcome. “No one knew why he was gone, but as far as I am concerned, the administration wasted no time in addressing the situation,” he said. “I have the deepest respect for how it was handled. Unbelievably glad about how they handled it.”

2. We need to ask about child trauma….everywhere. Schools, physicians, nurses, emergency rooms, dentists, businesses, foster care, courts, prisons, faith-based organizations, beauty salons, barber shops, youth services, scouts, sports, juvenile hall, therapists, counselors, parents-to-be….”What adverse childhood experiences have you had? How have they affected your health and your life? What help do you need now?”
3. Let’s eliminate “Child Protective Services” and replace it with “Family Resilience Services”. Let’s integrate that agency with the rest of the community and eliminate the secrecy. We need to replace our shame-blame-punishment approach with a solutions and prevention approach that doesn’t traumatize — or further traumatize — anyone.

There must be many, many more good ideas out there. Please add them here, and we’ll offer them to a few communities, such as Walla Walla, WA, Port Townsend, WA, and Tarpon Springs, FL, which are already making concerted community efforts to chip away at this iceberg.


  1. As a foster parent, I see that my state allows family or family friends to get paid to take in children. This is ok; my issue is that all of the family member’s issues that would deny him/her as foster parents to strangers are waived for family (such as past prison time, abuse (drug, physical, etc), criminal record, restraining orders, etc.). So, what ends up happening is that unscrupulous people who don’t have the best interest of the child in mind, but are family/family friends, take in the child and the cycle of abuse continues. My state feels reunification with the birth family is most important, even if it is ultimately detrimental to the child. I believe that everyone who wants to be a foster parent, family or stranger, should be held to the same standards–that would help ensure that these vulnerable children are being protected.


  2. My only quibble would be: Under Myth #3, make it more clear that “the CDC’s study looked at only 10, out of a (larger number) of possible ACE’s…”

    Thanks again!


  3. Thank you for your continuing efforts to “out the elephant”!
    ~ A very well-written article – and I’m delighted to see you promoting the concept that many-to-most ‘perpetrators’ are ALSO victims … Dysfunction is definitely ‘inheritable’, through one’s environment!


  4. Jane, Thanks for the excellent article–passionate, challenging and full of new information for me. I especially liked your idea of replacing our shame-blame-punishment approach with a solution and prevention approach. I would also suggest your Family Resilience Services model could include “beginning at the beginning” by offering a primary prevention model which would include identifying,
    acknowledging and treating the ACEs of every pregnant couple, providing them with relationship skills training for each other, providing evidence-based parenting skills for the optimal development of the baby plus couples/parenting support groups for the first three years of the child’s life. Such a program could be offered primarily in three major settings. One would be the medical/mental health center, in schools both private and public, and in churches and other religious institutions. An additional one could be through private initiatives of anyone interested in “birthing healthy families.” The lives of three people could be changed for the good. The multi-generational cycle of passing on family dysfunction and child maltreatment could be interrupted and ended. Families would have a better chance of remaining intact which is one of the factors that promotes health of all family members as well as the cognitive,emotional and social health of the children.


    • Thanks for your comments, Barbara. I agree completely. I don’t know why our culture makes parents go it alone. Other countries provide so much more support for families.


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