Children are often taught to be wary of people outside their family. But, a new survey finds that adults at school, daycare and organizations such as churches and scouting groups are less likely than relatives to abuse or mistreat children.
In general, organizations that serve young people “do not look like particularly risky environments,” said study co-author David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center. This contradicts perceptions by some people who “think these are magnets for molesters,” he said.
At issue: Who’s most likely to mistreat and abuse kids, and how much risk do children face at home and in the outside world? The investigators looked specifically at physical
assault, sexual abuse, verbal aggression, and neglect.
“We know the fear about strangers is exaggerated, and family members, acquaintances and other youth are bigger risks than previously thought,” Finkelhor said. “But we still don’t know enough about the relative safety of different specific environments, like daycare and summer camps.”
To gain more insight, Finkelhor and colleagues examined the results from the U.S. National Surveys of Children’s Exposure to Violence. The researchers looked at information from 2008, 2011 and 2014. The study focused on answers from more than 13,000 kids aged 17 and younger. Children aged 10 to 17 answered the telephone survey questions themselves, while caregivers answered for younger children.
Fewer than a half percent said they’d experienced any type of abuse over the past year by an adult they know from an organization, “such as a teacher, coach, or youth group leader.” Nearly 1 percent said they’d suffered such abuse over their lifetimes, the findings showed.
Sexual abuse seemed to be rare among these children, although kids may be more unwilling to acknowledge such an intimate crime, the study authors pointed out. Five children said they’d been abused sexually by an adult from an organization; 70 said they’d suffered verbal abuse and 33 reported physical assault, the survey found.
“We might want to be as concerned about emotionally abusive leaders, teachers and coaches as about molesters,” Finkelhor suggested.
In contrast, 11 percent of kids said they’d experienced any type of abuse by a family member over their lifetimes and nearly 6 percent said they’d suffered such abuse over the past year.
Finkelhor said talking to children directly is a better way to uncover abuse than asking adults about events in their childhoods. “We want to get information as close to the events as possible,” he said. “Debriefing adults trying to remember back 20 or 30 years is not accurate.”
And children seem to respond instead of resisting the questions, he said. “Family abuse is generally thought to be the most serious and difficult to disclose. Yet we got many such disclosures,” Finkelhor said.
Dr. Carole Jenny, professor of pediatrics at Seattle Children’s Hospital, said the study findings reflect her experiences working with abused children. “Most of the sexually abused kids that we see are abused by family members, mom’s partners, close friends and neighbors,” she said.
“One of the reasons that people have this fear of children’s service organizations is that it’s a tremendous violation of trust,” Jenny added. “And they get a lot of attention, much more than when a father or uncle molests a child in the home.”
Finkelhor said organizations that serve young people could focus more on the threat of emotional abuse. “Educate kids and staff to call out and report staff and other kids who are being emotionally abusive, denigrating, hostile and mean,” he said.
As for the risk of sexual abuse, Lucy Berliner, director of Seattle’s Harborview Center for Sexual Assault/Traumatic Stress, gave this advice to parents: “Talk openly about what is allowed and what is not in terms of sexual conversation and contact, or the use of physical coercion. These conversations should be ongoing in families to encourage children to come to their parents if something worries them.”
In addition, Berliner said, “there are definitely red flags when youth service providers start cultivating private relationships with a particular child or a particular group of children without parental involvement. In addition, parents should ask the organization about policies regarding background checks and education for youth leaders about what is allowed and what isn’t.”
The study was published in the February issue of JAMA Pediatrics.
For more about child abuse, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics.