It is only in the last 30 years that society has begun to fully recognize child sexual abuse as the devastating problem that it is, to portray the trauma of sexual abuse in the media, and to seek ways to prevent and eliminate sexual violence. As communities have begun to demand a response to sexual abuse, legislators have passed an increasing number of policies directed at the people who sexually abuse. In 2007 and 2008 alone, more than 1500 sex offender-related bills were proposed in state legislatures and over 275 new laws were enacted. Nearly all of these laws and policies follow two key trends: 1) they increase the length of sex offender incarceration and 2) they monitor, track, and restrict individuals convicted of sexual offenses upon their return to communities. While the intent of these laws is to protect communities from those who abuse, to improve responses to allegations of abuse, and to prevent child sexual abuse, the broad application of these laws has unintended consequences which may make our children and communities less safe. Research from the last decade has highlighted some of the unintended negative impacts these laws may be having on our ability to prevent sexual abuse before it is perpetrated and to prevent re-offense by individuals returning to communities:
- Since those who abuse are often portrayed publicly as “monsters,” people may be less likely to recognize the warning signs of sexual behavior problems in siblings, parents, children, cousins, or others to whom they are close because they do not see them as “monsters.”
- Someone who suspects abuse within the family may be less likely to seek resources and assistance, fearing that it will result in the public exposure and humiliation of everyone involved, including the victim.
When a convicted abuser returns to a community, current sex offender management policy may cause the offender to face housing, employment, and financial instability, as well as social isolation and despair — all risk factors for re-offense. The resulting instability may also reduce the ability of law enforcement and probation and parole systems to supervise the offender and ensure that s/he has access to the specialized treatment and services necessary for full accountability.
In creating a legislative policy environment that may inhibit the willingness of individuals, families, and communities to face, prevent, and respond to child sexual abuse, our society does a disservice to its
children. If no hopeful, rehabilitative solutions are available and made publicly known, people who witness signs of risk for victimization and/or perpetration may be less motivated to take the steps necessary to prevent child sexual abuse, intervene in situations of risk, and come forward when a child is sexually abused.
Experts agree that a criminal justice response alone cannot prevent sexual abuse or keep communities safe. Yet, tougher sentencing and increased monitoring of sex offenders are fully funded in many states, while victim services and prevention programs are woefully underfunded. Furthermore, with the majority of child sexual abuse unreported (report rates are as low as 12 percent), laws and policies are unable to ensure accountability for those who abuse or to address the needs of victims.
Even with these concerns there is reason for hope. Emerging research about people who sexually abuse has begun to inform new policies. Innovative state-based policies, and policies and programs within organizations and communities, are taking a comprehensive approach toward safety by focusing on the prevention of the perpetration of child sexual abuse, encouraging a range of options for holding abusers accountable, and offering incentives for abusers and families to reach out for help. And new collaborative models encourage cross-disciplinary professional partners to work together to craft new policies that prevent abuse before it is perpetrated and re-offense.