Skip Navigation

Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse

Keyword: policy

The following is an excerpt of Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau’s speech at the 30th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland on November 14, 2019. The content was edited for length. 

Elizabeth Letourneau at the United NationsFor more than 30 years I’ve focused my career on developing, evaluating, and disseminating effective child sexual abuse prevention efforts.

You may be surprised to learn that about half of sexual offenses committed against children are by children under the age of 18, usually under the age of 15. Indeed, in the United States, the peak age for committing a sexual offense against a prepubescent child is 14. This may seem surprising, but it makes sense if you consider that children who are just beginning to engage in sexual behaviors are vulnerable to making mistakes and bad decisions.  

  • They don’t understand consent

  • They don’t realize that their younger friends and family members are off-limits

  • They don’t know that sexual images of children are illegal

  • And we don’t teach them. 

Eventually, children do figure these things out.  We see a steep drop in the number of sex crimes committed by older youth starting at age 15. A meta-analysis based on more than 33,000 juvenile sex crime cases found a 5-year sexual recidivism rate of less than 3%.  

Rather than waiting for children to figure out the complicated rules of sexual behavior on their own, we believe it makes more sense to give children – and their parents and educators -  the knowledge, skills and tools to successfully navigate early sexuality. That is why we developed a school-based perpetration prevention program that we call Responsible Behavior with Younger Children.  The premise is simple: teach kids what they need to know to avoid making mistakes and bad decisions in the first place.  

In an initial randomized controlled trial, we implemented the program across four public middle schools and collected pre- and post-treatment data from 150 students ages 11 to 13, and our early findings are very promising. 

Of course, developing, evaluating and disseminating effective programming requires sustained resources. The initial evaluation of Responsible Behavior with Younger Children was supported by a $275,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, the United States’ primary funder of health research. To my knowledge, this is the first perpetration prevention study that NIH has ever funded. The same year that NIH funded my study, the federal government spent about 7 billion dollars to incarcerate sex offenders.  

Let me repeat that:  Every year, the United States spends about 7 billion dollars to lock up people who already committed sex crimes and almost no money to prevent people from engaging in sexually abusive behavior in the first place. I realize that no other country spends as much money on incarceration as the United States. But like the United States, every other country spends more on punishment than on prevention.  

Only about 5% of sex crimes are perpetrated by people with prior sex crime convictions.  Thus, after-the-fact interventions such as incarceration fail to address 95% of the problem. Spending enormous resources on punishment and almost none on prevention is a choice. Children are harmed by this choice. We are all harmed by this choice.

So why do we do this?  Why do we put nearly all our time, money, and resources into after-the-fact responses and almost none into prevention? I believe it’s because most people - and perhaps some of you - don’t really believe that child sexual abuse perpetration can be prevented. This is simply not true. 

What is needed is a concerted effort to shift this paradigm and to promote a more accurate and compelling understanding of child sexual abuse as a preventable public health problem.  

I am happy to say that we are having some success in shifting this paradigm in the United States. My [Moore] Center led a coalition of 25 other youth serving organizations in urging Congress to allocate new funding in support of child sexual abuse prevention research. As a result, the House Committee on Labor, Health, and Human Services included two million dollars in their budget for fiscal year 2020. The Senate Committee did not include any such funds, but did add a statement acknowledging the importance of child sexual abuse prevention research.

What can the United Nations do? 

  • I believe the United Nations can use its extraordinary power to convene and persuade to help shift this paradigm. To encourage states [member countries] to address child sexual abuse as the preventable public health problem that it is.

  • I believe the United Nations can collaborate with states to identify feasible ways to invest in prevention efforts for child sexual abuse, as they already do for other forms of childhood adversity. 

  • Holding people accountable for harmful behavior and addressing the needs of survivors are necessary but insufficient responses to child sexual abuse.  

  • The time has come to enact a truly comprehensive approach that includes investing in the development, evaluation, and dissemination of effective perpetration prevention efforts.

For 18 months the Moore Center, in collaboration with Tiffany Kaszuba, Vice President at the lobbying firm CRD Associates in Washington D.C., has advocated for Congress to include $10,000,000 in its budget to support child sexual abuse prevention research. This work included visits with members and staffers, a congressional briefing and a community sign-on letter with more than 25 organizations supporting this “ask”. 

Last year we were successful in getting language added to the Fiscal Year 2019 Appropriations Report noting the need for more information on child sexual abuse prevention research.

Recently, the House Appropriations Committee released its Fiscal Year 2020 report, which includes $2,000,000 in the budget for child sexual abuse prevention research. 

The specific report language reads:

Child Sexual Abuse Prevention.—While the incidence of child sexual abuse is believed to be far greater than reported, it is estimated to affect nearly 10 percent of all U.S. children, according to CDC. In light of the harmful physical, cognitive and emotional effects on a child’s development, a far more proactive approach is needed to prevent child sexual abuse. Therefore, the Committee includes $2,000,000 for a new research effort supporting the development, evaluation, and dissemination of effective child sexual abuse prevention practice and policy. 

The Senate Appropriations Committee has not yet released its Fiscal Year 2020 report. We know that at least eight senators included our $10,000,000 request in their budgets. Our hope is that the Senate’s final number is higher than the House’s and that the process of reconciliation results in a final amount closer to our ask. Of course, we would be remiss not to recognize that the Senate’s number could be the same or lower than the House’s. Still this is an early “win” that we believe presages greater U.S. investment in prevention research.  

The report is available here: https://appropriations.house.gov/sites/democrats.appropriations.house.gov/files/FY2020%20LHHS_Report.pdf. There is a chart on page 72 and the language pertaining to CSA prevention research is on page 73.

Crisis on the Southern Border: We're Putting Immigrant Kids in Danger

Congregate CareThere is extensive research that demonstrates separating children from their families and holding them in “congregate care” facilities is associated with increased risk for harm including an increased risk of child sexual and physical abuse. Read more here.

Victims of sexual abuse face a lifetime of costly problems

EconomicsDr. Letourneau frequently speaks about, writes about, and studies the impact that child sexual abuse has on victims, those who have committed offenses, families, communities and policies. But she doesn't often get to argue for prevention through the lens of economics — namely the expensive burden that child sexual abuse has on victims, government and society. Read more here.

The Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse partnered with SCCAN, the Maryland State Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, to draft bills that would help protect children from sexual abuse at school. Both bills made it out of the Ways and Means Committee this week.

These bills (HB 1072 and HB 1571) would require the county board of education to fund child sexual abuse prevention training for employees and require new applicants provide more detailed background information before they can be hired. HB 1072 would require annual training on the prevention, identification and reporting of child sexual abuse; authorizing the instruction and training to include information to help employees recognize and respond to incidents of sexual misconduct.

Maryland Delegate C.T. Wilson, who championed these bills, will be our keynote speaker at our annual symposium on Thursday, April 19. Register here.

Be sure to watch this remarkable debate on abolishing the sex offender registry hosted by the Reason Foundation. The debate was part of Reason’s Soho Forum, which organizes debates that asks audience members to vote for the most compelling argument. The debate took place February 12, 2018 at the Subculture Theater in Manhattan.

The debaters were Emily Horowitz, chair of the sociology and criminal justice department at St. Francis College, who supports abolishing the registry, and Marci Hamilton, CEO and academic director at Child USA, an interdisciplinary think tank to prevent child abuse and neglect, who argued for the registry.

Don’t have time to watch? Here’s a great recap by journalist Steven Yoder.