USC Law professor Thomas Lyon and several of the nation’s leading scholars have recommended major policy changes on child sexual abuse research in a Science journal article.
“The Science of Child Sexual Abuse” calls for the creation of a new center on child abuse and interpersonal violence to be housed at the National Institutes of Health.
The researchers found that the scientific study of child sexual abuse is under-funded, obscured by contentious forensic controversy and fragmented by discipline.
“From public health, economic, ethical and scientific perspectives, we recommend interdisciplinary consensus panels and increased intellectual investment in child sexual abuse research, prevention, intervention and education,” the authors advised in the April 22 article.
“We should recognize child sexual abuse as a public health problem similar in magnitude to drug abuse and alcoholism,” Lyon added. “A National Institute could coordinate multidisciplinary research efforts to improve prevention, detection and treatment.”
The researchers are from the fields of medicine, law, political science, psychiatry and psychology. In addition to Lyon, they include lead-author Jennifer Freyd of the University of Oregon; David Spiegel of the Stanford University School of Medicine; Frank Putnam of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center; Kathryn Becker-Blease of the University of New Hampshire; Ross Cheit of Brown University; Nancy Siegel of NBS Associates, Maryland; and Kathy Pezdek of Claremont Graduate University.
The interdisciplinary group called for action on three fronts:
� stepping up research aimed at determining the prevalence of child sex abuse and identifying its causes, consequences, prevention and treatment;
� expanding of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, a federally funded coalition of 54 centers providing community-based treatment to children and their families, to address the enormous public health consequences of child trauma; and
� creating an Institute of Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence within the National Institutes of Health.
Spiegel, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, said publication of the summary of child sexual abuse research and its implications “is a tremendous opportunity to shed light on an important and neglected problem.”
“Science is most needed where passion overshadows reason,” Spiegel said. “Freyd has applied the tools of science to this contentious area, helping us understand the effects of trauma in the family and the disruption of cognition and memory that can occur during and after childhood abuse.”
Freyd, a University of Oregon psychology professor whose theory of betrayal trauma explains why some people do not recall their abuse until later in life, has conducted studies that show abuse perpetrated by a caregiver increases the likelihood of memory failure.
“Unfortunately, many factors silence victims of abuse,” Freyd said. “Myths about the nature of child sexual abuse wrongly cloud the credibility of abuse victims in the eyes of the media and the public.”
The policy perspective article cited research on child sexual abuse to date, including:
� child sexual abuse is associated with serious mental and physical health problems, substance abuse, victimization and criminality in adulthood;
� under-reporting (including memory failure) leads to underestimation of the extent of abuse, which currently is reported by 20 percent of women and 5 to 10 percent of men worldwide;
� although official reports of child sex abuse have declined somewhat in the U.S. during the last 10 years, close to 90 percent of sexual abuse cases are never reported to authorities;
� most child sex abuse is committed by family members and individuals close to the child, which increases the likelihood of delayed disclosure and possible memory failure while increasing the potential for unsupportive reactions by caregivers and lack of intervention;
� a number of factors undermine the credibility of abuse reports, despite evidence that when adults recall abuse, the truth of their memories is not correlated with when they regained awareness of a past incident; and
� cognitive and neurological mechanisms have been scientifically identified that may underlie the forgetting of abuse.
Lyon, who holds a joint appointment in USC’s department of psychology, recently received a 2005 Award for Excellence in Mentoring.
The award is sponsored by the USC Mellon Academic Mentoring Support Program, whose prime directive is to support and enhance both student learning and faculty development.