Most Sex Offenders Against Children Are Family Members

The news media's misrepresentation of offenders of sex crime against children

Posted May 14, 2013

There has been extensive media coverage of the recent rescue of three kidnapped female victims in Cleveland, two of whom were teenagers when they were abducted. Although the event represents a tragic yet inspiring story with significant interest to the public, however, this type of sex offense does not epitomize the reality about sex crime against children. Unfortunately, the media’s lack of attention to those typical sex offenses against children often perpetuates the myth that “Don’t talk to strangers” as the preventive method to keep children safe.

The fact is, most sex and other offenders against children are not strangers. According to the Child Maltreatment 2011 report published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), CPS (child protective services) agencies in the 50 States and 2 regions (including District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) screened in, responded to and disposed more than 2 million instances about child abuse (including 676,569 unique child abuse victims) during Federal fiscal year 2011.

Most of the perpetrators of child abuse (neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse) were family members. For example, 80.8% of (instance-based count, rather than person-based) perpetrators were parents, 5.9 percent were relatives other than parents, and 4.4 percent were unmarried partners of parents. In addition, the perpetrators included sibling, victim’s boyfriend or girlfriend, babysitter, other caretakers, and strangers. There is no indication that the pattern of offenders of sexual abuse, which accounted for 9.1% of the cases, differed from the general one. The data is also consistent with the practitioners’ observation about sex abuse perpetrators. As reported in American Psychological Association website, the majority of sexual offenders are family members or are otherwise known to the child.

However, this reality has not set in for some people because only sex crimes perpetrated by strangers or persons with special status (e.g., coach, teacher) tend to receive the news media’ attention. High (low) level publicity of an event in the media is often mistaken as high (low) frequency of the event. If the news media could pay more attention to family violence and to physically, sexually and/or emotionally abused child victims at home, they would make a greater contribution in keeping children safe and healthy.