Reports Don't Tell Whole Story of Child Sex Abuse; Records and Experts Reveal a Different Picture of Perpetrators

By Treen, Dana | The Florida Times Union, April 21, 2008 | Go to article overview

Reports Don't Tell Whole Story of Child Sex Abuse; Records and Experts Reveal a Different Picture of Perpetrators


Treen, Dana, The Florida Times Union


Byline: DANA TREEN

A man is accused of asking an 11-year-old girl to don "her little black dress and her necklace" before taking her to an abandoned house in St. Johns County where she is raped.

A physician-in-training is accused of traveling across the state for what he thinks will be a sexual tryst with a 15-year-old girl he has courted online.

A pastor's past repulses the community when multiple victims accuse him of sexually abusing them decades ago.

Those recent scenarios involving Jacksonville suspects generate headlines and chill parents determined to protect their children. The people arrested in even more horrific cases, such as the murders of Jessica Lunsford in Florida and Christopher Michael Barrios Jr. in Georgia, are portrayed as depraved victimizers with dangerously imperfect psyches.

Yet as disturbing as these stories are, they don't tell the whole story of child sex abuse in Northeast Florida, Southeast Georgia or the nation. And, experts said, perpetrators often are less likely to be as driven by inner demons as might be expected.

The number of children being sexually abused dropped 5 percent nationally from 2005 to 2006, contributing to a 53 percent decline since 1992, according to a study released last week by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

The center used data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System in the report.

In Florida, the number of substantiated sex crimes against children dropped 10 percent in the 2005-06 time period and 59 percent over the 14 years covered in the study. Georgia had greater drops of 27 percent and 78 percent, respectively, for those periods.

University of New Hampshire researcher Lisa Jones said the steepest part of the decline occurred in the 1990s as a range of things happened, including increased public education and more involvement by law enforcement and the judicial system.

More aggressive prosecutions, increases in the number of law enforcement and child protective service personnel, and even new psychiatric treatments and medications have contributed to the drop, the report said.

PICKING APART THE PROFILE

Tactics used by abusers vary, whether it be meeting young teens on the Internet, casing playgrounds and schools or having connections as a family member or person of respect, such as a pastor or teacher.

By conservative estimates, more than 350 arrests have been made in Florida since 2003 in cases where the suspect is charged with using a computer to entice a child or has traveled to meet an underage victim, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Experts and records paint a different picture of who commits most sex crimes on children, though.

According to information from the Clay County Sheriff's Office, for example, the victims knew their attackers in about 90 percent of the cases from 2003 to 2008. In 2003, 100 percent of the child victims knew their assailant in the 65 rape, sodomy and fondling cases.

There is evidence that pedophiles make up a minority of child molesters, said Elizabeth Letourneau, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina.

"The majority of sex offenders do not re-offend," she said. "The majority of these guys, once they get caught, are able to change their patterns."

Studies as far back as 1989 show there is a low recidivism rate, she said. The evidence is substantiated by studies that have followed offenders for 20 years or more, she said.

Letourneau said stressful patterns of events such as marital problems or job loss combined with availability and opportunity can trigger behavior most would consider unspeakable.

"It's very difficult to empathize," she said. "The truth of the matter is there are some people who were pushed over the edge. …

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