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  September 22, 2003

Social Work Researcher Reports Findings
On Sexual Abuse Of Children

The typical child molester in Connecticut is not the shady stranger loitering in a local park. It is more likely to be a parent, relative, or friend.

And the most common convicted child molester in Connecticut is a white male between the ages of 30 and 50 with a high school or college education.

Image: Eleanor Lyon

Eleanor Lyon, associate professor-in-residence at the School of Social Work, recently published a sutdy on sexual abuse of children.

Photo by Dollie Harvey

These are among the findings of a team of UConn researchers who tried to identify the characteristics of sexually abused children and their abusers.

Eleanor Lyon, an associate professor-in-residence at the School of Social Work, headed the study, which was conducted for the Children's Trust Fund, an independent agency that develops child abuse prevention programs.

"We must learn more about who is engaging in sexual abuse of children, and who has been victimized," Lyon says. "This will enable us to better focus on developing appropriate prevention programs."

The study was based on a review of the files of 188 convicted sex offenders who underwent treatment in Middletown at the Center for the Treatment of Problem Sexual Behavior between 2000 and 2002. The researchers also studied 844 cases of child sexual abuse reported in 2002 and substantiated by the state Department of Children and Families, as well as cases investigated by state police. They also reported data obtained in a random telephone survey commissioned by Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services Inc. (ConnSACS).

"We tried to pull information together from a number of different sources to present as full a picture as we could get," Lyon says.

The study describes only abuse cases that were reported to the Child Protection Agency, and only abusers who had been convicted. Unreported cases of abuse were not accounted for in the two studies, although they were included in the telephone survey.

"Most cases of sexual abuse of children are not reported," Lyon says. "So this is the tip of the iceberg."

Findings include:

  • About 90 percent of convicted offenders were acquainted with or related to their victims.

  • Among the cases substantiated by DCF, officials confirm most abusers are either parents or caretakers of the children who were abused.
  • More than 80 percent of the substantiated abuse victims in 2002 were females, with more than 54 percent between the ages of 12 and 15. Sixteen percent of all the children were under the age of five. Boys who were abused tended to be younger than girls. "Abuse of girls is more likely to be reported," Lyon says. "Parents of boys, or the boys themselves, are less likely to report sexual abuse."
  • The most common convicted child molester in Connecticut is a white male between the ages of 30 and 50 with a high school or college education.

  • About 80 percent of the victims were living with their families when they were abused.

  • No physical violence was involved in three-fourths of the cases involving convicted offenders.

  • Sexual abuse comprised 5 percent of substantiated child abuse cases in Connecticut during 2002.

The telephone survey portion of the study included random calls to 1,653 people in Connecticut. The survey found 26 percent of women and 10 percent of men had experienced at least one sexual assault. Only 15 percent of those people had reported the assault to the police.

Lyon says parents need to be vigilant. "When we focus only on protecting children from 'stranger danger,' we're making a mistake," she says. "Parents need to know who their children are playing with, and be concerned about who their parents are."

This requires more open communication between parents and their children, Lyon adds. "Parents need to overcome their reluctance to talk about issues related to sexuality with their children. Regular, trusting communication should be a high priority."

Parents and caretakers should be targeted for prevention education, Lyon says: "You can't lay the whole burden on children."