Authorities often aware of previous incidents of victimization among children and adolescents

January 3, 2011

Almost half of U.S. youth who experience violence, abuse or crime have had at least one of their victimizations known to school, police or medical authorities, according to new research from the University of New Hampshire Crimes against Children Research Center.

The research is reported in the January issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

"Childhood/adolescent abuse is frequently described as a hidden problem, and victimization studies regularly have shown that much abuse goes undisclosed," according to lead researcher David Finkelhor, director of the UNH Crimes against Children Research Center, and his co-authors. The article is co-authored by Richard Ormrod and Heather Turner, also with the UNH Crimes against Children Research Center, and Sherry Hamby of Sewanee: The University of the South.

"The hidden nature of childhood victimization has multiple sources. Clearly, children and adolescents are easily intimidated by offenders and fear retaliation. However, families, children and adolescents often wish to deal with crime and victimization informally. They sometimes fear the consequences of disclosure to authorities in the form of interviews and police and court involvement. In other cases, they do not perceive that victimizations as something that would be of interest to authorities," the researchers said.

To obtain national estimates of the degree to which authorities are aware of childhood victimization, Finkelhor and his colleagues conducted a national telephone survey involving 4,549 children. Between January and May 2008, interviews were conducted with children and teens age 10 to 17 and the parents of children age 0 to 9 years. Participants answered questions about five types of victimization: conventional crime, maltreatment, abuse by peers and siblings, sexual abuse and indirect exposure to violence (such as witnessing abuse).

A total of 58.3 percent of the children and teens reported at least one direct victimization, including bullying. Of these, 45.7 percent had at least one victimization that was known to authorities. The incidents about which authorities were aware tended to be more serious—for instance, officials knew about 69 percent of the cases of sexual abuse by a known adult, 73.5 percent of kidnappings and 70.1 percent of gang or group assaults.

"However, even emotional bullying (51.5 percent), neglect (47.8 percent) and theft (46.8 percent) were often known to authorities," the researchers said. The episodes most infrequently reported to authorities included peer and sibling assault, dating violence, sexual exposure and statutory rape.

School authorities were more likely to be aware of victimization events, with 42.3 percent being aware compared with 12.7 percent among police and 1.8 percent among medical authorities. This result "is understandable given how much time children and adolescents spend in school and interact with school professionals," the researchers said. "Although police and medical authorities may conclude from these results that they are seriously underinformed about victimization, it is not clear how much victimization of children and adolescents merits the specialized involvement of these professionals."

The findings represent an improvement from a comparable survey conducted in 1992, in which 25 percent of cases of victimization among age 10 to 16 years were known to authorities (compared with 50.6 percent among this age group in the current study).

"However, the study also shows that a considerable portion of childhood/adolescent exposure to victimization is still unknown to authorities," according to the researchers. "The study suggests that outreach needs to be particularly enhanced toward boys, Hispanics and higher-income groups. It also suggests that disclosure promotion should be directed toward episodes that involve family members and peer perpetrators."

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