More Abuse Found at Home Than in Day Care
The likelihood that a preschool child will be sexually abused in a day-care center is not great, according to a new study that argues for better screening of child-care workers but against reliance on criminal background checks.
The three-year, federally financed study, released last week by the University of New Hampshire's Family Research Laboratory, places the incidence of abuse in day-care centers at 5.5 cases for every 10,000 children enrolled.
That is lower, it notes, than the projected risk for sexual abuse in the home. The study estimates that 8.9 of every 10,000 children under the age of 6 are abused at home.
David Finkelhor, principal investigator for the study and an expert on child abuse, said the results should reassure parents that sexual abuse is not a systemic problem in child-care centers.
He noted that the study dealt only with substantiated reports of abuse, but added: "We don't know how much goes unreported, but one thing is true: unreported abuse in day-care centers is probably not as common as unreported abuse at home.''
'Good News' and Bad
Although several highly publicized day-care abuse cases, such as the one involving the McMartin Preschool in California, have focused public concern on the safety of such facilities, child-protection advocates expressed little surprise last week at the study's findings.
"We didn't find the outcome surprising at all,'' said Nancy Peterson, a spokesman for the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse. "It was right in line with what we have been learning about child-care facilities.''
"But it does show that day-care centers have to do more thorough checking of references for employment,'' Ms. Peterson added.
David S. Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America, called the report the most comprehensive of its kind, and also emphasized the need for child-care policies on abuse prevention.
"The good news was that the incidence was minimal,'' Mr. Liederman said. "On the other hand, there is room for concern because of the number of cases identified. This says to us in the day-care business that we must take procedural steps to keep this from happening.''
"Also, parents must go the extra mile to educate themselves about how to recognize the signs of child abuse,'' he added.
The $200,000 study, which was funded by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, examined substantiated cases of sexual abuse involving 1,639 children at 270 licensed day-care facilities serving more than six children from January 1983 to December 1985 across the country.
In 35 percent of the cases, children were abused by a day-care staff member, it found, but often the offenses involved other employees or outsiders.
In 25 percent of the cases, for example, a relative or husband of a
staff member was the molester. Thirteen percent involved a janitor, bus
driver, or unknown outsider.
And in 17 percent of the cases, more than one molester was involved.
Forty percent of the day-care abusers were women, the study found, a proportion much higher than that documented for abuse cases generally. But the study points out that most of the abusers were men--despite the fact that only about 5 percent of child-care workers are male.
Not a Typical Pedophile
The abusers in the study did not show the typical characteristics of a pedophile--someone who gains sexual gratification through children. Only 8 percent had been arrested previously for a sexual offense. Two-thirds were trained day-care workers with two or more years' experience, and half were college-educated.
Girls were more frequently abused than boys, accounting for 62 percent of the cases. The study also showed that physically attractive children seem to be at greater risk. Race and socioeconomic level did not have a statistically significant impact in the findings.
In two-thirds of the cases, abuse occurred in the bathroom of the day-care facility, probably, the study suggests, because it afforded the abuser an opportunity to be alone with the children.
Children were forced to abuse other children in 21 percent of the cases; the production of pornography was involved in 14 percent; drug use in 13 percent; and religious or occult symbolism in 13 percent.
The report says all of the children studied were threatened or coerced in some way to prevent them from disclosing the abuse. In one-third of the cases, the child was abused for more than six months before anyone was told. In more than half of the cases, the child waited at least a month to tell someone.
Most of the time, parents became suspicious after noticing unusual behavior in their child, but in 37 percent of the cases the child told a parent what happened without prompting.
The report recommends that parents educate their preschool children about child abuse before enrolling them in day care.
Changes in day-care policies were also recommended, such as requiring that facilities minimize the chance for seclusion in restrooms and provide more supervision.
More careful screening of day-care workers was also urged, but the
study discourages the use of police records exclusively to check the
backgrounds of job applicants. Considering the small percentage of
day-care abusers with prior criminal records, the practice is expensive
and inefficient, it concludes.