Uncovering hidden abuse

Across Canada and the U.S., sexual abuse of children appears to be in dramatic decline.  Canadian stats show a 30 per cent drop between 1998 and 2003, and the U.S. numbers are even more astounding: a plunge of 53 per cent from 1990 to 2007.  But are these dramatic numbers too good to be true?  Delphine Collin-Vézina, a professor at McGill’s School of Social Work, says it may be too early to celebrate.

“A decrease of just two per cent would really be great, she says, “but 30 per cent in just five years is too huge to be real.”

Collin-Vézina works to understand how accurate these statistics really are.  “We’re not mapping the real number of cases,” she says, “we’re mapping the number that are known to the authorities.  Child sexual abuse is such a hidden phenomenon – there are so many victims who never report their abuse.”

Her concern stems in part from a study led by Nico Trocmé, another McGill Social Work professor, which found substantiated yearly reports of sexual abuse for just 0.062 per cent of Canadian children.  Any number is too high, but Collin-Vézina believes the real number of abused children may be many, many times higher.

“In surveys of adults in Quebec,” she says, “we have much higher numbers: one in five women and one in ten men say they were sexually abused before they turned 18.”

“I would love to know that there are fewer victims than that.  That’s the dream we all have.  But you look at these numbers, and there’s something that doesn’t make sense here.”

Collin-Vézina’s work helps governments across Canada understand the scope of the problem, and provide resources when and where they’re needed most.  If governments think this kind of crime is under control, Collin-Vézina fears that victims – and potential victims – may not get the support and education they need.

“Governments could revisit treatment programs for victims,” she warns, “and prevention programs in schools that teach children about the importance of reporting abuse and avoiding risky situations.  If they think we’ve cut cases by 30 per cent, I’m really afraid that they might cut the funding for these programs.”


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