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Laws Passed in '70s Credited With Decline in Rate of Abuse
David Gibson
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Monday, June 6, 2011
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Teresa M. Kettelkamp gives an interview in Rome June 2.
WASHINGTON (CNS)—The head of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection credited the passage of laws in the 1970s to protect women and children with leading to a decline in child sexual abuse.

"I think the laws in the '70s dealing with domestic violence ... brought in a new respect for women and children. We were seeing the residual effects in the '70s and '80s," said Teresa Kettelkamp in a recent interview with Catholic News Service.

"More rape crisis centers came into operation," she continued. "As laws changed, the sensitivity to discussing these issues was still there, but people were talking about them. And it was no longer OK to harm children or beat your wife."

The number of child sexual abuse incidents in the United States has declined over time, according to several studies, and that decrease corresponds with a drop in reported cases perpetrated by priests. The studies also indicate that other forms of child abuse also have dropped.

The first study to report lower numbers of child sexual abuse was published in 2001, according to Lisa Jones of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

According to Jones, who held a webinar earlier this year on child abuse and neglect trends, the number of abuse reports had gone down 61 percent between 1992-2009. "The most significant parts of the decline happened in the 1990s, but continued through the 2000s," Jones said during a webinar.

The numbers come from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, which reports substantiated cases of sexual abuse and other forms of child maltreatment.

Those figures are mirrored somewhat in the John Jay report commissioned by the U.S. bishops and issued May 18.

Kettelkamp noted that "it takes time" for a law to work its way through the various institutions of society—into policies and procedures of agencies that have to carry the law out.

Until about the '70s, the country had laws protecting animals on the books, but not laws protecting children, she said.

There was even a time when adoptions were handled in probate court, not family court, she said, which basically said that the child someone wanted to adopt was property and didn't "have the rights of a human being."

Federal involvement in addressing the problems of child abuse and neglect dates from 1935, when the Social Security Act first funded public welfare services "for the protection and care of homeless, dependent and neglected children and children in danger of becoming delinquents."

But it was not until the mid-1960s that the first state laws were enacted that mandated suspected cases of child abuse and neglect be reported to public agencies. By 1967 all states had enacted such mandatory reporting laws.

In an answer to the public's growing concerns about the extent of child abuse and neglect across the country, the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act was signed into law in early 1974. It has been reauthorized several times since then. Among other things, it provides states with funding for the investigation and prevention of child maltreatment.

Also in 1974, the federal government created the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect to serve as an information clearinghouse.

"One thing the church has been so good at doing is advocating the rights and dignity of the human person," she added.

But she added, "We would never hurt a child if we really believed (the child) was created in God's image and likeness."

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