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Prospective Examination of Whether Childhood Sexual Abuse Predicts Subsequent Sexual Offending

NCJ Number
Date Published
January 2015
3 pages
This study empirically examined the commonly held belief that sexually abused children grow up to become sexual offenders and specialize in sex crimes.
Childhood sexual abuse has been assumed to increase the risk for sexual offending; however, despite methodological limitations of prior research, public policies and clinical practice have been based on this assumption. The current study found that individuals with histories of childhood abuse and neglect were at increased risk for being arrested for a sex crime compared with control individuals (adjusted odds ratio [AOR], 2.17; 95 percent CI, 1.38-3.40), controlling for age, sex, and race/ethnicity. Specifically, individuals with histories of physical abuse (AOR, 2.06; 95 percent CI, 1.02-4.16) and neglect (AOR, 2.21; 95 percent CI, 1.39-3.51) were at significantly increased risk for arrest for sex offenses; whereas, for sexual abuse, the AOR (2.13; 95 percent CI, 0.83-5.47) did not reach significance. Physically abused and neglected males (not females) were at increased risk and physically abused males also had a higher mean number of sex crime arrests compared with control individuals. The results did not provide support for sex crime specialization. Thus, the widespread belief that sexually abused children are uniquely at risk to become sex offenders was not supported by prospective empirical evidence. These new findings suggest that early intervention programs should target children with histories of physical abuse and neglect. They also indicate that existing policies and practices specifically directed at future risk for sex offending for sexually abused children may warrant reevaluation. This prospective cohort study and archival records check included cases and control individuals originally from a metropolitan county in the Midwest. Children with substantiated cases of physical and sexual abuse and neglect (aged 0-11 years) were matched with children without such histories on the basis of age, sex, race/ethnicity, and approximate family social class (908 cases and 667 control individuals). Both groups were followed up into adulthood (mean age, 51 years). The court cases were from 1967 to 1971; the follow-up extended to 2013. Criminal history information was collected from Federal and State law enforcement agency records at three points in time and from State sex offender registries. (Publisher abstract modified)

Date Published: January 1, 2015