Lucy Berliner, Harborview Clinic Director, Sees Victory in Plummeting Sexual Assault Rates

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Child sex abuse rates have plummeted over the past decade. That's not news everybody wants to hear, says Lucy Berliner, director of the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress.

The statistics--reported on Friday by The New York Times, in part to put the Jerry Sandusky scandal in perspective ---"places advocates in an awkward place," Berliner says. Abuse victim advocates worry that if rates are declining, funding for services will dry up.

And, paradoxically, clinics for victims are as busy as they ever were, according to Berliner. Hers helps about 500 young victims a year--same as it did a decade ago. So people in the field have viewed evidence of declining rates with skepticism.

The evidence, though, is now overwhelming. From The New York Times:

Overall cases of child sexual abuse fell more than 60 percent from 1992 to 2010, according to David Finkelhor, a leading expert on sexual abuse who, with a colleague, Lisa Jones, has tracked the trend. The evidence for this decline comes from a variety of indicators, including national surveys of child abuse and crime victimization, crime statistics compiled by the F.B.I., analyses of data from the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect and annual surveys of grade school students in Minnesota, all pointing in the same direction.

Berliner, who credits her attachment to the University of Washington with giving her a proclivity to look beyond anecdotal information, says she believes the seeming contradiction can be explained by a big societal shift.

Victims are no longer blamed, as they once were, giving them an impetus to come forward earlier. That theory is backed up by the Harboview clinic's experience over the past decade. "There are certain types of cases that we rarely see any more," Berliner says. Chief among them are those in which a child has been abused over a long period of time, suggesting that victims or their parents are reporting abuse rather than tolerating it for years.

Also, Berliner says, her clinic is seeing more teenage victims, the vast majority of which are assaulted by someone they know, a situation that used to make them reluctant to tell authorities.

Rather than shy away from the new statistics, Berliner says advocates should see them as validation. Advocates have gotten the message out that abuse is unacceptable and should be reported. Services are now widely available. Those are all reasons, she says, "to celebrate."

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