Article

Trends in Childhood Violence and Abuse Exposure: Evidence From 2 National Surveys

Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire, 126 Horton Social Science Center, 20 College Road, Durham, NH 03824, USA.
JAMA Pediatrics (Impact Factor: 7.15). 03/2010; 164(3):238-42. DOI: 10.1001/archpediatrics.2009.283
Source: PubMed
ABSTRACT
To assess trends in children's exposure to abuse, violence, and crime victimizations.
An analysis based on a comparison of 2 cross-sectional national telephone surveys using identical questions conducted in 2003 and 2008.
Telephone interview.
Experiences of children aged 2 to 17 years (2030 children in 2003 and 4046 children in 2008) were assessed through interviews with their caretakers and the children themselves. Outcome Measure Responses to the Juvenile Victimization Questionnaire.
Several types of child victimization were reported significantly less often in 2008 than in 2003: physical assaults, sexual assaults, and peer and sibling victimizations, including physical bullying. There were also significant declines in psychological and emotional abuse by caregivers, exposure to community violence, and the crime of theft. Physical abuse and neglect by caregivers did not decline, and witnessing the abuse of a sibling increased.
The declines apparent in this analysis parallel evidence from other sources, including police data, child welfare data, and the National Crime Victimization Survey, suggesting reductions in various types of childhood victimization in recent years.

Full-text

Available from: Sherry Hamby
ARTICLE
Trends in Childhood Violence and Abuse Exposure
Evidence From 2 National Surveys
David Finkelhor, PhD; Heather Turner, PhD; Richard Ormrod, PhD; Sherry L. Hamby, PhD
Objective: To assess trends in children’s exposure to
abuse, violence, and crime victimizations.
Design: An analysis based on a comparison of 2 cross-
sectional national telephone surveys using identical ques-
tions conducted in 2003 and 2008.
Setting: Telephone interview.
Participants: Experiences of children aged 2 to 17 years
(2030 children in 2003 and 4046 children in 2008) were
assessed through interviews with their caretakers and the
children themselves.
Outcome Measure: Responses to the Juvenile Victim-
ization Questionnaire.
Results: Several types of child victimization were reported
significantly less often in 2008 than in 2003: physical as-
saults, sexual assaults, and peer and sibling victimizations,
including physical bullying. There were also significant de-
clines in psychological and emotional abuse by caregivers,
exposure to community violence, and the crime of theft.
Physical abuse and neglect by caregivers did not decline,
and witnessing the abuse of a sibling increased.
Conclusion: The declines apparent in this analysis par-
allel evidence from other sources, including police data,
child welfare data, and the National Crime Victimiza-
tion Survey, suggesting reductions in various types of
childhood victimization in recent years.
Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2010;164(3):238-242
T
HERE HAVE BEEN MARKED
declines in several indica-
tors of childhood expo-
sure to violence and abuse
from the early 1990s to the
recent past. For example, physical abuse
substantiated by state child welfare au-
thorities dropped 52% from 1990 to 2007,
and substantiated sexual abuse dropped
53% during this same period.
1
The Na-
tional Crime Victimization Survey re-
ported that among 12- to 17-year-old ado-
lescents, rates of aggravated assault,
robbery, and sexual assault dropped 69%,
62%, and 52%, respectively, from 1993 to
2005.
2
Criminal victimizations in school
also dropped 60% from 1995 to 2005.
3
A
survey of all sixth- ninth-, and 12th-
grade students in Minnesota schools found
a 28% decline between 1992 and 2007 in
those reporting sexual abuse by a family
member and a 30% decline in abuse by a
non–family member.
4
The Federal Bu-
reau of Investigation reported that homi-
cides of 14- to 17-year-old adolescents
dropped 60% from 1993 to 2005 and those
with victims aged 13 years and younger
dropped 36%.
4
While there is some debate about the
meaning of these trends,
5
support for the
idea that they represent true declines and
not enforcement, administrative, or sta-
tistical artifacts comes from a variety of
sources.
6
The declines appear in self-
report studies directly from adolescents as
well as in agency statistics.
1,2
A study of
the patterns suggested that they did not
bear the hallmarks of declines due to
changing standards or a decreased will-
ingness to report victimizations.
6
The de-
clines occurred in a broader context of de-
clining societal crime and violence, which
was widely accepted as real.
7-9
Moreover,
other closely related child-welfare indica-
tors—such as suicide, running away, ju-
venile delinquency, and teenage preg-
nancy
10
—have also improved during the
same period, a convergence suggesting that
this trend is valid.
The declines have not occurred at a con-
stant rate over time. Many of the sharpest
drops in rates occurred during the 1990s
in contrast to the trends in the mid-
2000s, which were characterized by
smaller declines or even small increases.
Substantiated sexual abuse dropped at an
Author Affiliations: Crimes
Against Children Research
Center, University of New
Hampshire, Durham
(Drs Finkelhor, Turner, and
Ormrod); and Sewanee: The
University of the South,
Sewanee, Tennessee
(Dr Hamby).
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average annual rate of 6% per year between 1992 and
2001, but the average decline was only 2% per year be-
tween 2002 and 2006. The most dramatic declines in ju-
venile-victim homicide occurred between 1993 and 2000,
after which rates plateaued or even increased slightly.
11
Other indicators, however, such as the National Crime
Victimization Survey, showed continuing declines dur-
ing the 2000s.
2
Thus, there are questions about whether
declines continued during the 2000s and for what kinds
of crime and violence.
Some answers to these questions can be obtained from
2 national surveys that were conducted 5 years apart dur-
ing the 2000s, used similar methods and questions, and
inquired about a broad range of violence and abuse ex-
posures. This article will report trend information com-
paring the 2003 data from the Developmental Victim-
ization Survey (DVS) and 2008 data from the National
Study of Children Exposed to Violence to assess whether
declines have continued during this period.
METHODS
PARTICIPANTS
This analysis compared juvenile victimization data obtained from
2 very similar national surveys conducted 5 years apart. The
earlier survey, the DVS, collected data on 2030 children aged
2 to 17 years between December 2002 and February 2003. The
National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NATSCEV)
obtained information between January and May 2008 on 4046
children aged 2 to 17 years.
Data on experiences of violence and abuse in both surveys
were obtained using very similar items from the Juvenile Vic-
timization Questionnaire (JVQ). The JVQ is a comprehensive
instrument designed to screen for a wide range of victimiza-
tion events, covering such general areas of concern as physical
assault, property victimization, child maltreatment, peer and
sibling victimization, sexual victimization, witnessing vio-
lence, and indirect exposure to violence.
12
Both surveys asked
the same questions about 34 separate victimization types and
collected similar demographic and background information.
The sampling methodology and procedures for both stud-
ies are described in detail elsewhere
13,14
and will only be sum-
marized here. Although data collection occurred 5 years apart,
the studies were parallel in most respects. Both relied on a na-
tionwide sampling of residential telephone numbers and used
list-assisted random-digit dialing for sample selection and data
collection. List-assisted random-digit dialing is the generally
accepted method for scientific sampling of households with tele-
phones in the United States. The sampling frame is landline resi-
dential telephone banks with 1 or more listed (available for di-
rectory publication or directory assistance) residential telephone
numbers.
15
A recent study
16
has confirmed that 95% of work-
ing residential landline telephone numbers are still located in
their listed telephone banks. In both studies, a short interview
was conducted with an adult caregiver (usually a parent) to ob-
tain family background information. Then, 1 child was ran-
domly selected from all eligible children living in the house-
hold by selecting the child with the most recent birthday. If
the selected child was aged 10 to 17 years, the primary inter-
view was conducted with the child. If the selected child was
aged 2 to 9 years, it was conducted with the caregiver who was
“most familiar with the child’s daily routine and experiences.”
For the earlier survey (DVS), interviews were completed with
79% of the eligible persons contracted. The sample for the more
recent survey (NATSCEV) combined a national cross-section
portion (n=3053) with an oversampled portion drawing from
telephone exchanges with high proportions of Hispanic, Afri-
can American, or low-income households (n= 1496). Inter-
views were completed with 71% of the eligible persons con-
tacted in the cross-section and 63% of those contacted in the
oversample.
Consent was obtained from the parent and assent from the
child. All procedures in both studies had been approved by the
institutional review board at the University of New Hamp-
shire. In both surveys, weights were calculated and applied to
control for the differential probability of selection of cases ow-
ing to sampling procedures and variations in within-
household eligibility and to adjust the sample counts to match
existing national demographic profiles in terms of child age,
gender, race/ethnicity, and household income.
MEASUREMENT
Exposures were assessed with the 34 JVQ items noted earlier
(
Table). Each item asked whether the child experienced a spe-
cifically described event. The items included exposure to abuse,
violent acts, crimes, and acts that would be considered crimes
if committed among adults, though in some cases not consid-
ered criminal when occurring among children (eg, hitting by
peers or siblings). Virtually all of the exposures that were in-
cluded have been studied individually as traumas or threats to
children’s welfare in other research. The same items were used
for the self-report interview (children aged 10-17 years) and
the caregiver interview (children aged 2-9 years), with slight
wording changes to appropriately identify the subject of the ques-
tion (eg, “Did anyone use force to take something away from
your child/you that he or she was/you were carrying or wear-
ing?”). The JVQ has shown evidence of good test-retest reli-
ability and construct validity across a wide spectrum of devel-
opmental stages.
12
To facilitate analysis and help clarify trends, the 34 pri-
mary victimizations were organized into 8 general domains, each
reflecting distinctive aspects of juvenile victimization. Eight ag-
gregate measures were constructed to represent each child’s over-
all experience within each domain, with each measure record-
ing whether a child had experienced any victimization of that
type. The aggregates are physical assault, property victimiza-
tion, maltreatment, peer-sibling victimization, sexual victim-
ization, sexual assault, witnessing family violence, and expo-
sure to community violence. For example, physical assault
documents whether a child experienced any of the relevant
physical assault screeners, and maltreatment records any mal-
treatment episode (aggregate measures and associated screen-
ers are presented in the Table). One screener, “sex with an adult,”
was allowed to stand alone because variability in state laws about
age of consent means that in some cases these exposures con-
stituted statutory sex offenses and in others they did not.
The victimizations of interest for the present analysis were
those that occurred within the year prior to the interview. In-
formation on victimization timing was obtained somewhat dif-
ferently in the DVS and NATSCEV. For the DVS, each ques-
tion asked specifically about experiences “in the past year.” The
NATSCEV asked each question with the phrase “At any time
in your child’s/your life...,which was followed with an ad-
ditional question designed to isolate past-year episodes from
victimizations that might have occurred earlier in the child’s
life (“Thinking of [the last time/when] this happened...did
it happen in the last year?”). In both surveys, cues were pro-
vided to assist the respondent in setting and applying the past-
year time frame. A measure of socioeconomic status was com-
puted by combining the measure of the child’s household income
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with the measure of the highest level of education achieved by
either of the child’s caregivers.
STATISTICAL ANALYSIS
Victimization rates calculated for the DVS sample were com-
pared with those calculated from the NATSCEV sample to de-
termine whether significant changes had occurred in victim-
ization levels during the 5-year interval. For both surveys, the
rate for each victimization was computed as the proportion of
children in the sample who reported that type of victimization
experience in the year preceding their interview. Rates are re-
ported as percentages of each sample base. For aggregate vic-
timizations, the rate was the proportion of children in each sur-
vey who had any victimization of each aggregate type. Weighted
data were used for both surveys to ensure that each sample was
as representative of national patterns as possible.
Assessment of significant differences in each set of rates was
based on a 2-sample difference-of-proportions test. Because the
surveys were similar in design but not completely identical, we
chose to take a conservative stance in comparing victimiza-
tion rates. For purposes of this analysis, differences were sta-
tistically significant at P .01 ().
RESULTS
Several types of victimization were reported less often
in 2008 than in 2003 (Table). The annual prevalence of
any physical assault dropped from 53.1% to 49.6% of
children and any peer-sibling victimization in the ag-
gregate dropped from 58.8% to 52.7%. Both of these
were affected by the drop in the single item on peer and
sibling assault (an item included in both aggregates).
The peer/sibling victimization aggregate decline was
also strongly affected by the large drop in physical bul-
lying, and a smaller decline (significant at P .05 but
not P .01) in emotional bullying. Any property vic-
timization did not decline, but theft and burglary of
family households did individually. The small decline
in any maltreatment was not significant, but the item on
psychological and emotional abuse, which makes the
largest contribution to maltreatment, did decline sig-
nificantly. The annual prevalence of any sexual assault
declined from 3.3% to 2.0% of children. Sex with an
adult (tracking possible statutory sex offenses) also de-
clined. Any exposure to community violence also de-
clined from 29.7% to 24.8% of children owing to a par-
ticularly strong drop in witnessing assaults, with and
without weapons.
Notable types of individual victimization that did not
show significant differences in the 2 surveys included kid-
napping and bias attacks (assaults targeting race, reli-
gion, or perceived sexual orientation), physical abuse and
neglect by caregivers, dating violence, sexual abuse by
known and unknown adults, the witnessing of domes-
tic violence, and exposures to a shooting. Two indi-
vidual items showed significant increases: robbery and
witnessing the physical abuse of a sibling.
Analysis of the trends by gender and age showed no
differences in the patterns. Analysis by socioeconomic
status showed considerably stronger declines for chil-
dren from households of lower socioeconomic status than
for other children. Total victimization declined for chil-
dren of lower socioeconomic status by 19% (Z=11.48,
P .001) but did not change significantly for the other
children (Z=−1.94, P=.05).
COMMENT
The victimization rates in the 2 surveys showed a clear
pattern of mostly lower rates for 2008 than 2003. The
big declines in peer-sibling assaults and bullying were
noteworthy, as was the decline in the witnessing of
Table. Annual Victimization Rates According to DVS (2003)
and NATSCEV (2008)
Exposure
% of Children
P
Value
DVS
(n= 2030)
NATSCEV
(n= 4046)
Any physical assault 53.1 49.6 .01
a
Assault with a weapon
b
6.0 5.1 .14
Assault without a weapon
b
16.9 14.9 .04
a
Attempted assault
b
8.8 7.9 .23
Kidnapping
b
0.6 0.6 .99
Bias attack
b,c
1.9 1.9 .99
Any property victimization 31.5 30.5 .80
Robbery 5.4 10.0 .001
a
Theft 14.2 11.6 .001
a
Vandalism 14.9 14.2 .47
Theft from household 10.2 7.0 .01
a
Any maltreatment 13.5 11.1 .13
Physical abuse
b
3.4 4.2 .001
a
Psychological/emotional abuse 10.3 7.1 .55
Neglect 1.4 1.6 .56
Custodial interference 1.7 1.5 .001
a
Any peer or sibling victimization 58.8 52.7 .33
Gang/group assault
b
2.6 2.2 .001
a
Peer/sibling assault
b
45.0 38.4 .87
Genital assault
b
5.4 5.5 .001
a
Bullying 21.7 14.8 .01
a
Emotional bullying 24.9 22.0 .33
Date violence
b
1.1 1.4 .06
Any sexual victimization 8.0 6.7 .001
a
Any sexual assault 3.3 2.0 .45
By a known adult 0.3 0.2 .99
By a nonspecified adult 0.3 0.3 .01
a
By a peer 1.2 0.6 .02
a
Rape, completed/attempted 2.1 1.3 .67
Sexual exposure/flashed 3.2 3.0 .06
Sexual harassment 3.8 2.9 .001
a
Sexual misconduct/statutory rape 2.9 1.5 .06
Any witness of family violence 4.0 5.1 .99
Witnessed domestic violence 3.3 3.3 .01
a
Witnessed physical abuse 1.1 2.1 .001
a
Any exposure to community violence 29.7 24.8 .001
a
Witnessed an assault with a weapon 13.9 7.7 .001
a
Witnessed an assault without
a weapon
24.9 17.9 .001
a
Someone close murdered 2.9 3.5 .22
Saw a murder 0.4 0.5 .59
Exposed to a shooting, bombs,
and/or riots
5.5 5.7 .75
In a war zone 0.3 0.7 .05
a
Abbreviations: DVS, Developmental Victimization Survey; NATSCEV,
National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence.
a
P .05.
b
Included in the any physical assault group.
c
Assaults targeting race, religion, or perceived sexual orientation.
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weapon and nonweapon assaults. Psychological/
emotional maltreatment by caregivers appeared to have
lessened, though other forms of child maltreatment did
not. Sexual assault appeared to decline, as did thefts. These
declines are consistent with trends apparent in the Na-
tional Crime Victimization Survey, which since 2003 has
shown marked drops in 12- to 17-year-old adolescents
reporting assaults, sexual assault, and property crime.
Among the victimizations that did not decline were
adult-instigated victimizations, including physical abuse
and neglect, and exposure to adult domestic violence.
Child exposure to adult physical abuse actually showed
an increase. These patterns are somewhat at odds with
data on child maltreatment substantiations, for ex-
ample, which have indicated some declines in physical
abuse during the 2002-2006 period. However, trends in
substantiated abuse reflect agency data, which are influ-
enced by many factors besides real underlying rate
changes. Moreover, the number of cases of reportable child
maltreatment appearing in general population surveys of
the sort compared here may be too small to allow the de-
tection of the relatively modest trends like the 17% de-
cline in physical abuse shown by the federal child abuse
data during this period.
However, there are possible reasons why various forms
of peer victimization may have declined more than those
perpetrated by adults. In the wake of several high-
profile school shooting episodes in the late 1990s, many
schools began to rapidly adopt anti-bullying and other
violence-prevention policies and programs. Formal evalu-
ations of some of these programs have shown them to
be successful in reducing violence and bullying.
17,18
De-
clines in peer-related victimization during the mid-
2000s may be one of the effects of this social-problem
mobilization.
The finding that the declines were greater among chil-
dren of lower socioeconomic status households is plau-
sible as well. Various theories about recent declines in
crime rates have mentioned such factors as increasing po-
lice staffing and activity (including at schools),
7,19
grow-
ing immigration among groups with a high motivation
for economic advancement, and the development and dis-
semination of psychiatric medications to segments of the
population previously not amenable to mental health ser-
vices.
4
These factors might be expected to have more im-
pact on low–socioeconomic status communities and chil-
dren.
However, the trend data in this study need to be in-
terpreted with an important caveat concerning at least 1
methodological difference that could be an alternative ex-
planation for any drop. In the 2003 survey, respondents
were asked the questions about victimizations in the past
year first, before being asked in some selected instances
about any lifetime exposure to a subset of the victimiza-
tion screeners. In the 2008 survey, by contrast, respon-
dents were asked about lifetime exposures for all screen-
ers first and then asked to specify if any of these occurred
in the last year. It is possible that respondents in 2003,
being asked first about a 1-year time frame, eager to ap-
pear helpful or responsive and not knowing they would
have another opportunity to disclose them later, re-
ported some episodes within the past year that had ac-
tually occurred earlier, a process known in epidemiol-
ogy as “telescoping.” In 2008, such respondents would
have had an opportunity to disclose those episodes in the
first set of inquiries about lifetime exposure and then
might have been more accurate in their judgment about
whether they occurred in the past year or not. This pro-
cess could have resulted in lower past-year estimates in
2008 than in 2003.
On the other hand, the pattern of findings in 2003 and
2008 does not strongly support the telescoping expla-
nation for the changes between the surveys. A telescop-
ing difference might have been expected to show up across
all screeners, though some of the screeners actually
showed increases between 2003 and 2008, and many
showed little change. In addition, it is not clear why the
telescoping would have applied more to peer victimiza-
tions than adult-perpetrated ones. Another argument
against a telescoping explanation is that delinquent be-
haviors in the past year (measured separately and in ex-
actly the same way in 2003 and 2008) also declined (data
not presented here). This is consistent with a real de-
cline in victimization.
The data analyzed in this study can be read as a pos-
sible additional confirmation that declines have oc-
curred in some forms of child victimization during the
recent past. If that is true, it is certainly encouraging news
for those working to create safer environments for chil-
dren, an endeavor that has mobilized a considerable quan-
tity of resources in the last few decades.
Accepted for Publication: September 20, 2009.
Correspondence: David Finkelhor, PhD, Crimes Against
Children Research Center, University of New Hamp-
shire, 126 Horton Social Science Center, 20 College Rd,
Durham, NH 03824 (david.finkelhor@unh.edu).
Author Contributions: Study concept and design: Finkel-
hor, Turner, and Hamby. Acquisition of data: Finkelhor,
Turner, and Ormrod. Analysis and interpretation of data:
Turner, Ormrod, and Hamby. Drafting of the manu-
script: Ormrod. Critical revision of the manuscript for im-
portant intellectual content: Finkelhor, Turner, Ormrod,
and Hamby. Statistical analysis: Finkelhor and Ormrod.
Obtained funding: Finkelhor and Turner. Administrative,
technical, and material support: Finkelhor and Ormrod.
Questionnaire management and methodological expertise:
Hamby.
Financial Disclosure: None reported.
Funding/Support: All of the funds for this program were
derived from federal sources. This project was sup-
ported by grant 2006-JW-BX-0003 from the Office of Ju-
venile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Jus-
tice Programs, US Department of Justice. The total amount
of federal funding involved is $2 709 912.
Disclaimer: The points of view and opinions in this docu-
ment are those of the authors and do not necessarily rep-
resent the official position or policies of the US Depart-
ment of Justice.
REFERENCES
1. Jones LM, Finkelhor D. Updated trends in child