Child sex abuse policy recommendations published in Science magazine


April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month

Jennifer Freyd, Professor of Psychology, University of Oregon

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EUGENE, Ore. -- A University of Oregon psychologist is calling for the creation of a new national institute on child abuse and interpersonal violence in a major policy article published in the April 22 issue of the journal Science.

Jennifer Freyd, an authority on trauma, is the lead author of "The Science of Child Sexual Abuse." She and six co-authors who are experts in psychiatry, law, political science and psychology, recommend:

  • stepping up research aimed at determining the prevalence of child sex abuse and identifying its causes, consequences, prevention and treatment

  • expansion of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, a federally funded coalition of 54 centers providing community-based treatment to children and their families, to address the enormous public health consequences of child trauma

  • creation of an Institute of Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence within the National Institutes of Health

David Spiegel, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, said publication of this summary of research and its implications in the nation's leading general science journal "is a tremendous opportunity to shed light on an important and neglected area."

"Science is most needed where passion overshadows reason," Spiegel said. "Jennifer Freyd has applied the tools of science to this contentious area, helping us understand the effects of trauma in the family and the disruption of cognition and memory that can occur during and after childhood abuse."

Freyd, a University of Oregon psychology professor whose theory of betrayal trauma explains why some people do not recall their abuse until later in life, has conducted studies that show abuse perpetrated by a caregiver increases the likelihood of memory failure.

"Unfortunately, many factors silence victims of abuse," Freyd said. "Myths about the nature of child sexual abuse wrongly cloud the credibility of abuse victims in the eyes of the media and the public."

Freyd and her former students, Anne DePrince and Kathy Becker-Blease, have investigated the cognitive mechanisms involved in the forgetting of abuse. Terry Keane, associate chief of staff for research and development for the VA Boston Healthcare System and a professor of psychiatry at Boston School of Medicine, said Freyd and DePrince "have produced the best work to date" to reveal the true nature of memory for traumatic events.

"Their outstanding work on traumatic memory employs state-of-the-art empirical approaches derived from the cognitive neurosciences," Keane said.

The Science article cites the body of research to date, which shows:

  • child sexual abuse is associated with serious mental and physical health problems, substance abuse, victimization and criminality in adulthood

  • under-reporting (including memory failure) leads to underestimation of the extent of abuse, which currently is reported by 20 percent of women and 5 to 10 percent of men worldwide

  • although official reports of child sex abuse have declined somewhat in the U.S. during the last 10 years, close to 90 percent of sexual abuse cases are never reported to authorities

  • most child sex abuse is committed by family members and individuals close to the child, which increases the likelihood of delayed disclosure and possible memory failure while increasing the potential for unsupportive reactions by caregivers and lack of intervention

  • a number of factors undermine the credibility of abuse reports, despite evidence that when adults recall abuse, the truth of their memories is not correlated with when they regained awareness of a past incident

  • cognitive and neurological mechanisms that may underlie the forgetting of abuse have been scientifically identified

Freyd's co-authors for the Science article include Frank Putnam, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center; Thomas Lyon, University of Southern California Law School; Kathryn Becker-Blease, University of New Hampshire; Ross Cheit, Brown University; Nancy Siegel of NBS Associates, Maryland; and Kathy Pezdek, Claremont Graduate University.

Freyd's groundbreaking book "Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse" (Harvard University Press, 1996) was released in paperback in 1998. A Spanish edition appeared in 2003.

Recently named editor of the Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, Freyd directs an active laboratory investigating the psychology of trauma, with a focus on memory and awareness for trauma, and on the physical and mental health consequences of betrayal trauma.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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