As director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, David Finkelhor understands the impact sexual abuse by a parent has on children and how they respond.
Abuse typically begins when the child is 7 to 9 years old and can continue until the early teens. That’s when the child has become more independent with the ability to resist, avoid the father or gain sufficient courage to disclose the abuse. By then, however, the abusive relationship may have persisted for six or seven years.
Younger siblings complicate the situation.
The teen might decide to disclose what’s happening or allow the abusive relationship to continue to prevent the father’s attention from turning to the siblings. Sometimes the young teen begins bribing the father while allowing the abuse to continue.
“The real issue is getting the kids to disclose it and finding ways to help families understand that they can get through the agony of disclosing it to authorities and get some help,” said Mr. Finkelhor, a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. “It is very devastating, and once it is going on, it is a completely preoccupying situation, with the kid thinking about it, the shame, the guilt and trying to avoid it. It is hard to be a child in the ordinary sense. It is very corrosive to child development.”
Today, he said, there’s “tremendously greater awareness” of such crimes with offenders recognizing they can be caught and relatives and mothers more likely to spot signs of abuse. Fewer families nowadays have “autocratic family constellations” in which the wife is intimidated into keeping quiet.
Children also have received more education about abuse.
Nowadays, images the father or stepfather might download due to his sexual interest in other children make prosecution easier, Mr. Finkelhor said. Stepfathers are well represented in family sex abuse crimes.
“It is the kind of crime that inspires a tremendous revulsion and anger, so there is a strong punitive streak in people’s feelings about it,” he said. “On the other hand, the recidivism rate is pretty low for incestuous abusers as compared with other child abusers.”
The victims often develop ambivalent feelings toward the offender. “They are angry,” he said. “They want it to stop and want support and want people to say it’s wrong and they want an apology. Some are quite angry, but many don’t support lengthy incarceration.”
He said he considers the 40-to-80-year prison sentence for the Allegheny County father convicted of abusing a daughter an unusually lengthy one, especially if it didn’t include violence and brutality. When such cases reach the criminal system, he said, 80 to 90 percent end with plea deals.
Although family sex crimes are down 60 percent since 1992, sexual abuse remains a far too common occurrence for girls, he said.
“We just published a new study that shows 1 in 4 17-year-old girls has been sexually abused in life,” Mr. Finkelhor said. “The majority occurred in adolescent years and happened with peers or people slightly older. About 10 percent of those occurred at the hands of adults.
“In my estimation, something in the order of less than 1 percent of the female population has been molested by the father or stepfather,” he continued. “But this particular type of abuse is a particularly severe form in that it is so damaging to the fundamental relationship children have to their basic support system.”