Celebrating the Gains Made in Children’s Safety

Lisa M. Jones, Ph.D.

Stories in the media are almost daily reminders that children face dangers in their homes, neighborhoods, and even at school. And children are vulnerable to many kinds of victimization: physical abuse, neglect, sexual victimization, bullying, dating violence, and exposure to domestic and community violence. Research shows that because of their physical and emotional vulnerability and dependence on adults, children are the most highly victimized segment of our society.1

Many youth also place themselves at further risk by using hurtful behavior themselves and engaging in risky behaviors with peers and romantic partners. We increasingly understand that childhood victimization and later risky behavior are intertwined—the more ways a child is victimized, the greater the risk they will face new harms and adverse experiences later on.2

Protecting children and youth can feel like such a difficult job for those who work with children. Particularly in a complex and changing world, there are moments for everyone when protection efforts feel woefully ineffective and inadequate. But this sense of tremendous challenge makes it particularly important to spread the word about some very significant news that may have been obscured by the growing public awareness and mobilization around child protection: Our efforts appear to be working.

The News Is Good

There is actually quite a bit of good news. In fact, there is dramatically good news on so many fronts of child safety and well-being that it creates a remarkable picture when viewed together. The evidence comes not just from one source but from many: crime surveys, crime statistics, school-based surveys, health surveys, and national telephone surveys.

Here is what these sources tell us:3

  • Child victimization rates have declined significantly over the last 20 years. Several sources tracking trends in sexual abuse find substantial declines since 1990.4 The most recent child protection data show a 64% decline in sexual abuse cases and a 55% decline in physical abuse.5 Crime survey data shows sexual assaults against teenagers are down 69% since 1993.
  • It may be surprising given the headlines, but school violence is also down significantly. Since the early 1990s, there is less violent victimization (down 74%), less fighting at school (down 25%), less theft (down 82%), and even less bullying6 than there was when many of us were growing up.
  • Adolescents are behaving in ever more responsible ways. Violent offending by teens is down 60% since 1992, sexual assault by teens is down 72% since 1992, and car theft is down 86% since 1989. Teenagers are drinking, smoking, and using drugs significantly less compared to 20 years ago. Binge drinking is down (15%), and teenage driving after drinking is also down (53%).
  • Teen suicide rates, although leveling off a bit in the 2000s, are still down 32% since 1990, and the number of teenagers who think about suicide has declined consistently (46%) since 1991.
  • Even with worries about ever-present sexual material available to youth in the media and on the internet, youth sexual activity is down. Teenage birth rates are down 55% since 1991, and different indicators of sexual activity show declines as well—from 10–20% since the 1990s depending on the indicator.

But Why?

The big question, of course, is why have all these things improved so much for youth over the last 25 years? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t exactly clear—we have less data to help us here. But a very plausible explanation is that the collective protective efforts we have put in place over the last several decades really are working. Schools are savvier, creating safer environments for children, putting better response protocols in place, and implementing prevention programs; youth-serving organizations have better protection policies; police have become more involved in child protection; mental health treatment has gotten better and reaches more people now than it used to; and even parenting may have changed in ways that better protect children. We certainly need to gather more information on what exactly is working best, so until we can pinpoint that—we need to keep doing all of it.

Keeping Up the Good Work

Because the truth is we still have a long way to go. The problems that children face are still at unacceptably high levels. We cannot yet say we have given our best attention and effort to protecting children. We have a long way to go to improve school safety, implement more evidence-based prevention strategies, educate more parents, and tighten our child protection safety nets.

But making further strides in combating child victimization with a comprehensive, public health prevention approach requires that we learn from the good news as well as the bad. This kind of good news can also serve to reduce helpless feelings and increase the sense that we really can make a difference when children are given safe and nurturing environments that allow them to thrive. So post these successes where you can see them for reminders on the days when things feel impossible. Let them provide the energy to redouble efforts so that in another 25 years we will find ourselves celebrating even greater successes in children’s safety.


1. Finkelhor, D., Ormrod, R. K., & Turner, H. A. (2009). The developmental epidemiology of childhood victimization. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 24(5), 711–731. Retrieved from http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/CV159.pdf

2. Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Hamby, S., & Ormrod, R. K. (2011). Polyvictimization: Children’s exposure to multiple types of violence, crime, and abuse (Juvenile Justice Bulletin-NCJ 235504). Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Retrieved from http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/jvq/Polyvictimization%20OJJDP%20bulletin.pdf

3. A more complete discussion of these trends can be found in: Finkelhor, D., & Jones, L. M. (2006). Why have child maltreatment and child victimization declined? Journal of Social Issues, 62, 685–716. For updated references on any of the cited statistics, please contact the author.

4. Finkelhor, D., & Jones, L. M. (2012). Have sexual abuse and physical abuse declined since the 1990s? Durham, NH: Crimes Against Children Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/CV267_Have%20SA%20%20PA%20Decline_FACT%20SHEET_11-7-12.pdf

5. Finkelhor, D., Saito, K., & Jones, L. (2015). Updated Trends in Child Maltreatment, 2013. Durham, NH: Crimes Against Children Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/_Updated%20trends%202013_dc-df-ks-df.pdf

6. Finkelhor, D. (2014). Trends in Bullying and Peer Victimization. Durham, NH: Crimes Against Children Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/CV280_Bullying%20%20Peer%20Victimization%20Bulletin_8-25-14.pdf