Sexual abuse cases substantiated by child protective service (CPS) agencies dropped a remarkable 39 % between 1992 and 1999 from an estimated 150,000 cases to 92,000 cases, but professional opinion is divided about why (Jones & Finkelhor, 2001; Jones, Finkelhor, & Kopiec, 2001). An optimistic possibility is that there has been a real decline in the incidence of sexual abuse, the result of two decades of prevention, treatment, and more aggressive criminal justice activity. It is also possible that there has been no real decline, and that the decline is explained by a drop in the number of cases being identified and reported or by changes in practices of child protection agencies themselves. Identifying the source or sources of the decline is important. The possibility that a real decline may have occurred is heartening and could point the way to more effective strategies for preventing all kinds of child maltreatment. On the other hand, if the decline is due solely to decreased reporting or changes in CPS procedures, it could mean more children failing to get help and services. This bulletin evaluates the evidence for six commonly voiced explanations for the decline. It explores the strengths and weaknesses of these six explanations with data from a number of different sources (see Box A): aggregate data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS); more detailed child protective service data from four states
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