Approximately 3.7 million children experience sexual abuse (CSA) in the United States every year, the consequences of which extend not only to those directly affected but also to wider society. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four girls and one in 13 boys experience CSA at some point during childhood. Reports indicate that 82 percent of all victims of CSA under the age of 18 are female, with 93 percent of perpetrators being known to them. In recent years, technological advancements have facilitated the perpetration of CSA; in 2013, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s CyberTipline received 500,000 reports from private citizens and companies of online exploitation of children, a figure that had risen by 5,900 percent to 30 million by 2021. Research suggests that the total lifetime cost of all CSA cases perpetrated in the United States in 2015 was USD 9.3 billion, including costs related to health care, education, child welfare, and lost productivity.
While the rights of children are generally protected under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the 1974 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) is the principal federal legislation that addresses child abuse, including CSA. CAPTA establishes the federal definition of child abuse and defines the federal government’s role, focusing on the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), in researching, guiding, and funding efforts to address child abuse, including CSA. Other relevant legislation includes the 1990 Victims of Child Abuse Act, which addresses the prosecution of child abuse and neglect; the 2003 Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today (PROTECT) Act, which strengthened the government’s ability to prevent, investigate, and prosecute violence against children, with a strong focus on CSA; its 2008 amendment, which required the Department of Justice (DOJ) to create a national strategy to combat the exploitation of children; and its 2022 amendment, which devoted funding to state and local law enforcement to intervene in cases of online child sexual exploitation.
The two primary federal government entities bearing budgetary responsibility for addressing CSA are the HHS, which focuses on research, programming, and monitoring to address CSA as a component of child abuse, and the DOJ, which takes a more enforcement-based approach to prevention and prosecution within its “Crimes against children” mandate. Other relevant entities include the Department of Homeland Security, which focuses on online and transnational CSA.
HHS chiefly addresses CSA through victim-support and prevention efforts undertaken by two entities: 1) The Children’s Bureau, which conducts research, programming, and monitoring to prevent and respond to child abuse, including CSA; and 2) the CDC, which conducts research and implements child abuse prevention strategies to strengthen economic support for families and education systems. The Children’s Bureau of HHS provides annual budgetary allocations to address child abuse, including CSA, through CAPTA, which also sets forth the federal role in researching, monitoring, and evaluating efforts to combat the issue. Centralized CAPTA allocations provide states and territories with federal funding to strengthen and improve child-protection service systems, including case management, training for child-protection services workers and volunteers, and criminal record checks. CAPTA also provides federal funding to non-profit organizations, public agencies, and private organizations for CSA programs and projects (including Native American tribes or tribal organizations). Additionally, CAPTA established the Federal Inter-Agency Work Group on Child Abuse and Neglect, housed within the HHS Office of Child Abuse and Neglect, which consists of representatives from several federal agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget, to facilitate cross-cutting inter-agency child abuse (including CSA) prevention efforts.
CSA-relevant funding through CAPTA’s “Title 1: State grants” increased by 28.9 percent from FY 2018 to FY 2023 and “Title 2: Community-based child abuse prevention” increased by 88.6 percent over the same period. (See Figure 1.) However, publicly available budgetary information for CAPTA does not include line-item budgets in which funding is grouped into categories. Within state grants, for instance, it is not clear how much funding is allocated to address CSA specifically, as compared to other forms of abuse, such as domestic abuse and other forms of child maltreatment. For example, Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau noted that while HHS programming for other types of child abuse and neglect has had a strong prevention focus, comparatively little has been done to focus on preventing CSA in particular. Adding specificity could be helpful to increasing transparency on budget allocation and expenditure and thereby help with tracking implementation of relevant programs and measuring the effectiveness of existing legislation.
Funding for CAPTA Programming
Data Source: Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2018; Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, 2020; Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, 2021; Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, 2022; Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, 2023
Another category of HHS spending with programming potentially related to CSA is “Child abuse discretionary activities,” which includes activities such as “Trauma-informed interventions,” the “Child abuse hotline,” “Crisis nurseries,” and the “National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System.” Funding for “Child abuse discretionary activities” has increased steadily over the monitoring period, up by 24 percent from FY 2018 to FY 2023. The only named activity explicitly related to CSA in federal budget appropriations, called “Child sexual abuse prevention,” allocated USD 1.0 million to the CDC in FY 2020 for new research on CSA prevention, with a note in the appropriations report acknowledging that as CSA causes “harmful physical, cognitive and emotional effects on a child’s development, a far more proactive approach is needed to prevent child sexual abuse.” In subsequent years, funding has steadily increased, up 200 percent to USD 3.0 million in FY 2023.
Funding for DOJ Sub-Agencies for Crimes Against Children Programming
Data Source: Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2018; Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, 2020; Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, 2021; Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, 2022; Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, 2023; Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse
The DOJ, led by its National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction, focuses on detecting and prosecuting CSA and supporting victims. The strategy, created in 2010 and most recently revised in 2023, includes 14 subject-matter-expert working group reports on wide-ranging aspects of CSA, including offender psychology, prevention, virtual sex trafficking, and wellness challenges for law enforcement personnel, outlining ambitious legislative, funding, enforcement, training, reporting, and service-oriented goals to address child sexual exploitation, with a strong focus on online abuse. However, the report noted that while the DOJ has primary responsibility for the strategy and can provide recommendations and offer coordination, it does not have the authority to mandate its recommendations to actors from government agencies, law enforcement, Congress, the tech industry, or NGOs.
Funding for DOJ Sub-Agencies for Crimes Against Children Programming
The DOJ’s strategy details the actual and projected expenditure of its sub-agencies to address CSA under its “Crimes against children” programming. Overall funding levels have increased by 27 percent from FY 2018 to FY 2024. The largest recipient of funding is the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which provides enforcement-oriented services such as Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Teams, efforts to fight child sex tourism and trafficking, and Operation Innocent Images. The second-largest recipient is the Office of Justice Programs, which aims to prevent crimes, empower at-risk communities, and provide services to victims. The Victims of Child Abuse Act (VOCAA) authorizes the office to fund a range of child abuse response-related activities. VOCAA funds children’s advocacy centers, which provide services, training, and technical assistance to investigate and respond to child abuse and rehabilitate victims, including victims of child pornography and sexual exploitation, and national training programs, such as those for attorneys and for child abuse response professionals. Funding for these programs remained stable or increased between FY 2018 and FY 2021.
Funding for Select VOCAA Activities
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), a sub-office of the Office of Justice Programs, provides a range of grants to states, local authorities, tribal jurisdictions, and NGOs, including funding for the “Internet crimes against children” program. This includes funding for improving technology and training for investigators to combat child pornography, exploitation, and sex trafficking, which received USD 31.2 million in FY 2020, increasing by 11 percent by FY 2022. It also funds the non-profit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which provides resources, technical assistance, and prevention services for missing and exploited children and received USD 35.4 million in FY 2020, increasing by 26 percent by FY 2022; and the “Supporting effective interventions for adolescent sex offenders and children with sexual behavior problems” program, which offers intervention and support for adolescent sex offenders and support for victims and families. In addition to prosecuting cases of CSA, the DOJ supports victims of abuse through the Office for Victims of Crime.
Funding for Select OJJDP Awards
Many other agencies are involved in the U.S. government’s efforts to prevent and respond to CSA. For instance, the Department of Homeland Security’s Child Exploitation Investigations Unit is deeply involved in enforcement efforts against online CSA, detecting crime, apprehending perpetrators, and rescuing victims, including transnationally. Furthermore, the Department’s Victim Assistance Program provides short-term support to child victims and arranges long-term support. While funding is mentioned for these programs in appropriations acts and budget briefs, data are incomplete, making it challenging to confirm budgetary trends over time.
At the federal level, funding to prevent and respond to CSA is predominantly allocated through the HHS and DOJ. While funding for child abuse response, including toward CSA, has increased steadily over time, it is often concentrated on enforcement rather than prevention and support. For example, while the federal government allocated USD 2.0 million in FY 2021 to fund CSA-prevention research, this figure is minute in contrast to the U.S. government’s USD 5.4 billion annual budget to incarcerate adults convicted of sex crimes against minors. According to Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau, director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins University, “We need to be invested in prevention and healing and justice. We’re really only invested in justice right now. . . . Even if there’s been a one-off grant every once in a while supporting some prevention efforts, there was certainly nothing like systemic stable funding in this space in the U.S. until the [federal budget] line item came into being.”
Furthermore, in many cases, funding allocations for CSA specifically are not disclosed; for example, CAPTA and VOCAA funding is not divided and organized into categories pertaining to various types of abuse (e.g., domestic violence, sexual abuse, and exploitation). As such data is inaccessible, it is difficult to analyze federal funding allocated toward CSA specifically. Furthermore, the DOJ’s National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction includes many progressive reports and guidelines but is self-admittedly more of a “call to action” than a concrete document of steps, mandates, and budgetary allocations. The strategy emphasizes the need for further funding to address CSA, including for bolstering internet crimes task forces, improving technology, expanding victim services, enhancing sub-national training programs, and building a national prevention campaign. It is crucial that the DOJ expands its strategy and denotes responsibility across government agencies to reduce redundancy and siloization by agency. The White House’s 2023 National Plan to End Gender-Based Violence compiled a panoply of existing strategies, mainly through HHS, DOJ, and the Department of Education, and presented objectives for combating sexual violence and abuse, including CSA. CSA-related activities in the plan are mainly implemented through HHS, DOJ, and the Department of Education. While the plan is an example of another cross-agency approach to address issues related to CSA and calls for the prioritization of federal funding, it did not specify budgetary allocations.
“We need to be invested in prevention and healing and justice. We’re really only invested in justice right now. . . . Even if there’s been a one-off grant every once in a while supporting some prevention efforts, there was certainly nothing like systemic stable funding in this space in the U.S.”
Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau, director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins University
While this project focuses on national-level interventions to address CSA, the United States is a highly federalized system, and future research should build on the findings of Safeguarding Childhood to examine and evaluate sub-national programs and investments to eradicate CSA. According to Dr. Bart Klika, chief research officer of Prevent Child Abuse America, “CAPTA sets forth a federal definition of what child abuse and neglect are, but then states determine their own interpretation of that. So every state interprets it a different way, which has implications for how they investigate and substantiate cases, and so state comparisons get very tricky.” A 2022 Out of the Shadows report confirmed that there is a high level of variance in state funding and policy to address CSA. Although some states have developed CSA-related policies and plans, such as Maine’s Model Policy for Child Sexual Abuse Prevention and Response and Texas’ Prevention and Intervention, Five-year Strategic Plan on child sexual abuse and exploitation prevention, few have been widely disseminated. Many U.S. states have progressive policies, such as requiring law enforcement personnel to receive child-friendly, trauma-informed, and CSA-specific training or championing the restorative justice approach by facilitating victim-offender dialogues through either programs or statutes. However, such efforts are not standardized across states.