Illustration of a large fish with a dollar sign on its side about to consume a school of smaller fish with dollar signs on their sides

Stopping Child Sexual Abuse Requires a Shift in Funding Priorities

The U.S. spends significantly more to incarcerate adult offenders than it does to support research on prevention.

By Maria Blackburn

After four years and more than 100 conversations with policymakers about the need to increase federal funding for child sexual abuse prevention research, Elizabeth Letourneau knows what to expect.

First, the policymaker agrees that preventing child sexual abuse from ever occurring makes sense. Then, when talk turns to funding, the conversation usually ends with talk of federal deficits and budget caps and a “Sorry, we can’t put much money into new prevention efforts.”

“Nobody pushes back against the need to prevent child sexual abuse,” says Letourneau, PhD, director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse. “But the pushback I was getting about not having funding for prevention research struck me as a belief we could overcome.”

It’s not that people don’t care about the issue, says Lindsey Trischler, a policy expert at CRD Associates, which has worked with the Moore Center to advocate for child sexual abuse prevention research funding since 2018. “It’s just that it’s got to compete to be on the list of people’s priorities and there are a thousand other things happening.”

Letourneau examined one place federal and state governments do put substantial resources to address child sexual abuse: incarceration. In a study published March 23, she found that the U.S. spent more than $5 billion in 2021 on incarcerating adults convicted of sex crimes against children—more than 3,000 times what it budgeted to support research to prevent child sexual abuse.

In total, the U.S. stands to spend nearly $49 billion on the cohort of about 144,400 people who’ve been convicted of sex crimes against children and are currently in federal and state prisons and sex offender civil commitment facilities.

“There seems to be no limit to the money we will put towards after-the-fact criminal justice interventions when it comes to child sexual abuse, yet almost no check we will write when it comes to prevention,” says Letourneau, who has spent more than 30 years researching child sexual abuse as a preventable public health problem. “Incarceration can be a reasonable punishment for adults who sexually abuse children, but it does not prevent harm. We need more serious funding for proactive strategies.”

Promising child sexual abuse prevention efforts now being evaluated at the Moore Center include an online self-help intervention program for people with a sexual attraction to children and a program for middle schoolers designed to reduce sexual harassment and abuse and promote responsible behaviors with younger children.

Congress has approved a budget that increases federal funding for child sexual abuse prevention research to $2 million for 2022. Letourneau wants to see this allocation increase to $10 million annually. “If we really want to prevent harm it’s going to require more,” she says. “It’s time for real government investment in prevention.”