Which came first: poverty, sex offenders or child abuse claims?

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Three facts about Chicago:

1.The less money you and your neighbors make, the more calls to the child abuse hotline are made in your community.

2. The less money you and your neighbors make, the more likely you are to live among convicted sex offenders.

3. The more sex offenders you have living in your neighborhood, the more calls to the child abuse hotline are made in your community.

By analyzing all the calls made to the child abuse hot line and the sex offender registry, that's what we've determined. We know what's happening. We just don't know why it's happening. Which came first--the low-income neighborhood or the convicted sex offender?

Remember this map? It's a map of all the allegations of child sexual abuse in Chicago in the past five years.

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Now, take a look at this map--a map of how many sex offenders live in every Chicago ZIP code:

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Some of the same ZIP codes stand out. Look at 60628, 60621, and 60636. A lot of allegations, and quite a few sex offenders.

So, we did a statistical analysis of these factors. And it turns out they are related, in that there's a "correlation" between living in a low-income community and more calls to the abuse hotline. There's also a connection between sex offenders and calls. And an inverse connection between income and sex offenders--the less money, the more offenders. So what came first?

Certainly, more convicted sex offenders seems like it would lead to more child sexual abuse. But also, someone released from prison might choose to live in a low-income area because they might have a harder time securing a job. Because victims of sexual abuse sometimes become perpetrators, maybe these convicted offenders are moving back to the communities where they were first abused. And there's been some connection noted between rates of poverty and rates of sexual abuse.

Of course, it's probably not just one of these factors--but maybe all of them, mixed up in an complex mess of economics and criminal justice.

One thing is clear: In certain communities in Chicago, children are unsafe. Why? We don't know. But if we know how to stop child sexual abuse, we need to be paying attention to our most vulnerable communities.

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  • I wonder, too, how much unreported violence happens in higher-income neighborhoods. Privacy is a function of privilege. More privileged folks who behave "badly" are often more shielded from public circumspection.

  • In reply to TimJonesYelvington:

    Couldn't agree more Tim, but there's something else going on here too. A guarantee you a ton of those calls come from schools where teachers and other officials are on the look out for anything that looks like abuse or neglect where in richer (and whiter) communities, those mandated reporters aren't looking for it in the same way.

    Not to mention that there's a direct overlap between police investigation and DCFS intervention. There's a missing piece of this data, which is density of law enforcement and other surveillance. The density of sex offenders is probably completely spurious when you consider total arrest rates. Dorothy Roberts argues the point very well (Shattered Bonds, 2003). Policing of child abuse is all about intersections of sexism, racism and poverty, and overlap almost completely with equally discriminatory policing practices.

  • In reply to frankalready:

    Not to mention that we should look at sex offender density next to patterns of neighborhood re-entry of formerly incarcerate people en masse. Looks like a similar pattern you'd see for arrest and re-entry data as a whole. That is to say that if certain neighborhoods in Chicago welcome home disproportionate numbers of people who have been incarcerated, than we should expect them to disproportionately receive people convicted of sex offenses too.

  • In reply to frankalready:

    Last, and sorry for the fuss, but correlation and causation are not the same thing. That density of people convicted of sex crimes and child abuse rates are related does not mean that one causes the other. It is entirely possible (and I think likely) that there are third, fourth, and fifth factors that explain both phenomena, and the correlation simply shows that.

  • In reply to frankalready:

    Frank, I think I did address that by saying many convicted but released sex offenders may need to live in lower income neighborhoods because it's incredibly difficult to re-enter civil society after incarceration. I don't think we stated anywhere that these factors caused each other directly, and that they are just correlated. However, I think there's a push sometimes to assume factors aren't related because it has the potential to say something negative. I think when we're talking about the reasons kids are abused, we need to be able to consider all those factors and the connections between them.

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