Implications

Police data reveal that babysitters do indeed commit serious crimes against children in their care. While NIBRS data cannot be used to estimate national crime statistics, the numbers extrapolated from NIBRS jurisdictions (which represent about 6 percent of the Nationís crimes for 1997 and 1998) suggest that roughly 7,000 to 8,000 babysitter offenses—the majority of which are sex crimes—are reported to police over the course of a year. This estimate is certainly large enough to justify that precautions be taken by parents in screening and hiring care providers.

However, the threat posed by babysitters, especially when compared with other childhood threats, should not be overemphasized. Babysitters were responsible for only 4.2 percent of the reported crimes against children under 6 years—fewer than crimes committed by family members, other acquaintances, or even strangers. Given the large number of children exposed to babysitters, this is a relatively small percentage. The data reinforce other studies that suggest primary efforts should seek to shield young children from crimes committed by family perpetrators, not childcare providers (Finkelhor and Ormrod, 2001). It is important to keep in mind, however, that the numbers in NIBRS represent only the most serious criminal acts, the ones reported to the police; therefore, they do not fully reflect the scope of babysitter misconduct. Although sexual acts toward children are usually considered very serious and reported to police, many acts of physical assault by babysitters, even those resulting in injury, are unlikely to be reported. In addition, episodes of babysitter neglect and emotional abuse are rarely reported to police. Data from child protection agencies might document more instances of physical abuse, neglect, and emotional abuse, but parents are probably more inclined to simply terminate a babysitterís services than bother with official police or child protection reports. In addition, babysitter crimes may be disproportionately obscured because younger victims are often unable to communicate this abuse to their parents.

In short, crime reports on babysitters are only a crude guide to the perils children face in the company of babysitters. For example, the finding of NIBRS data that sex offenses by babysitters outnumber physical assaults may only reflect the kind of crime considered serious enough to be reported to police. In reality, physical assaults may be more common than sex offenses but less reported. Similarly, to the extent that physical assaults are underreported compared with sex offenses, the offenses of female babysitters may be underreported compared with those of males.

Other NIBRS findings may not be so tainted by reporting biases. Children under 6 are likely the main targets of babysitter offenses because they spend the most time with babysitters. Teenagers likely commit more of the sex offenses against children because the sexual pressures and conflicts of their adolescence may motivate them to take advantage of the children in their care. Male babysitters probably outnumber female babysitters among offenders because males outnumber females in virtually all categories of crime, including family offenses and offenses against children.

Also, despite their limitations, NIBRS data highlight the diversity of offenders and victims. It is now clear that both female and male babysitters commit sexual offenses. Sexual assaults do occur against some very young children, and some older children also are being criminally victimized by babysitters.

These data are neither comprehensive nor detailed enough to offer strong guidance about preventive efforts. However, the young age of sexual abuse victims does confirm the potential value of providing preschool children with age-appropriate awareness about inappropriate touching (Wurtele et al., 1989). The frequent appearance of adolescent sexual abusers in NIBRS babysitter data suggests that parents may need to carefully screen and train young babysitters with this in mind. The preponderance of male offenders, given the relatively small number of males in the childcare workforce, certainly contributes to the already evident dilemma of those who would increase childrenís exposure to nurturant males. Unfortunately, the implications of all these findings have policy complexities that require better data than NIBRS can currently provide about the particular features of offenders, victims, their families, and the process by which potential babysitters are screened and chosen.

NIBRS is still in its formative stage, and its data may prompt more questions rather than provide firm answers. However, to the extent that its data remind the public and policymakers of the diverse perils that confront children, including threats from babysitters and other care providers, NIBRS may eventually improve the entire effort of crime prevention and detection for this vulnerable population.

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Crimes Against Children by Babysitters Juvenile Justice Bulletin September 2001