Sunday, May 21, 2017

Moore Center Sex Abuse Symposium: Part One: Juvenile Sex Offender Policies And Effectiveness

In case you missed the other parts for this series, please see part two, three, four, or five.
As a refresher...
So, What Is This Symposium?

The Moore Center Symposium is a "meeting of the minds" on the prevention of child sexual abuse. It offers professionals (and advocates) an opportunity to learn more about the issue of child sexual abuse and how it can be prevented. The Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse is a subset of Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health, which is a major educational institution in Maryland that is well-known for its work in the public health sector (as its name should indicate). The Moore Center is currently being directed by Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau, who used to be the president of The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA), and is a researcher that studies a myriad of topics within the realm of sexual abuse prevention. I am watching these admittedly dry and boring speeches to pull the essential parts out and communicate them to you. If you want to view them yourself, by all means, just be forewarned that they are dry and can be triggering. 

Beginning Introductions

The symposium starts with an introduction by Johns Hopkins' President, Ronald Daniels, regarding some of the reasons for the symposium and the keynote speaker at the symposium, Patrick McCarthy, who is the president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, an organization that focuses on improving the lives of children in a variety of ways.  Other speakers at the symposium were Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau, Dr. Bruce Taylor (an expert in criminology), and Jill Levenson (expert in sociology and social work), followed by a showing of the film Untouchable, which I have talked about on this blog before. Following the film, there is a panel discussion about the film and closing remarks by Stephen and Julia Moore, the founding donors of the Moore Center.

Patrick McCarthy's Speech

At the beginning of his speech, Dr. McCarthy observes that before he learned about the Moore Center, almost everything he knew about child sexual abuse was wrong. Yes, this is the guy with a master's and doctorate in social work, and the keynote speaker of a child sexual abuse prevention symposium. He says that there are only three things about child sexual abuse that he still believes, now knowing more of the facts:
  • Everyone has been affected by child exual abuse- as a victim or as someone who knows a victim. 
  • The pain of child sexual abuse is long-lasting and can be made less significant, but is still present years later.
  • Whatever our own experiences, we all want to protect children from sexual abuse.
Policies Not Based In Fact And Ineffective

He suggests (as you have heard me say before) that many of the policies we have around sexual abuse seem to be based in common sense, but are completely wrongheaded and ineffective. The example he cites to support this idea the perception among the public that those who abuse children kidnap them off the street, rather than the factual idea that children are abused by people they know and trust, even adolescents. He says that half of child sexual abuse involves an adolescent with the average age of 14. He states that rather than addressing the facts, we teach stranger danger and fail to take the steps that would be effective in keeping children safe. He says again that the policies we have in place too often make children less safe.

Dehumanizing Abusers

He points out that we throw abusers under the bus, because we treat anyone who engages in any sort of inappropriate sexual behavior as a monster we want to protect our children from. We even treat teenagers and children, some as young as eleven years old, like monsters. He discusses that sex offender registration and community notification can isolate abusers away from support systems, and thus make them more likely to reoffend rather than less likely. 

Public Health Approach Vs. Criminal Justice Approach

One of the points made is that the criminal justice approach to stopping sexual abuse, while this approach must be a part of addressing sexual abuse, is failing because we are not integrating facts and research into these policies. He argues that if we treat sexual abuse as both a public health issue AND as a criminal justice issue, more children could be spared the pain of abuse. 

He suggest several ways in which criminal justice system is failing to protect children and are wrongheaded. The first example he uses is that public policy is based on the idea that offenders cannot change, so policies focus on removing offenders from the community through incarceration and community isolation. At the same time, we focus on changing the behavior of potential victims (attempting to increase reporting, in other words), which he says runs the risk of teaching victims and potential victims that they or their families were responsible for the abuse and are re-victimized by believing they could have stopped it. 

Another example is that public policy is focused on predicting and controlling individual behavior, based in the erroneous principle that we can guess and who will and will not commit a crime. He blasts tools like plethysmographs, polygraphs, and risk assessments as not being based in science, and suggests that we instead view sexual abuse as something that is situational and context-specific, so employing community education techniques can help change how the public views sexual abuse as an issue.

His next example is that juvenile offenders who engage in abusive acts are seen as permanently pathological, or "damaged," requiring lifelong monitoring and "coercive treatment". He suggests that the research supports instead the idea that juvenile offenders are engaging in perfectly normal exploratory and experimental behaviors that have gone off-track. He calls these behaviors harmful but preventable. 

He observes the idea that anyone with a sexual attraction to children is a sociopath, someone with no empathy for the victims and families and no interest in controlling their behavior. By contrast, he suggests that the groundbreaking work being done by Dr. Letourneau in the Help Wanted study is challenging that idea, and showing that youth who have an attraction to children often face barriers to getting help with their attractions, and indeed, a desire to get that help. He illustrates that public policy pushes people away from that help, sometimes at risk of arrest and isolation.

His final example is that public policy is based on the idea of high recidivism among juvenile offenders: That idea, he states, is not supported by research, and indeed, fewer than 5% of juvenile offenders will reoffend, raising the question of whether their crime could have been prevented in the first place. 

Need For Public Policy Advocacy

He says the examples show how far we have to go until the evidence from research and practice informs the policies being made by policymakers. He suggests that there needs to be advocates who can inform policymakers on effective policies. 

A Disaster From 25 Years Ago

His next point regards the predictions of a few big names about 25 years ago about the idea that we would see a rise in super-predators, or those with horrifying behaviors that developed during the predator's youth. The policies that were formed in reaction to this prediction, such as zero-tolerance policies, mandatory minimum sentencing, and so forth have set the backdrop for where we are today with policies. The data we have today shows that the prediction was wrong: Recidivism is low, and violent crime rates are dropping, not skyrocketing. These policies that were formed in reaction to this prediction, he says, are harmful and wrongheaded. 

How Do We Change Policy?

He prefaces his suggestions on how we can change policy with the observation that he does not have a magic answer, but suggests that the specific steps to changing policy can depend on what an individual advocate or group wants to accomplish. He recommends two priorities: Reversing course from current public policy initiatives to target and punish sex offenders, and increasing public involvement in developing public policy that is more effective at reducing crime. 

He recommends in regard to the first priority, eliminating the need for juveniles to register as sex offenders, a goal he suggests is very feasible. He proposes eliminating the indiscriminate sentencing of child sex offenders and the "bad science" options of plethysmography, polygraphy, and indefinite monitoring. He suggests instead developing prevention methods that are systemic (schools and community groups) and address at-risk youth to prevent harm before it can happen. In that, he suggests intervention strategies that get help to at-risk youth, whether they are at-risk because of having a sexual attraction to children or for some other reason. 

With that in mind, he comes up with five things he has learned:
  1. Rather than a broad campaign to change public opinion, individual outreach to policymakers and policy implementers (judges, youth-serving organizations, politicians, etc.), and outreach to those that influence these policies, or those that already have relationships with policymakers and policy implementers. 
  2. Linking the data and research to personal experience and stories that are effective in changing perceptions.
  3. Not investing huge amounts into standalone advocacy, but building on existing messaging and advocacy platforms. This means outreaching and partnering with victim advocates, field-leading organizations like ATSA, the National Conference of State Legislators, the National Governor's Association, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, the National Juvenile Defenders Association, etc. This also means outreaching to organizations to libertarian, conservative, and other "unlikely allies" that can be more powerful in reaching other viewpoints.
  4. Be strategic and opportunistic so that when unexpected opportunities come up through the contacts with other advocacy platforms.
  5. Data, facts, and evidence matters, as is the stories that can display those facts to the general public. 

Public Investment Into Prevention Strategies

He points out the value of individuals and organizations that donate money to researching, developing, and supporting the infrastructure to make prevention a reality. However, he points out that we need policymakers to dedicate public funds to developing the prevention of child sexual abuse because of the great need for funding and research into creating more effective policies. 

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