Friday, October 24, 2014

Halloween & Sex Crime: Myth vs. Reality

Jill S. Levenson, Ph.D., LCSW
Associate Professor of Social Work
Barry University
Miami Shores, FL

                It is almost Halloween, and as we begin to feel a chill in the air in the northern hemisphere, we also feel the excitement of that annual ritual of trick or treating. But while children look forward to a night of ghouls, ghosts, goblins and goodies, parents ponder the presence of real-life demons in the neighborhood: registered sex offenders. States, municipalities, and parole departments have adopted policies banning known sex offenders from Halloween activities (or, in some jurisdictions, from even leaving their homes on Halloween), based on the concern that they pose an increased risk to children on this day. So, my colleagues and I (Chaffin, Levenson, Letourneau, & Stern, 2009) set out to test this assumption…

                Using national incident-based reporting system (NIBRS) crime report data from 1997 through 2005, we examined 67,045 non-familial sex crimes against children age 12 and younger.  Halloween rates were compared to expectations based on time, seasonality and weekday periodicity.  There were no significant increases in sex crimes on or around Halloween, and Halloween incidents did not demonstrate unusual case characteristics. Findings did not vary in the years prior to and after these policies became popular.      If these policies were to have an effect on overall Halloween victimization, we would expect that the rates of offenses on Halloween would show a greater decline over time relative to the rates for other days.  In order to test whether there may have been greater reductions in sex offense rates on Halloween relative to other days over the nine-year span, a year-by-Halloween interaction term was added to the model.  No statistically significant differences were found. 

                We then examined over 5 million crimes that took place in 30 states on or around Halloween in 2005.  The most common types of crime on Halloween and adjacent days were theft (32%), destruction or vandalism of property (21%), assault (19%) and burglary (9%).  Vandalism and property destruction accounted for a greater proportion of crime around Halloween compared to other days of the year (21% vs. 14% of all reports).  Sex crimes of all types accounted for slightly over 1% of all Halloween crime. Non-familial sex crimes against children age 12 and under accounted for less than .2% (2 out of every thousand crimes) of all Halloween crime incidents.

                Other risks to children are much more salient on Halloween. According to the Center for Disease Control, children ages 5 to 14 are four times more likely to be killed by a pedestrian/motor-vehicle accident on Halloween than on any other day of the year.  These findings call into question the justification for diverting law enforcement resources away from more prevalent public safety concerns on Halloween. 

                The disregard for evidence when it comes to sex offender policies is not unique to Halloween. We know that copious resources are expended for registration and notification (SORN) systems in the U.S., despite nearly two dozen research studies suggesting that SORN policies are responsible for little, if any, appreciable decline in sex crime rates or sex offense recidivism (see, for example, Ackerman, Sacks, & Greenberg, 2012; Agan, 2011; Letourneau, Levenson, Bandyopadhyay, Sinha, & Armstrong, 2010; Prescott & Rockoff, 2011; Sandler, Freeman, & Socia, 2008; Tewksbury, Jennings, & Zgoba, 2012; Vasquez, Maddan, & Walker, 2008; Zgoba, Witt, Dalessandro, & Veysey, 2009). Many other studies have documented the unintended consequences of these laws, including stigmatization, marginalization, and seemingly insurmountable reintegration obstacles to stable housing and employment (Levenson & D'Amora, 2007; Mercado, Alvarez, & Levenson, 2008; Tewksbury & Mustaine, 2009). The impact of residential restrictions on housing availability, transience, and homelessness is well documented (Levenson, Ackerman, Socia, & Harris, 2014; Zandbergen & Hart, 2009), as is the lack of evidence indicating that residential proximity to schools and other child oriented venues is correlated with risk for sexual recidivism (Colombino, Mercado, Levenson, & Jeglic, 2011; Duwe, Donnay, & Tewksbury, 2008; Zandbergen, Levenson, & Hart, 2010).

                Some scholars have opined that sex offender policies are designed to accomplish both instrumental and symbolic objectives, and that understanding both is essential in the continuing dialogue about SORN laws and prevention of sexual violence (Sample, Evans, & Anderson, 2011). Policy enactment can serve to inspire and reinforce social solidarity by uniting against a common enemy (Roots, 2004). Sex offender laws send a clear message that sexual victimization will not be tolerated and that politicians are willing to address public safety concerns (Sample, et al., 2011; Sample & Kadleck, 2008).  Sample et al. (2011) speculated that symbolic policies might achieve instrumental effects over time -- perhaps measured by a wider range of outcomes beyond recidivism -- but that in the cost/benefit analysis, the symbolic expression of zero tolerance for sexual violence will always outweigh offender rights, fiscal considerations, and empirical testing. 

                But policy analysis requires a continuous process of evaluation that measures progress toward intended goals as well as unanticipated consequences that might prove contrary to the best interests of the community. Levenson and D'Amora (2007) asserted that ignoring evidence is similar to Hans Christian Andersen's story of the Emperor's New Clothes  in which the king paraded around town nude, fooled into wearing invisible clothes that purportedly could be seen by only an enlightened few. Similarly, in the absence of compelling evidence indicating that these policies reduce sexual reoffending, attention should be paid to mounting proof of reintegration obstacles fostered by these laws.

                Lest some critics suggest that by pointing out the limitations of these laws I am demonstrating a lack of concern for the safety of children, I'd argue that we are all on the same side. We all want to live in safer communities and I agree that public awareness generated by these laws has led to important dialogue about intolerance of sexual violence. But as tax-paying citizens, don't we also want our resources to be utilized in ways that are most likely to achieve the expected goals? And don't social scientists have an obligation to help inform strategies designed to enhance the public good?

                Enactment of social policies should consider scientific evidence, and policies are most likely to be successful when they incorporate research findings into their development and implementation. A more reasoned approach (Tabachnick & Klein, 2011) to sex offender policies would utilize empirically derived risk assessment tools to create classification systems that target more aggressive monitoring and tighter restrictions toward those who pose the greatest threat to public safety. In this way, laws could more effectively identify and manage higher-risk offenders within a more cost-efficient allocation of resources. As well, the collateral consequences of community protection policies could be minimized and sex offenders could be better enabled to engage in a law-abiding and prosocial lifestyle. Most sex offenders will ultimately be returned to the community, and when they are, it behooves us to facilitate reintegrative strategies that rely on empirical research to inform community protection. In fact, the unintended consequences of these laws might undermine their very purpose. After all, when people have nothing to lose, they begin to behave accordingly.


Ackerman, A. R., Sacks, M., & Greenberg, D. F. (2012). Legislation targeting sex offenders: Are recent policies effective in reducing rape? Justice Quarterly, 29(6), 858-887.


Agan, A. Y. (2011). Sex Offender Registries: Fear without Function? Journal of Law and Economics, 54(1), 207-239.


Chaffin, M., Levenson, J. S., Letourneau, E., & Stern, P. (2009). How safe are trick-or-treaters? An analysis of sex crimes on Halloween. 21(3). Sexual Abuse: Journal of Research & Treatment 21(3), 363-374.


Colombino, N., Mercado, C. C., Levenson, J. S., & Jeglic, E. L. (2011). Preventing sexual violence: Can examination of offense location inform sex crime policy? International Journal of Psychiatry and Law, doi:10.1016/j.ijlp.2011.04.002.


Duwe, G., Donnay, W., & Tewksbury, R. (2008). Does residential proximity matter? A geographic analysis of sex offense recidivism. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35(4), 484-504.


Letourneau, E., Levenson, J. S., Bandyopadhyay, D., Sinha, D., & Armstrong, K. (2010). Effects of South Carolina's sex offender registration and notification policy on adult recidivism. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 21(4), 435-458.


Levenson, J. S., & D'Amora, D. A. (2007). Social policies designed to prevent sexual violence: The Emperor's New Clothes? Criminal Justice Policy Review, 18(2), 168-199.


Levenson, J. S., Ackerman, A. R., Socia, K. M., & Harris, A. J. (2014). Transient Sex Offenders and Residence Restrictions. Criminal Justice Policy Review. doi: 10.1177/0887403413512326


Mercado, C. C., Alvarez, S., & Levenson, J. S. (2008). The impact of specialized sex offender legislation on community re-entry. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research & Treatment, 20(2), 188-205.


Prescott, J. J., & Rockoff, J. E. (2011). Do Sex Offender Registration and Notification Laws Affect Criminal Behavior? Journal of Law and Economics, 54, 161-206.


Roots, R. I. (2004). When laws backfire: Unintended consequences of public policy. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(11), 1376-1394.


Sample, L. L., & Kadleck, C. (2008). Sex offender laws: Legislators' accounts of the need for policy. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 19(1), 40-62.


Sample, L. L., Evans, M. K., & Anderson, A. L. (2011). Sex offender community notification laws: Are their effects symbolic or instrumental in nature? Criminal Justice Policy Review, 22(1), 27-49.


Sandler, J. C., Freeman, N. J., & Socia, K. M. (2008). Does a watched pot boil? A time-series analysis of New York State's sex offender registration and notification law. Psychology, Public Policy and Law, 14(4), 284-302.


Tabachnick, J., & Klein, A. (2011). A reasoned approach: Reshaping sex offender policy to prevent child sexual abuse. Beaverton, OR: Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.


Tewksbury, R., & Mustaine, E. (2009). Stress and collateral consequences for registered sex offenders. Journal of Public Management and Social Policy, Fall, 215-239.


Tewksbury, R., Jennings, W. G., & Zgoba, K. M. (2012). A longitudinal examination of sex offender recidivism prior to and following the implementation of SORN. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 30(3), 308-328.


Vasquez, B. E., Maddan, S., & Walker, J. T. (2008). The influence of sex offender registration and notification laws in the United States. Crime and Delinquency, 54(2), 175-192.


Zandbergen, P., & Hart, T. (2009). Availability and Spatial Distribution of Affordable Housing in Miami-Dade County and Implications of Residency Restriction Zones for Registered Sex Offenders  Retrieved 9/9/09, from


Zandbergen, P., Levenson, J. S., & Hart, T. (2010). Residential proximity to schools and daycares: An empirical analysis of sex offense recidivism. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 37(5), 482-502.


Zgoba, K., Witt, P., Dalessandro, M., & Veysey, B. (2009). Megan’s Law: Assessing the practical and monetary efficacy. Retrieved from


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Public Engagement and Changing Attitudes about Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is a complex and emotional public health issue that impacts everyone – individuals, communities, institutions, and society as a whole. Despite this reality, sexual abuse remains a difficult topic for open discussion and the complexities of sexual abuse are often not reflected by public opinion. This is understandable when we recognize that our perceptions are often influenced by the way sexual abuse, sexual abusers, and survivors are portrayed in films, on television, and in the popular media – too often a one dimensional and sensationalized, rather than factual, presentation. If our goal is to prevent sexual abuse and ensure there are no more victims, it is essential that the public become engaged and educated about sexual abuse, those who perpetrate sexual abuse, and strategies to prevent sexual abuse.

Studies have shown that reported offending has decreased for all types of crimes over the past 20 years and this is also true for sexual offending, both in the United States (Finklehor, 2004; Lauritsen & Rezey, 2013) and the United Kingdom (Crime statistics for England and Wales, 2013/14). Research on sexual abuse within the criminal justice and psychology fields has also vastly progressed over the past 30 years (Wilson & Prescott, 2014; Marshall, 2011) and we now know more about those who perpetrate sexual abuse,  their motivations, etiology and rehabilitation than ever before (ATSA, 2014; Wilson & Prescott, 2014; Carter, 2014). We also have more clearly defined laws and evidence-based criminal justice approaches for the management of individuals convicted of sexual crimes than ever before (CSOM, 2008; Kemshall & McCartan, 2014), as well as a greater understanding of innovative reintegration strategies that promote public safety, including community-based strategies such as Circles of Support & Accountability. We are even starting to see the traditional media reporting on sexual abuse in a more balanced, realistic, and engaged manner.

Despite these positive changes towards greater community engagement and understanding, improved victim services, and more effective treatment models, the most common attitude of the general public continues to be that nothing works for “sex offenders.” (McCartan, 2004, 2010, 2013; McCartan, Kemshall & Hudson, 2012). This is the greater paradox within our field, as well as criminology/criminal justice in general – public perceptions do not coincide or reflect professional experiences, or what the research tells us about the reality of the situation. 

This divergence between public attitudes and understanding versus the realities of sexual abuse is fuelled in part by myths created through stereotyping, miscommunication, prejudice, active disengagement, and poor professional interaction – all factors which speak to the need for greater public engagement and understanding about sexual abuse in order to facilitate prevention and safer communities. Public engagement is important for a number of reasons, including;

·         Community and self-protection: By better understanding the aetiology, behaviours, offence patterns, criminal justice responses and treatment models related to sexually abusive behavior, individuals are better prepared to protect themselves and others. Therefore education and understanding is a self-defense mechanism, as well as an integral component to creating a culture of non-acceptance of sexual abuse which promotes prevention (e.g., bystander intervention programmes).

·         Supporting appropriate responses to sexual abuse: The appropriate response to sexual abuse, like any crime or case of neglect, is to report it to the appropriate authorities so that they can respond to it. It is not to take the law into your own hands (McCartan, 2010; Vigilante hunter case, Daily mail, Independent; Haas, 2010) or too ignore the issue. By better understanding what the reality of sexual abuse is, what the authorities do (and why they do it in that way), and how sexual offense specific treatment and management works,  the public is better equipped to make informed decisions, as opposed to uninformed ones.

·         Dispelling miscommunications and rectifying myths: Sexual abuse has a lot of associated myths, whether these are rape myths, victim blaming, myths about who commits child sexual abuse, or the impact of abuse depending on the gender/age/ethnicity/cognitive ability of the offender or victim. These myths help no one and actually often compromise, rather than promote, public safety. By greater engagement with individuals and communities, through better education programmes and through more realistic media engagement, we can dispel these myths. While this may be a difficult task due to many of these myths being hardwired into our personal and cultural psyche, by dispelling these myths we can facilitate recognition of sexual abuse for the complex public health issue that it is and move forward towards a culture of prevention.

·         Influencing public policy and agenda setting: Public opinion shapes governmental policy and practice, from emotionally driven knee jerk responses to in-depth social change. This means that public opinion is vital beyond a social dialogue as it feeds into legislative and political agenda setting. A more engaged public results in a greater understanding of the reality of sexual abuse and the complexities of responding to these issues and this, in turn, leads us to a more informed and realistic sociological debate. It also results in the public campaigning for evidence based policies and laws that are both preventative and responsive, public health oriented as well as criminal justice oriented, and forward thinking rather than reactionary. 

While the prevention of sexual abuse may feel like a never ending task, we have come far over the past 30 years in not only our understanding of sexual abuse, but in our support of survivors, management of perpetrators, and prevention efforts. But our work is far from done and public engagement is key to continuing forward – although the prevention of sexual abuse requires a well-planned and comprehensive response founded on research, it is only through education, collaboration, and the involvement of everyone – community members, violence prevention professionals, victim advocates, law enforcement professionals, treatment professionals, journalists, and policy makers – that the prevention of sexual abuse can become a reality.

Interested in learning more about public engagement? Then join us for a free event open to all - Understanding Sexual Abuse & Sexual Assault: Causes, Consequences, and Prevention - on Tuesday October 28th at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego, CA. Co-sponsored by ATSA, CALCASA, CCOSO, IVAT, and NSVRC.

Kieran McCartan, PhD & Katie Gotch, MA


Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abuses (ATSA) (2014). Eight things everyone should know about sexual abuse and sexual offending. Beaverton, OR: Author.

Carter, A. (2014). Sex Offending Treatment Programmes: The importance of Evidence based practice. In: McCartan, K., ed. (2014) Responding to Sexual Offending: Perceptions, Risk Management and Public Protection. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 111 - 126. ISBN 9781137358127

Center for Sex Offender Management (CSOM) (2008). The comprehensive approach to sex offender management. Silver Spring, MD: Author.

Finkelhor, D. & Jones, L.M. (2004). Explanations for the decline in child sexual abuse cases. Juvenile Justice Bulletin, January 2004. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Haas, N.E. (2010). Public support for vigilantism. Leiden: Universiteit Leiden.
Kemshall, H. and McCartan, K. (2014) Managing sex offenders in the UK: Challenges for policy and practice. In: McCartan, K., ed. (2014) Responding to Sexual Offending: Perceptions, Risk Management and Public Protection. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 206-226. ISBN 9781137358127

Lauritsen, J.L. & Rezey, M.L. (2013). Measuring the prevalence of crime with the National Crime Victimization Survey. US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Marshall, W. (2011). Milestones in Sexual Offender Research and Treatment. Keynote at ATSA Annual conference. Toronto, Canada.

McCartan, K. (2004) Here there be monsters: The public's perception of paedophiles with particular reference to Belfast and Leicester. Medicine, Science & the Law,  44. pp. 327-342. ISSN 0025-8024
McCartan, K. (2010) Student/trainee-professional implicit theories of paedophilia. Psychology, Crime & Law, 16 (4). pp. 265-288. ISSN 1068-316X

McCartan, K. (2013) From a lack of engagement and mistrust to partnership? Public attitudes to the disclosure of sex offender information. International Journal of Police Science and Management, 13 (3). pp. 219-236.

McCartan, K., Kemshall, H. and Hudson, K. (2012) Public understandings of sexual abuse and sexual abusers. ATSA Forum, xxiv (3) McCartan, K. (2014) Euthanasia & sexual abusers. Journal of Sexual Abuse blog, 2014 (Sept).

Wilson, R., and Prescott, D. (2014). Community based management of sex offender risk: options and opportunities. In: McCartan, K., ed. (2014) Responding to Sexual Offending: Perceptions, Risk Management and Public Protection. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 20 - 47. ISBN 978113735812 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Protective Factors: A “New” Discovery?

Readers may be interested in de Vries Robbé, Mann, Maruna, and Thornton’s (2014) recent article, "An exploration of protective factors supporting desistance from sexual offending," currently published in the online first section of Sexual Abuse: A Journal Research and Treatment (SAJRT). This is actually one of a series of articles written by de Vries Robbé and various colleagues, but possibly the first in the “series” that specifically focuses on the role of protective factors in work with sexual offenders. In fact, Thornton (one of de Vries Robbé’s co-authors in this case) published an article last year (2013) discussing the implications of a model that recognizes both risk and protective factors in the treatment of adult sexual offenders, asking how treatment tasks might be revised “in light of this new knowledge” (p. 62). Similarly, focusing on the idea of “new knowledge,” Worling and Langton (2014) write that research into protective factors for sexually abusive youth is only in its earliest stages. Actually, Spice and colleagues (2012) might have been the first to point to the complete lack of research into the subject of protective factors, at least with respect to sexually abusive youth, and van der Put and Asscher (2014) are among the first to correct this situation in their study, examining the nature and effect of protective factors in the behavior of sexually abusive youth.


The addition of a literature that addresses and incorporates ideas about protective factors, and not just risk factors, in sexual offender assessment is welcome, a topic area to be further addressed in a forthcoming special theme issue of SAJRT. But, it seems important to add that although relatively new to sexual offender risk assessment, the idea is not especially new (and really not even that new to sexual offender assessment and treatment, at least not for those practitioners who work with sexually abusive youth). Although it may be accurate to say our empirical and theoretical examination of protective factors is new, the existence and function of protective factors in assessing risk is certainly not “new knowledge,” as Thornton described it. Rich (2003) wrote about protective factors over a decade ago, and in additional detail in 2009 and 2011. Furthermore, protective factors have been built into several juvenile risk assessment instruments since around 2001 with the introduction of the AIM assessment protocol, used in the UK, and further developed in the AIM2, revised in 2007. Similarly, the SAVRY, a general (non-sexual) adolescent risk instrument in use for over a decade, has included a table of protective factors since the instrument was released in 2002. The J-RAT, a juvenile sexual risk instrument in use since about 2000, has included a protective factor scales since 2012, as does the MEGA, a more recently introduced juvenile sexual risk instrument. Although neither are widely used, Bremer's Protective Factors Scale (1998, 2006) and Gilgun's (1999) Clinical Assessment Package for Client Risk and Strengths offer additional examples of instruments built around the presence of and designed to assess protective factors, both of which have been around for a number of years. In the world of adult sexual risk assessment, the ARMIDILO-S, designed for use in the assessment of intellectually disabled adults, has included an assessment of protective factors since its inception in 2004, as does the currently in-development youth version of the instrument.


So, what point is being made here? Just that the recent and happily expanding attention being paid to protective factors in our literature neither represents new knowledge nor recent innovation in the field of risk assessment or treatment. Jessor and colleagues discussed protective factors in understanding troubled adolescent behavior back in 1995, and in 2003 Rutter wrote of the obvious need to pay attention to protective factors, as well as risk factors. Going back a few years earlier still, in their exploration of resiliency among troubled and high-risk children Werner and Smith wrote about protective factors and relationships in 1992. This protective factors, or strength-based, approach to assessment and treatment recognizes that there is more to risk than risk alone, and more to treatment than simply containing risk. Instead, it tells us that we must recognize and assess factors that not only protect against risk, but also increase the likelihood of desistance from continued problem behaviors. It is gratifying to see increasing attention being paid to the presence and nature of protective factors and the mechanisms by which they harness or increase resiliency, but it is also oddly disturbing that we seem to have only recently "discovered" ideas that have actually been there all along, even within our own field. These are not new ideas; we just seem to have not "noticed" them before, or been too busy looking at other things to notice them, or perhaps simply unaware of the larger mental health field and the field of human development around us. It is possible that this has something to do with the formerly very narrow field of vision that has permeated and perhaps defined sexual offender treatment, and especially the treatment of adult sexual offenders.


An increasing awareness of protective factors, and an increasing prominence in our research, is welcome. However, protective factors have been there all along; they have already been “discovered.” The current task involves, not discovery, but better understanding protective factors, empirically and in clinical practice, including not only what we should count as protective factors, but also how they work and, importantly, how they interact with one another and how they interact with risk factors. It is this focus that most represents the area of new knowledge – not the discovery of protective factors, but instead how they work, and under what circumstances.

Phil Rich, EdD., LICSW



Bremer, J. F. (1998).  Challenges in the assessment and treatment of sexually abusive adolescents.  The Irish Journal of Psychology, 19, 82-92.   doi: 10.1080/03033910.1998.10558172

Bremer, J. (2006). Protective Factors Scale: Determining the level of intervention for youth with harmful sexual behavior. In D. S. Prescott (Ed.). Risk assessment of youth who have sexually abused (pp 195-221). Oklahoma City, OK: Wood & Barnes.

de Vries Robbé, M., Mann, R. E., Maruna, S., & Thornton, D. (2014). An exploration of protective factors supporting desistance from sexual offending. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/1079063214547582

Gilgun, J. F. (1999). CASPARS: Clinical assessment instruments that measure strengths and weaknesses in children and families. In M. C. Calder (Ed.), Working with young people who sexually abuse: New pieces of the jigsaw puzzle (pp. 50-58). Dorset, England: Russell House Publishing.

Jessor, R., Van Den Bos, J., Vanderryn, J., Costa, F. M., & Turbin, M. S. (1995).Protective factors in adolescent problem behavior: Moderator effects and developmental change. Developmental Psychology, 31, 923-933.         

Rich, P. (2003). Understanding juvenile sexual offenders: Assessment, treatment, and rehabilitation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Rich. P. (2009). Juvenile sexual offenders: A comprehensive guide to risk evaluation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Rich, P. (2011). Understanding juvenile sexual offenders: Assessment, treatment, and rehabilitation (2nd. ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Rutter, M. (2003). Crucial paths from risk to causal mechanisms. In B. B. Lahey, T. E. Moffitt, & A. Caspi (Eds.) Causes of conduct disorder and juvenile delinquency (pp. 3-24): Guilford Press.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Euthanasia & sexual abusers

Frank van der Bleeken is an imprisoned murderer and multiple rapist residing in Belgium. He he committed his sexual offences against young women in Antwerp (Belguim) during the 1980’s. Mr. van der Bleeken was sentenced to life imprisonment and has already been in prison for over 30 year’s (International Business Times). Recently, Mr. van der Bleeken successfully petitioned the Belgian government to be given allowed the right to die via assisted suicide through their euthanasia law (Belgian Act of Euthanasia, 2002; Cohen –Almagor, 2009). Euthanasia is controversial in and of itself, regardless of its use by offenders, with disagreements within and between countries about its legality as well as morality (The Lancet, Medical News Today and Mr. van der Bleeken’s argument for euthanasia is based upon his belief that he was not receiving adequate treatment for resolve his sexually abuse impulses (which is an issue in Belgium - The Globe and Mail), that these sexual impulses where not diminishing and that he was suffering significant psychological as well as emotional trauma as a result of this (The Sydney Morning Herald). In his application Mr. van der Bleeken was supported by medical professionals who supported his claim that his condition was not improving and that treatment was having no impact (The Sydney Morning Herald).


The decision by Mr. van ver Bleeken’s to seek euthanasia as a response to his sexually abusive raises a whole host of questions as well as issues for sex offender treatment, rehabilitation and reintegration:


-       Mr. van der Bleeken’s argument is that his sexual impulses are innate and causing him severe psychological as well as emotional trauma, as a consequence he is asking to be euthanatized so that his pain can be abated. In saying this he is placing his sexual cognitions and motivations in the same arena as other prolonged and depilating illnesses, such as MS, which euthanasia is used for. This reframes sexual abuse, and the related motivations, into a whole new biological light. Although, we recognise that there may innate drives that can motivate some sexual offenders this is not the case for all sexual offenders; sexual offending is heterogeneous in nature. Mr. van der Bleeken’s argument for euthanasia as well as being reductionist also works to cloud the fact that there are social aspects to sexual abuse. So even though he may suffer from cognitions and drives that are emotionally and psychologically based, so to do a lot of other individuals (i.e., people with severe personality disorders, schizophrenia, depression, etc) for whom euthanasia would not be considered. So why was euthanasia allowed for Mr. van der Bleeken? As a consequence of the nature of his offences, or his level of dangerousness, or his risk level? These seem difficult to justify, especially in a country that does not have the death penalty.


-       In this case the argument is that treatment has not help Mr. van der Bleeken and that another response is needed. Research has indicated that treatment works for different individuals in different ways at different times (Beech et al, 2009; Baim & Guthrie, 2014); it is not a homogenous solution. However, the suggestion that death is the only alternative solution to a failure in treatment is a very worrying precedent to set and feeds into the longstanding, although often rebuked, myth that nothing works with sex offenders so why bother. As professionals we recognise that sexually abusive tendencies and cognitions are incurable, and therefore that is not what treatment is really about; treatment is really about giving people the skills to reduce and manage these tendencies. Therefore it is a misnomer to say that the inability of treatment to cure a sex offender means that we must move to the most radical solution, death. This is why we have some individuals who are civilly commitment for their own as well as society’s benefit, which is not to say that everyone who is civilly committed is always going to be high risk forever but instead to say that those most resistant to change and in need of the most support have the appropriate responses available to them.


-      This case also raises the issue of prisoner rights, so should Mr. Van der Bleeken be allowed to pursue this course of action when he is being held by the state for a crime(s) that he committed? Part of the role of prison is to remove an individual’s freedom and right for self-determination. However, prisoners do have health related rights and therefore are Mr. Van der Bleeken’s concerns over his emotional and psychological state congruent with prisoners suffering for physical ailments for would euthanasia would be more readily accepted? Or is it an attempt to downplay his responsibility for the sexual assaults as he cannot control himself and his urges are beyond treatment? So in arguing for assisted suicide Mr. van der Bleeken could be seen as bypassing the criminal justice system as the Belgium government do not think that the death penalty is not an appropriate response to his offences. However this goes beyond the offender and the state to the victim, with the parents of Mr. van der Bleeken’s victims not wanting him to have access to assisted suicide instead arguing that he needs to serve out his sentence and be punished for his offences (Daily Mail). Consequentiality, the Belgian government’s recommendation that Mr. van der Bleeken can be allowed euthanasia means that the families of his victims feel betrayed by the criminal justice system and that they are not getting the justice that they were originally promised.


The Frank van der Bleeken case raises a lot of questions about the viability and impact of sex offender treatment (The Globe and Mail). The main issue seems to be whether euthanasia is appropriate response if sex offender treatment is not seen as successful by the client. This could have serious implications for the view of treatment from the judiciary as well as from the public, because if sex offenders feel that they deserve the death penalty and that they cannot be cured is this probable cause to invoke it?




Beech, A.R., Craig, L.A., & Browne, K.D. (2009). Assessment and treatment of sex offenders: A handbook. Chichester: Wiley.


Baim, C., & Guthrie,L.  (2014). Changing Offending Behaviour. London: Jessica Kingsley.


Cohen –Almagor, R. (2009). Belgian euthanasia law: a critical analysis. Journal of Medical Ethics, 35, 436-439



Friday, September 19, 2014

The Community and the “Cure”

In a recent television interview, a talk-show host asked boxer Mike Tyson why people should take his opinions seriously when he is a “rapist.” This referred to a crime that Tyson committed over two decades ago. Tyson’s response was swift and characteristic of his career; he insulted the interviewer and challenged him to a fight. Although the situation was unfortunately and entirely unnecessary, it demonstrated what research has found: people change, and violence and aggression are more likely to persist than sexual abuse. Mike Tyson may have persisted in many undesirable behaviors, but he has apparently desisted from further sexual abuse. Tyson objected to the label “rapist,” and perhaps we should as well.

In the interest of accurate language, Mike Tyson is a person who has been violent towards others in and out of the boxing ring. Sexual abuse is an area where, as Bill Marshall (personal communication, September 11, 2014) recently observed, our labels stick like glue. It is fascinating that the interviewer used this particular label rather than asking, “Why should people take your opinions seriously when you’ve bitten off parts of your opponents’ ears and assaulted strangers on the side of the highway?” Perhaps part of the answer lays in public ignorance about how sexual re-offense does – and more importantly – does not happen.

Relevant to this is a study (in press) that merits close attention. Karl Hanson, Andrew Harris, Leslie Helmus, and David Thornton studied 7,470 sexual offenders from 21 samples and found that:

The risk of sexual recidivism was highest during the first few years after release, and decreased substantially the longer individuals remained sex offence-free in the community. This pattern was particularly strong for the high risk sexual offenders (defined by Static-99R scores). Whereas the 5 year sexual recidivism rate for high risk sex offenders was 22% from the time of release, this rate decreased to 4.2% for the offenders in the same static risk category who remained offence-free in the community for 10 years. The recidivism rates of the low risk offenders were consistently low (1% to 5%) for all time periods. The results suggest that offence history is a valid, but time dependent, indicator of the propensity to sexually reoffend.

Certainly, official records of re-offense underestimate the true rate of sexual crimes. However, the overall trends in this study reflect what we already know from numerous other studies around the globe. Most sexual offenders are not known to re-offend, and only a small minority is at truly high risk. This presents many opportunities for reconsidering our current approaches to management, including the use of strategies that reduce risk, protect communities, and help assist those affected by sexual abuse that are more efficient and cost-effective than the many ineffective strategies in place today (e.g., residence restrictions).

These findings should prompt all professionals and the lay public to reflect on their beliefs about people who sexually abuse. Until recently, Colorado statutes stated that, “there is no cure for sex offending,” as though it were a disease instead of a preventable behavior. Likewise, by the time someone reads this blog, it is highly likely that they have heard the expression “once a sex offender always a sex offender.” Although even one sex crime is one too many, this study shows that short-term and intensive strategies for preventing sexual re-offense (such as high-quality treatment and sensible community supervision) are more likely to be effective than long-term, passive, and as-yet unproven methods such as Internet registries. 

Further, this study shows the opposite side of a familiar coin. Prisons and other forms of punishment do not actually reduce crime (Smith, Goggin, & Gendreau, 2002). However, time spent successfully in the community is associated with desistance from crime. Recent research has highlighted the success of many community-based programs and their emphasis on developing a balanced, self-determined lifestyle (Wilson et al, 2009). This study points to the importance of using treatment and supervision to expedite desistance-related processes (such as stability, staying occupied, having prosocial supports, and implementing plans for self-improvement) rather than simply as tools for monitoring behavior.

Human beings naturally default to detecting and managing risks in the short term.  Current research into assessment methods has helped us become even more adept at understanding and categorizing these risks. Developing effective means to ensure long-term public safety has taken longer. The most effective means for managing risks has presented far more challenges in our research and practice as well as the way we think about individual cases (such as Mike Tyson). Hanson and his colleagues’ findings point to the next steps we can take in supplementing our knowledge of risk with skillful reintegration.

As a final note, it is again important to note that not every crime is detected. However, it is noteworthy that these findings extend across all risk categories in a large sample and speak to the importance of allocating our most intensive resources to those who need them the most.

David S. Prescott, LICSW


Hanson, R.K., Harris, A.J.R., Helmus, L., & Thornton, D. (in press). High risk sex offenders may not be high risk forever. Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

Smith, P., Goggin, C., & Gendreau, P. (2002). The effects of prison sentences and intermediate sanctions on recidivism: General effects and individual differences. Research Report 2002-01. Ottawa, ON: Solicitor General Canada.

Wilson, R. J., Cortoni, F., Picheca, J. E., Stirpe, T. S., & Nunes, K. (2009). Community-based sexual offender maintenance treatment programming: An evaluation. (Research Report R-188). Ottawa, ON: Correctional Service of Canada.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The international dimensions of sexual abuse

Sexual and interpersonal violence are global issues with the capacity to affect anyone regardless of cultural, gender or social background. This means that sexual and interpersonal violence are part of the human condition as opposed to being specific to any given society. Although, how we prevent, discuss, report, treat, punish and reintegrate in respect to sexual offending will differ based upon geographical location as well as social context (ESRC Online Debate 4). We are starting to see an increase in the awareness of the reality of sexual abuse that transpires intentionally (i.e., in India and the recent revelations about ISIS). Recently UNICEF released a report on the degree of sexual and interpersonal violence globally based on data from 190 countries (Hidden in plain sight). The data is collected for an array of existing national and international data sources, not from the creation or distribution of new surveys. This means that the data is an accumulation of what we already know and therefore is not necessarily as up to date or rigorous as it could be. Important factors to keep in mind when examining this type of report, or data set, are that;

-           the same data was not available for all 190 countries, so the more developed and data driven the country is the more it will be represented in the report;

-          different countries record data at different points and in different ways;

-          there are different terms, categories and definitions of sexual abuse used in different countries;

-          there are different cultural barriers or sensitivities surrounding the discussion of sexual abuse in general, but particularly in regard to certain types of sexual abuse (i.e., male rape) and the gender of victims (i.e.., girl and female sexual victimisation as opposed boy and male victimisation).

The data presented in the UNICEF report therefore comes with its own health warning; it is a snapshot of the current global picture of sexual and interpersonal violence, not the complete picture. The key data is available in the report, but I would like to focus on the sexual abuse data specifically (see chapter 4 of the report for more detail);

-          Sexual abuse against children is not just limited to girls but that boys are impacted too. The report indicates that boys are subject to sexual violence at a lower level than girls and that boys are an under recognised population in respect to sexual abuse victimisation (reinforcing a recent comment by Barnardo’s - independent).

-          In the countries where data was available the majority of children who were victims of sexual abuse where aged between 15 -19 at the time.

-          In the countries where data was available the majority of children who were victims of sexual abuse the perpetrators was an intimate partner or someone known to them.

-          In the countries where data was available the majority of children who were victims of sexual abuse reported that the abuse occurred in everyday locations (i.e., the victim’s home, the home of the perpetrator, home of another known person or on route to a familiar location with a known person).

-          In the countries where data was available the majority of girls (15 – 19) who were victims of physical violence where not necessarily victims of sexual violence in tandem; however, girls who reported being victims of sexual violence also reported physical violence. This shows a complex correlation but not causality.

-          In the countries where data was available physical violence against boys (15-19) outweighed both sexual violence against boys as well as sexual and physical violence against boys combined.

-          The report indicates that victims of childhood sexual abuse delay in disclosing their victimisation, if they ever disclose at all. The reasons for this delayed, or lack, of disclosure includes fear of reprisals, feels of guilt and/or shame, lack of confidence and lack of awareness of support services available to them.

-          The report indicates that in some countries girls (15 – 19) are less likely to seek help and support than adult women, with boys and men seeking less help across the board than girls or women.

-          In respect to online sexual victimisation the report indicates that children are continuing to become more internet savvy, that children feel more comfortable in sharing inmate information online and feel safer online than previous generations. The report indicates that girls are more likely to be groomed online, that older children are more likely to be groomed online compared to younger children and that all children find it harder to differentiate online between “strangers” and “virtual friends”.

-          The report highlights a recent shift in terminology with many governments adopting “child abuse images” as opposed to “child pornography”.

-          The report highlights a recent increase, as reported by governments, in the volume and variety of images, recordings as well as the live streaming of child sexual abuse.

The data in this report reinforces what we already know from the academic literature and the government statistics about the prevalence as well as reporting of sexual abuse. In doing so the report reinforces that sexual abuse is a global issue and that the same types of sexual abuse problems arise globally regardless of location and/or culture. Hence, the issues surrounding child sexual abuse that we deal with on a day to day are not just western issues (albeit the specificity of them maybe) but global ones. The report comes with an additional document highlighting six strategies for action in responding to violence against children, including sexual abuse, which highlights the need for changing social norms, better education and support (for children, families and caregivers) as well as the need for better evidence based policy. These strategies are things that we can sign up to and are already doing in our own work, but what the report does is remind us that we need to be discussing these issues and sharing good practice internationally.

Kieran McCartan PhD