Thursday, May 15, 2014

Assessing Adolescent Sexting

“Sexting with a bad outcome is called sexual harassment;
Sexting with a good outcome is called a date.”

A colleague recently posted a good question on a professional list-serv: 
I am doing an evaluation of a 16 year old male for probation and family court who sent multiple nude pics of himself to various peer aged females (14-16).  He also asked them to send him nude pics of themselves and continued to sext them after being told repeatedly to stop by the girls.  My question is how have people been assessing risk when asked by courts as I would assume the current juvenile risk measures are not valid for this population since I am doubtful that the research samples had those types of juveniles and behaviors in their samples.”
This question raises a number of important issues.  Other members of the listserv in question offered several responses, some of which have been incorporated into this commentary.   In an email exchange with the author (who gave permission to post the question) I confirmed that the request for an assessment was pre-adjudication.  I believe the author is correct, in that adolescent risk assessment tools were not normed on teenagers accused of sexting and, therefore, conventional adolescent risk assessment tools are not appropriate.  (If anyone disagrees with this point, or other statements, comments are welcomed at the end of this blog.)
Forensic risk assessments (somewhat by definition) are predicated on charges, adjudications, or convictions.  Some risk tools count “convictions” and therefore the “risk” in a risk assessment can be altered by a plea agreement or judicial determination. Dynamic risk factors are significant, particularly with teenagers.  It is also important to note that adolescent risk tools have a short life-expectancy – six months to a year, before dynamic considerations suppress static factors or invalidate previous assessments.
Some professionals might argue that psychosexual assessments should not be undertaken prior to adjudication or conviction because disclosures from the client, contained in the report, could be incriminating and the report itself could be detrimental.  In any forensic evaluation, professionals have a duty to victims and public safety but, for licensed mental health providers, professional ethics require advocacy for the primary client – the subject of the evaluation, and a just and balanced outcome.  If there is clarity that all the parties to the case might be in agreement on a disposition, a pre-adjudication evaluation supporting that outcome might well be in the best interest of the client.  If circumstances indicate that an evaluation is not likely to have an adverse affect on the client, a good psychosexual assessment might help guide all parties to a mutually beneficial outcome.  
Another issue raised by the question (and, surprisingly, often lacking in risk assessments) is, “Risk for what”? The obvious response is “reoffending,” but reoffending in what way?  More unwanted sexting?  Sexual harassment?  Contact offending?  Sexual “acting out” (or some other ambiguous term)?   Perhaps more than trying to determine the “risk of reoffending” in the scenario outlined above, the greater focus should be:  Are the girls safe?  Can the relationship violations be reconciled between the offender and victims?  Should he be allowed to remain in school?  Is he a danger to the community?  And, in short, how should these issues be addressed in light of prescriptions regarding Need and Responsivity?
With traditional risk tools being inappropriate for sexting, there is still other empirical information that can be included in an assessment.  Sexting between adolescents these days, even among young teens, is most often not deviant. It is, however, increasingly common among both males and females.   Janis Wolak, David Finkelhor and colleagues at the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire have published research on sexting.  A 2011 CCRC article proposes a useful typology for sexting, but the report is already dated on the prevalence of sexting.  The Internet, computers, cell phones, and other smart devices are changing the landscape of interpersonal sexual behavior faster than research on adolescents can keep up.
I am not aware of any research to date that identifies sexting as a gateway behavior to contact offending. Sexting is too common these days for the behavior itself to be considered deviant, so what remains is sexting that was unwanted.  If sexting appears to be the digital-age equivalent of flashing or exposing, it could be addressed as such.  But sexting is typically an attempt at reciprocation – with a high potential to go awry.  Unwanted sexting is probably a failure to navigate social relationships – that is, sexting with a bad outcome is called sexual harassment; sexting with a good outcome is called a date.
Sexting is much more likely to be offensive than actually harmful.  Depending on circumstances, there is probably some small risk for repeat sexting – some teenagers are slow learners – but that's probably the worst case scenario.  Based on the information provided, this client is at low risk for “reoffending,” and in all likelihood, needs help with social skills. 
There is a well-established deterrent effect that comes with intervention.  Being told by his peers to not send any more sexual images is not the same as being directed to stop by police and the courts.  Detection, arrest, prosecution, probation, public humiliation, and shame by peers and family are powerful disincentives for reoffending.  This deterrent effect might be the single biggest reason why about 9 out of 10 sexual offenders will not reoffend, even with multiple victims prior to being caught.  Treatment seems to improve the outcome, but for those 9 out of 10 sexual offenders the first intervention stops sexual offending – one and done.
With the low base rate for sexual reoffending (broadly), there is perhaps an inordinate emphasis on risk, while client need and responsivity tend to be marginalized.  Hopefully a good psychosexual assessment gives appropriate weight and balance to the Risk, Need, and Responsivity elements of the client’s presentation and circumstances. Even with a thorough evaluation, sometimes a good psychosexual assessment is simplistically reduced by others to the evaluator's “pronouncement” of risk.  With an emphasis on Need and Responsivity, a good assessment can educate colleagues on the nature and prevalence of sexting, provide the court with prudent recommendations, and help to avoid the tendency of the juvenile system to overreact.
There is a much greater likelihood these days that schools and courts overreact than under-respond to mismanaged sexual behavior.   I recently had a client who was a high school senior and registered sex offender (a younger sibling when he was 14).  “Justin” allegedly sent a message to a younger male student apparently soliciting a relationship (both boys are in the GLBT support group at their school).  Justin denied any sexting, although he admitted to texting and Facebooking with some other boys. He also didn't know who, if anyone, might have been offended.  The school acknowledged that the complaint came anonymously.  They did not know the identity of the younger student or have any documentation of misconduct, but the school knew Justin was a RSO (per state law) and alleged that “sexual harassment” had occurred.   According to the school, to spare Justin any embarrassment, and to mitigate any further discomfort to the unknown younger student, the school suggested that it would be best for Justin to withdraw from school.  Justin had enough credits to graduate and feared that any actual determination of “sexual harassment” might lead to a probation violation or could be viewed as “reoffending.” Justin agreed to withdraw from school in April, missing the last two months of his senior year.   It seems unfortunate that both the school and Justin took the path of least resistance.  It was a lost opportunity for both the boys (and school guidance staff) to learn how to better manage teenage relationships, with an eye to preventing reoccurrences.
Young people accused of low-level sexual misconduct need skilled professional assistance for three reasons:  1.) for adolescents to understand risky or misguided sexual behaviors and achieve a course correction, 2.) to support other concerned adults to manage productive interventions, and 3.) to help avoid overreactions that might result in teenagers being labeled as sex offenders, with all the ensuing lifelong consequences.  When it comes to sexting (and most other misguided sexual interactions), a good assessment, supported by sound research, with prudent recommendations, may very well provide a roadmap for a just, appropriate, and balanced outcome for all concerned.
There are increasingly perilous challenges for teenagers to navigate interpersonal sexual connections in the digital age.  One result is an elusive sense of “offending,” and an overemphasis on criminal interventions.  By recognizing when sexual transgressions are more relationship violations than criminal conduct, we can help both offenders and victims repair damage, learn to better navigate the social minefield of interpersonal sex, and invest in safe, respectful, and healthy relationships. 
Jon Brandt, MSW, LICSW
St. Paul, MN

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