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.

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