Friday, April 24, 2015

Scientific Inquiry, Even With Its Limitations, Should Prevail Over Ideology

Nearly 21 years ago in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and handful of brave community members sparked an innovative approach to the post-release community integration of high-risk sexual offenders. Charlie Taylor was a repeat sexual offender at the end of his sentence, about to re-enter a community that was more than a little anxious about him. In Canada, offenders are ordinarily released prior to the end of their sentences, in order to facilitate re-entry and to ensure that services and risk reduction frameworks are in place before the offender is no longer subject to aftercare efforts. This was not the case with Charlie. There were no plans, no assurances, and no foreseeable future. Charlie would need to fly without a net.

A group of Mennonite volunteers led by the Reverend Harry Nigh encircled Charlie. These volunteers (aptly referred to as Charlie’s Angels), ultimately gave Charlie the opportunity to return to the community safely while also providing a possible solution to the dilemma of what to do with high-risk sexual offenders once their sentences have ended. That solution has ultimately come to be known as Circles of Support & Accountability (CoSA) – a made-in-Canada solution. CoSA is now spreading to other countries with the same core premise, but via different operating models, different funding streams, and different relationships to their respective criminal justice systems. These other jurisdictions include Europe (UK, Netherlands, Lativa, Belgium, Spain, France and Hungary, with Northern Ireland potentially in the pipeline) and the USA (California, Colorado, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington) with differing levels of interest and/or implementation from New Zealand, Republic of Ireland and Australia.

Working with people who have engaged in sexual violence is challenging at the best of times, and many practitioners recognize that their efforts may be poorly understood (and often misunderstood). We continue to live in a society that is more strongly inclined toward punitive approaches, in spite of years of research showing that such endeavors are less likely to return positive outcomes than those in which human service delivery is front and center. Imagine trying to explain to your friends and family why you choose to volunteer to assist a child sexual abuser in his return to the community? Blank stares, incredulity and, sometimes, hostility may result.

However, that’s exactly what hundreds of ordinary community members have been doing over the past 20 years – volunteering their valuable personal time to make sure that a high risk sexual offender makes a safe and secure landing in the community after release. Research published to date has looked at both the quantitative (differential reoffense rates) and the qualitative (how it works and why) elements of CoSA (link to references). Generally, significant differences in post-release outcomes have been observed for released offenders involved in a CoSA, whether the study has used a matched comparison design or a randomized controlled trial. Findings of four studies from three countries (Canada, UK, USA) have found similar effects on recidivism of approximately the same order – roughly 70% less sexual reoffending.


Admittedly, the research curve for CoSA is on the upswing, with projects only recently being able to share data and experience. What has been demonstrated so far is quite encouraging, but critics fairly note that more research is needed. However, away from the risk-based approach to evaluation, research from the UK shows that CoSA plays a practical and applied role in support to statutory sex offender supervision in the community. Some critics have questioned the methods involved in researching CoSA, but it is likely that creating rigorous evaluation schemes may be outside of the purview or capacity of many of the community based organizations that provide CoSA opportunities. To be fair, the science of sexual violence management is also quite young, with many commonly touted initiatives being far from well-supported by research. As famed criminologist Paul Gendreau has observed, social significance can sometimes trump statistical significance.

Currently, the SMART Office (through the Office of Justice Programs) in the United States has become the largest single funder of CoSA projects in the USA, while Circles-UK is well-established as a national charity, and Circles4EU supports project development in Europe.

Curiously, in Canada – the birthplace of CoSA – significant concerns remain about the long-term viability of the model. The Canadian federal government has recently decided not to fund CoSA beyond one already existing contract, which is set to end within 24 months, not to be renewed; the result being that many established projects may have to close their doors. Canadian government officials assert that there is no legal mandate to provide any service to offenders beyond the umbrella of an existing sentence; however, this was exactly the same set of circumstances that led to the creation of CoSA in the first place. In many respects, Canada is returning to pre-CoSA policy and practice – or, at least, that’s what will happen if the government continues with its refusal to fund CoSA.

Even more curious, CoSA in Canada is just coming off a successful five years of project development, using federal funding. Essentially, the government provided funding and assistance for both project development and program evaluation research, only to decide not to maintain what has since been demonstrated as an essential part of a broader sexual violence prevention movement. The evaluation completed with this funding is clear:

What CoSA does really well, is to help core members transition from incarceration to living within a community, helping to meet their basic physical, emotional, and social needs, providing role modeling of healthy, prosocial behaviors, and ultimately building social capital. Based on principles of a general personality and social psychology of criminal conduct, and social network theory, we can make clear connections between initial influencing variables (where the core member comes from, etc.), the structure and characteristics that define the circle, the circle dynamics themselves, leading to specified outcomes, which also include varying levels of integration for core members.

Ultimately, returning to the days of high-risk sexual offenders re-entering the community at the end of their prison sentences without the support of people to whom they can be accountable or with whom they can plan for the future is unconscionable. Human history is noteworthy for the fact that people helping others is always preferable to punishment in the long run. We hope and trust that, setting ideological beliefs and arguments aside, common sense – aided by the best available science – will prevail.

Robin J. Wilson, Ph.D
Andrew McWhinnie, M.A.
David Prescott, LISCW
Kieran McCartan, Ph. D

Friday, April 17, 2015

Discussing sexual abuse prevention: Jane Theriault talks to Keith Kaufman

As part of the prevention series, I spoke with Keith Kaufman, a professor of Clinical Psychology at Oregon State University and former ATSA president, about his newest prevention project, a self-assessment tool using the Situational Prevention Approach.

Keith started doing prevention work in the mid-1980s, motivated by his clinical training and his work supervising a treatment program for offenders at Ohio State University. He says that he spent a lot of time treating offenders, and there saw a lot of children who were victimized as well. He was encouraged by the potential to help – in his words, “Prevention works with other medical diseases, so why not here?”

His focus has changed over time to situational prevention. Situational prevention has existed for over 60 years as a tool to create safer housing worldwide, and for more than 20 years as a method of crime prevention, but its application to the prevention of sexual violence is relatively new. It began when Smallbone (2006) edited a book encouraging its use there, and it has moved to a more applied method, the Situational Prevention Approach, when two children’s hospitals found offenders in their midst. Since then, it’s been used at at least 2 other hospitals and also by the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

The Situational Prevention Approach is based on the idea that many of the most vulnerable organizations and communities are the least able to pay for a consultant to come in and do prevention work, or even to purchase expensive tools or a curriculum. For the Boys and Girls Clubs, this led to a self-assessment tool that staff can use themselves to identify risks, learn about prevention and risk reduction solutions, and draw on the protective factors and strengths that they have to help with prevention. Data collection has begun, and the preliminary results look good – clubs were able to identify 7-10 times more risks in their environment after using the screening tool, and also prevent those risks. Additionally, they described it as easy and simple to use.

Keith believes that the program works well because of this simplicity, as well as how practical it is for the clubs that are using it. Because it’s process based, it tailors itself to the organization that is using it. They only see risks that are related to them, and the only solutions that they see are practical – they don’t see steps that won’t fit their organization.

You can read more about the Situational Prevention Approach and the partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of America in a 2012 issue of the ATSA Forum.  (Click here for more information).

Jane Harries Theriault, Ph.D., adjunct faculty in psychology at the University of Massachusetts – Lowell and Middlesex Community College.

Friday, April 10, 2015

In 500 words (or less): Talking Online Sexual Offenders with Michael Seto, Ph.D.

Online offending encompasses a range of crimes, including crimes involving child pornography or other forms of illegal pornography, sexual solicitations of minors, and the use of internet technologies to facilitate sexual assaults, sexual trafficking, or sex tourism (see Seto, 2013). The most commonly prosecuted and clinically identified online crimes, however, involves possession, distribution or production of child pornography (United States Sentencing Commission, 2014). Clinical and research interest in this form of offending has blossomed in the past decade, reflecting the increasing numbers of prosecutions for online sex crimes and clinical referrals.

There is an emerging consensus from research evidence that online offenders are a distinct population from offline offenders who commit contact or non-contact sexual crimes. Babchishin, Hanson and VanZuylen (2015) conducted a meta-analytic review of 30 comparison studies and found that online offenders were less antisocial (as indicated by criminal history, substance use, and personality traits) than contact sex offenders, but were more likely to be pedophilic and to have specific problems with sexual self-regulation. Online offenders also differed by having more psychological barriers to offending, endorsing fewer positive beliefs about sex with children, reporting less emotional identification with children, and greater empathy. Reflecting the role of opportunity in offending, online offenders had more access to the internet, whereas contact offenders had more access to children.

Though there are fewer studies, there is also evidence to support the idea that different types of online offenders are distinct populations as well (Seto et al., 2012). Compared to child pornography offenders, online solicitation offenders had less relationship stability and were less sexually preoccupied. Seto (2013) suggested that child pornography offenders are more likely to be pedophilic than online solicitation offenders, wherein identified child pornography offenders predominantly seek out content depicting prepubescent or pubescent children whereas solicitation offenders predominantly seek out young adolescents.

There is some overlap across different sex offender populations. Seto, Hanson and Babchishin (2011) found that one in eight online offenders (most being child pornography offenders) had an official record for contact sexual offending. In the six studies with self-reported offending information obtained through treatment disclosures and/or polygraph interviews, half of the online offenders admitted having committed contact sexual offenses. Some child pornography offenders have also committed online solicitation offenses, and vice versa, but cumulatively this evidence suggests there are distinct online and offline offender populations.

Reflecting both similarities and differences between online and offline offenders, efforts have been made to translate knowledge from contact offenders to online offenders. In the arena of risk assessment, early work suggested much of what we know about risk factors for sexual recidivism applies. For example, offender age, criminal history, and evidence of pedophilic sexual interests have been shown to predict sexual recidivism among child pornography offenders (Eke, Seto, & Williams, 2011; Faust, Renaud, & Bickart, 2009; Seto & Eke, in press; Wakeling, Howard, & Barnett, 2011). An important predictor is whether child pornography offenders have committed other offenses as well, particularly contact sexual offenses.

For intervention, many practitioners have attempted to adapt contact sex offender programs, for example, creating less intense versions (fewer treatment hours) that emphasize online behavior and sexual self-regulation and de-emphasize generally antisocial attitudes, beliefs and behavior (Beier et al., 2015; Middleton, Mandeville-Norden, & Hayes , 2009). Whether these online offender programs are effective needs to be determined.

Michael C. Seto, Ph.D.


Babchishin, K. M., Hanson, R. K., & Vanzuylen, H. (2015). Online child pornography offenders are different: A meta-analysis of the characteristics of online and offline sex offenders against children. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44, 45-66.

Beier, K. M., Grundmann, D., Kuhle, L. F., Scherner, G., Konrad, A., & Amelung, T. (2015). The German Dunkelfeld Project: A Pilot Study to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse and the Use of Child Abusive Images. The Journal of Sexual Medicine.

Eke, A. W., Seto, M. C., & Williams, J. (2011). Examining the criminal history and future offending of child pornography offenders: An extended prospective follow-up study. Law and Human Behavior, 35, 466-478.

Faust, E., Renaud, C., & Bickart, W. (2009, October). Predictors of re-offence among a sample of federally convicted child pornography offenders. Paper presented at the 28th Annual Conference of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, Dallas, TX.

Middleton, D., Mandeville-Norden, R., & Hayes, E. (2009). Does treatment work with internet sex offenders? Emerging findings from the Internet Sex Offender Treatment Programme (i-SOTP). Journal of Sexual Aggression, 15, 5-19.

Seto, M. C. (2013). Internet sex offenders. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Seto, M. C., & Eke, A. W. (in press). Predicting recidivism among adult male child pornography offender: Development of the Child Pornography Offender Risk Tool (CPORT). Law and Human Behavior.

Seto, M. C., Hanson, R. K., & Babchishin, K. M. (2011). Contact sexual offending by men with online sexual offenses. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 23, 124-145.

Seto, M. C., Wood, J. M., Babchishin, K. M., & Flynn, S. (2012). Online solicitation offenders are different from child pornography offenders and lower risk contact sexual offenders. Law and Human Behavior, 36, 320-330.

United States Sentencing Commission. (2012). Report to the Congress: Federal child pornography offenses. Retrieved April 10, 2015, from

Wakeling, H. C., Howard, P., & Barnett, G. (2011). Comparing the validity of the RM2000 scales and OGRS3 for predicting recidivism by Internet sexual offenders. Sexual abuse: a journal of research and treatment, 23, 146-168.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Q&A with Franca Cortoni Guest Editor of a Sexual Abuse Special Edition on "Female Sexual Offenders".

Sexual Abuse: A journal of Research & Treatment
Special Edition (edited by Franca Cortoni, PhD)                on “Female Sexual Abusers”
To Be Published – June 2015

What Is So Special About Female Sexual Offenders? Introduction to the Special Issue on Female Sexual Offenders
Cortoni, F.

An Incident-Based Comparison of Female and Male Sexual Offenders
Williams, K. S., & Bierie, D. M.

Adverse Childhood Experiences in the Lives of Female Sex Offenders
Levenson, J. S., Willis, G. M., & Prescott, D. S.

Characteristics of Females Who Sexually Offend: A Comparison of Solo and Co-Offenders
Gillespie, S. M., Williams, R., Elliott, I. A., Eldridge, H. J.,  Ashfield, S., & Beech, A. R.

An Ecological Process Model of Female Sex Offending: The Role of Victimization, Psychological Distress, and Life Stressors
DeCou, C. R., Cole, T. T., Rowland, S. E., Kaplan, S. P., & Shannon M. Lynch, S. M.
Women Convicted of Promoting Prostitution of a Minor Are Different From Women Convicted of Traditional Sexual Offenses: A Brief Research Report
Cortoni, F., Sandler, J. C., &. Freeman, N. J.

Group Sexual Offending by Juvenile Females
Wijkman, M., Weerman, F., Bijleveld, C., & Hendriks, J.

Could you talk us through where the idea of the special edition came from?

The idea that ‘there is no information on females so we must use male information’ is now out-of-date. While nowhere near the level of knowledge on male sexual offenders, there is now enough evidence that women and men sexual offenders do differ in significant ways in terms of gender-specific characteristics, offense patterns, and recidivism rates. However, it is unclear how well these issues are understood in the field since most researchers and clinicians will seldom deal with female sexual offending issues. As a special issue on female sexual offenders had already been published in 2011 by the Journal of Sexual Aggression, we (James Cantor, then Editor-in-Chief of SAJRT and I) felt the time had come for SAJRT to officially acknowledge, via this special issue, the fact that research on female sexual offending has its rightful place in the field of sexual aggression.

What kinds of challenges did you face throughout the process?

The biggest challenge was sorting through the large number of manuscripts submitted for the special issue and having to turn down quite a few of these submissions. The issue of female sexual offending appears to have become quite prominent in the field, with a large number of people attempting to conduct research on what are essentially very small samples of women. I find the increased recent research interest on women very exciting after too many decades of neglect. However, it is rarely acknowledged that this research area is fraught with difficulties that are not just due to small samples. Gender-specific research is much more than simply testing male-based theories on female samples; the knowledge building exercise must be built from the ground-up on women. Only then can it be compared to that of men to clearly establish differences and similarities. As a result, it will be some time before we gain a sound understanding of the factors that lead to sexual offending behavior among women.

What kinds of things did you learn as a result of pulling this edition together?

Based on my observations, the most recurrent problem with the research on female sexual is its reliance on male-based theories and data points (e.g., psychometric instruments validated for males; assessing factors present in males but not validated for women). This type of approach is classic in the area of forensic/correctional psychological/criminological research in that male-based knowledge is assumed to be gender-neutral (i.e., the crime matters – not the gender of the offender) and therefore applicable to women. The problem with this gender-neutral approach is that it fails to acknowledge that other –gender-specific – factors may be at play when women sexually offend. A simple example will help illustrate this problem: Williams and Bierie (2014) found that while 2% of men committed their sexual offense with a female co-offender, 32% of women commit their sexual offense in company of a male co-offender. Not surprisingly, there is nothing in the male literature that helps explain this gender-specific aspect of female sexual offending. Other examples of differences between men and women that require gender-specific explanations include the differential impact of childhood victimization, the important differences in sexual recidivism rates, and gender differences in offense-supportive cognitions or sexual arousal patterns. It is only by directly studying the women themselves that we will understand these issues.  

Now that you’ve pulled these articles together, what are some implications for practitioners?
The research presented in the special issue will help clinicians better understand prevalence issues, victimization and offense process issues, differences in solo versus co-offending among women, factors that differentiate subgroups of women all considered to be sexual offenders, and juvenile girls who are involved in group sexual offending. This new knowledge will provide practitioners with a stronger empirical basis for their differential clinical evaluation, treatment and management of women who sexually offend. Most importantly perhaps, I hope that this special issue will help clinicians understand that sexual offending is not “worse” or “less worse” when committed by a woman instead of a man but that the explanations for it that might differ - hence the importance of adopting a gender lens when working with female sexual offenders.

Franca Cortoni, PhD