Cale, J., Smallbone, S., Rayment-McHugh, S., & Dowling, C. (2015). Offense Trajectories, the Unfolding of Sexual and Non-Sexual Criminal Activity, and Sex Offense Characteristics of Adolescent Sex Offenders. Sexual Abuse: A journal of Research and Treatment.
The current study examines offending trajectories of adolescent sexual offenders (ASOs). Until recently, classification frameworks have not been designed to account for the heterogeneity of offending patterns in adolescence, how these are associated with the unfolding of sexual and non-sexual criminal activity, and whether and to what extent they are related to the characteristics of sex offenses in adolescence. The current study takes a longitudinal view of offending in adolescence by examining retrospective longitudinal data of 217 ASOs referred for treatment to a clinical service between 2001 and 2009 in Australia. General offending trajectories in adolescence were examined using semi-parametric group-based modeling, and compared according to non-violent non-sexual, violent-non-sexual, and sex offending criminal activity parameters (e.g., participation, onset, frequency, specialization/versatility) and the characteristics of the referral sexual offense. The results show distinct differences in the unfolding of sexual and non-sexual criminal activity along different offending trajectories of ASOs, and further, that these trajectories were differentially associated with the characteristics of the sexual offenses they committed.
Could you talk us through where the idea for the research came from?
After completing my PhD in criminology in Canada, I pursued a Post Doc working as a research fellow in a clinic that delivers treatment for Juvenile Sex Offenders in Australia. During my time there I worked very closely with the clinicians on several projects. In the office, over lunches, etc., I found it fascinating to speak with clinicians who have been working with specific clients over time. Not surprisingly, they have very detailed knowledge of their life histories and circumstances and behaviours. Two things stuck in my mind, the first was: where these youth begin, and where they end up (i.e, in the criminal justice system), and the basis for what they do, is overwhelmingly complex. The second, was that over the years I worked with the clinicians, I kept hearing similar stories, not identical but similar. I wanted to find a way to articulate the complexity of these youths’ pathways over time. In effect, I wanted to find an effective way to translate clinical impressions into empirical evidence.
What kinds of challenges did you face throughout the process?
Really it was such an amazing process of discovery. Being in a clinic where you can bounce ideas off clinicians on a day-to-day basis was a crucial dimension of the process. I think one of the biggest challenges was learning the main methodological technique used in this study which took considerable time. In addition, while working in a clinical setting as a researcher was a very enriching experience, the other thing I realized was just how much clinicians have on their plates in terms of caseloads and management. So it definitely was challenging to coordinate schedules.
What kinds of things did you learn about co-authorship as a result of producing this article?
Through this experience more broadly, I think the biggest take-away for me was that integrating clinicians and researchers in these settings to a much greater extent is the way forward to produce the highest quality of research in the field. This is not to say this does not happen, but clinicians and researchers bring unique perspectives, skills and experience to bear on the problem. Skilled researchers provide context to clinical observations and can also help to make clinical data viable for high quality research if they are involved from the ‘data-collection’ stage. On the other hand, clinicians can make enormous contributions to inform research directions and make meaning of data.
What do you believe to be to be the main things that you have learnt about juvenile sexual offending based upon your research?
I think that there are a few key things I have learned from the research. From a methodological point of view is the importance and benefit to using repeated measurements over time to understand offending/behaviour. I think the main discovery this allowed for was to see that different types of sex offences are uniquely embedded in offending trajectories that are characterized by different crime types and offending patterns. In other words, individual offending patterns are related to the nature/characteristics of specific sex offences, and here we have identified quite specific offending patterns. Again, this really speaks to the complexity, but I don’t see a way around it, behaviour is inherently complex!
Now that you’ve published the article, what are some implications for practitioners?
I think the main practical take-away is a framework to: a) explore how individual differences and risk factors are related to individual offending patterns; and, b) provide insight into the onset and nature of sexual offenses committed by youth. The utility from a clinical perspective is tailoring innovative and individualized treatment strategies based on an understanding of how sexual and non-sexual criminal activity are related to each other and unfold over time.
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