Saturday, October 31, 2015

ATSA -2015, Montreal – Conference Highlights

The 34th annual ATSA Conference ran from 13th – 17th of October in Montreal. It began with a public engagement event on Tuesday evening with seven speakers (in both French and English), followed by  27 pre-conference seminars, four plenary speakers, 84 symposiums and 38 poster sessions before ending on Saturday. In addition to this packed program the conference also had a student data blitz session, next generation student reception, special interest sessions, a meeting of the journal editorial board, committee meetings, and state chapter meetings.  Here are some highlights from this year’s conference by Kieran McCartan (KM) and Jon Brandt (JB). 

Public Engagement Event

The public engagement event this year was organized by Gen Martin in conjunction with Katie Gotch and I (KM). The event had approximately 65 people attend and was held in both French and English to reflect the bilingual nature of our host city. We had a range of speakers on a number of topics including sexual victimization (Delphine Collin-Venzina & Isabella Daigneault), child sexual abuse imagery (Caroline Girard), innovations in sex offender treatment (Patrice Renaud), and the Canadian sex offenders registry (Josee Rioux & David Herni). The presentations generated a variety of questions, in both French and English, with the speakers being well received.  The audience was mainly members of the public and non-professionals.  [KM]

Pre Conference Sessions

The 28 pre-conference sessions where a mix of full day and half day events with workshops on a number of topics including, risk assessments (Andrew J. R. Harris, Karl Hanson); sex offender treatment (Robert McGrath, Liam Marshall, William Marshall, Michael Miner); connecting theory with research (Kevin Nunes, Chantal Hermann, Michael Seto, Anthony Beech, Patrick Luisser); working with adolescent sex offenders (James Worling; Raymond Knight, Judith Sims-Knight, David Rothman, David Prescott); professional practice (Laura Jakal, Bobbi Walling, Lawrence Ellerby); and internet sexual offenders (Hannah Merdian & Derek Perkins).  [KM]

Plenary Sessions

The four plenaries at this year’s conference were diverse, interesting and well received. They spanned conversation covering the history and impact of sex offender treatment (Friedrich Losel), a developmental understanding of physical aggression from a gene-environment perspective (Richard Tremblay), gendered sexual responses and sexual stimulation (Meredith Chivers) and a psychosocial approach to understanding male sexual aggression (Anotnia Abbey).  Both Jon and I thought the plenary sessions were excellent this year, with a varied, multidisciplinary, international nature, and well applied.  There were some plenary topics that I knew a lot about but welcomed the opportunity for an update (Tremblay, Losel and Abbey), and others (Chivers) who spoke on topics that brought a fresh perspective on research which has not gotten much attention.  The plenaries reflected the varied and interconnect nature of our field.  [KM]

Highlights from Concurrent Sessions

As a clinician, I [JB] tend to find the clinical tracks at ATSA conferences most useful, but this year I attended three excellent sessions on research and have chosen one session to highlight: (F-13) Emerging Practices in Assessing the Risk of Sexual Recidivism.  The session was presented by KiDeuk Kim, Grant Duwe, Michael Caldwell, and Elizabeth Letourneau.

Presenters reviewed the evolution of the science of prediction, starting with the Burgess Method in the 1920’s, and the subsequent contributions of multivariate logistic regression.  The next generation of risk tools came with the computer age and the ability to analyze the predictive capacity of an array of variables.  The future of assessing risk would seem to be the ability to explore interactions between a virtually unlimited number of variables using Machine Learning (ML) algorithms.   Machine Learning enables researchers to design algorithms that learn from the data.

Duwe and Kim presented their 2015 research that supports the predictive capabilities of newer ML algorithms.  One of the benefits of ML algorithms is the ability to compare variables (e.g. static and dynamic risk factors) in ways that might more accurately address absolute risk of sexual reoffending, rather than the relative risk of recidivism which is the product of most current risk assessment tools.  One drawback with ML algorithms is that the interaction between variables is not as evident or transparent as logistic regression.  Duwe discussed the calibration of ML algorithms in two studies involving 4,200 juvenile offenders in Virginia and Oregon, which demonstrated encouraging results.  When the base rate for recidivism may be as low as 1-2%, risk assessment tools that can more accurately determine the true risk of reoffending have enormous implications for the treatment and management of offenders across the spectrum of sexual offending. 

There is some agreement in our profession that interventions with sexual offenders are overreaching - from juveniles on sex offender registries, to endless treatment for the civilly committed.  In part, this might be due to the tendency to inflate levels of risk, when risk can’t be accurately ascertained.  Machine Learning algorithms seem promising in adding to the science that is needed to support the “art” of the prediction of risk – and to truly inform needs and facilitate responsivity. [JB]


I [KM] attended a session (T-1) on the use of Virtual Reality technology in the treatment of sexual offenders (chaired by Patrice Renaud and Joanne-Lucine Rouleau), this was something that I knew very little about and gained a great deal of information.  The session gave insight into using existing measures (fMRI, penile plethysmography) and the impact of using computer generated imagery; the research indicates that the technology continues to evolve and its utility in treatment and its impact continues to grow. I think that this area has a lot to offer models of sex offender treatment, especially in prisons or confined arenas, as it develops.  [KM]

The research symposiums covered topics including sex offender treatment, Risk Assessment, sex offender policy, the prevention of sexual harm, desistence from sexual offending and community integration of sexual offenders. Talking with people at the conference, other standout symposiums that were mentioned included a session on working with Native American sexual offenders (Chris Lobanov-Rostovsky, Juli Ana Grant & Dewey Ertz, Lawrence Ellerby); a session on the impact of the Jimmy Saville case in the UK (Marcus Erooga); the use and effectiveness of the polygraph (Robin Wilson & David Prescott); public opinion research on sex offender management policy (Andrew Harris, Lisa Sample, Todd Hogue, Sandy Jung, Craig Harper, Kelly Socia, Gwenda Willis); and exploring links between childhood victimization and sexual abuse (Jill Levenson, Anna Pham, Carolyn Blank, Sacha Maimone, Kevin Nunes, Tess Bolder, Melissa Grady, Jill Levenson).  [KM]

Conclusion: This year’s conference was packed with highly relevant and interesting topics. It was an engaging and diverse conference with continuous opportunities to meet colleagues, share knowledge, disseminate research, advance best practices, consider public policies, and maintain connections that are vital to ATSA’s membership and mission.
Kieran McCartan, PhD
Jon Brandt, MSW, LICSW

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