Friday, November 11, 2016

ATSA 2016 Conference Highlights

ATSA’s 2016 conference flowed seamlessly, no audible complaints beyond the usual disagreements over the best use of air conditioning. As always, old friends gathered and caught up on their work and lives, and newcomers had the opportunity to see the largest conference of its kind in the world. Many participants joked about the odd juxtaposition of our work with certain Disney characters, but once at the venue there was nothing unusual, except perhaps the utter enormity of the Swan and Dolphin resort itself. The author’s favorite memory of the facility was a seasoned professional from Northern England trying to come to terms with the loud music, warm air, and the magenta lights on the palm trees in the walkway between buildings at night.

The balance of plenaries was current and on point, ranging from campus sexual assault research to advances in risk classification. The concurrent workshops for juveniles featured recent innovations and areas of inquiry. One program reported on their use of the adverse childhood experiences questionnaire in residential treatments (in brief, the amount of adversity in the backgrounds of these youth is unacceptable). Another program reported on low-dose, high-impact mindfulness exercises to build responsivity with adolescents and their families in treatment. 

Importantly, the conference offered an opportunity to honor three professionals involved in the prevention of sexual violence: Joan Tabachnick, Keith Kaufman, and Leo Cotter. While many people are aware of Joan’s fantastic work with bystander prevention (She won this year’s Gail Burns Smith Award) and Keith’s work as a Past President and leader of ATSA’s Prevention Task Force (He won this year’s Significant Achievement Award), fewer are aware of Leo Cotter’s incredible work educating judges and lawmakers in Florida (He won ATSA’s Distinguished Contribution Award). All three have done far more work outside the limelight than within it.  (DP)

We also heard from Dr. Sarah McMahon about an issue that is gaining societal and political significance inside and outside of the United States: campus sexual assault and bystander intervention. Sarah’s plenary was a timely reminder that we need to confront sexually harmful behavior in all its guises, regardless of who the perpetrator is or where it happens, and that this is the responsibility of us all – it’s a societal and individual issue. This tied-in well with a workshop from Maree Crabbe on sex education in schools and how we can respond to youthful engagement with pornography. 

This year we held another public engagement event prior to the start of the conference.  It was hosted by the University of Central Florida and supported by Florida ATSA and Innovative Modular Technologies. We had approximately 40 members of the public, practitioners and campus police attend to hear speakers discuss sex offender registration (Jill Levenson, Nicole Pittman), human trafficking (Sara Lynn Ard, Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force) and bystander intervention/campus sexual assault (Sarah McMahon). After the presentations there was a great question & answer session that reinforced the importance of the event and the topics discussed.  (KM)

This year’s ATSA conference offered the usual rich diversity of topics, and invaluable networking.  There were great plenary sessions, and with dozens of workshops to choose from, it has always been a challenge to pick only six workshops to attend.  But this year conference organizers provided some relief to annual agonizing over registration - attendees were allowed to go to workshops other than those for which they originally registered (space permitting).  While changes in workshop attendance requires on-the-fly logistical challenges for conference organizers, it recognizes that attendees often discover, either after registering, or at the conference, that some adjustments to their registration would make their conference experience much more beneficial.  Brilliant accommodation!

It’s always difficult to choose only a few highlights from a great conference, but I’d like to give a shout-out to some of Elizabeth Letourneau’s thoughtful plenary comments.   Elizabeth discussed some of the very challenging concerns for sexual offender management.  Elizabeth explained that sexual violations between children need to be understood as typically very different from adult sexual offending, and that, “it is appropriate and just to treat kids differently” at every stage of intervention.  Another topic was the emerging understanding of pedophilia.  Beyond the need for colleagues to support successful recovery for those who have sexually violated children, Elizabeth discussed the extraordinary challenges of supporting hope and prevention for non-offending pedophilic teens and adults.  She went on to explain how the Registry and other misguided public policies undermine recovery for offenders and their families - particularly for juveniles. 

To learn more about the challenges of civil regulations on offenders and their families, two powerful documentaries ran continuously on Thursday and Friday, in the ATSA Screening Room: “Pervert Park” and “Untouchable.”  Both featured former offenders and their families, as they bravely acknowledged their sexual offending and candidly told their stories.  Both documentaries were well produced and edited, and provided compelling perspectives on how the registry and residence restrictions interfere with recovery.  A Saturday morning plenary featured “Untouchable” producer David Feige, who discussed how he went from attorney and public defender to filmmaker. 

Michael Caldwell’s compelling 2016 research, on the low rate of juvenile recidivism, found its way into many workshops.  When fewer than three out of every 100 juvenile offenders are destined to reoffend, there are profound implications for the assessment, treatment, and management of adolescents who have sexually offended.  Changes in protocol are indicated in all areas.

There were so many great workshops, plenaries, and posters that it’s impossible to highlight all the outstanding contributions by presenters and conference organizers.  I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference in Kansas City.  And finally, let’s bring back the ATSA List breakfast!  (JB)

In the end, ATSA members continue to make differences in ways that are extremely challenging to measure. While there is much work to do in improving our assessment and treatment methods, this year’s conference was a reminder of the passion and purpose that ATSA members and their colleagues bring to our work.

David S. Prescott, Kieran McCartan, and Jon Brandt

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