Thursday, October 26, 2023

Halloween and Crime

 By David S. Prescott, LICSW

As a young clinician, I recall the director of a residential treatment facility for adolescents bemoaning Halloween. “Those of us who work in this field wish this ‘holiday’ would just go away,” he said. He wasn’t entirely wrong. The troubled teens we worked with were angry that they wouldn’t be able to party that night, and they had often gotten in trouble because of Halloween-related activities. As I got older, I recall one neighbor (a teacher) who was particularly vulnerable to students who covered his trees in toilet paper. During this time, I also sought to help my own kids get through each Halloween gracefully, exercising both caution and restraint against going too far.

Looking back over my career, however, I don’t recall ever hearing that a client had abused a child while trick-or-treating. I also don’t recall ever hearing about sex crimes on Halloween from colleagues, despite it being a topic of discussion this time of year. It seems worthwhile to mention all of this because people on probation who’ve been convicted of sex crimes often deal with a heightened level of scrutiny and restriction on Halloween, no matter the nature of their crimes.

While I don’t question the importance of appropriate supervision methods and restrictions in helping clients prevent further crime, I do wish that these took place in a more evidence-informed way.

In 2009, Mark Chaffin, Jill Levenson, Elizabeth Letourneau, and Paul Stern produced an excellent study titled, “How Safe Are Trick-or-Treaters? An Analysis of Child Sex Crime Rates on Halloween” for the Sexual Abuse journal. The abstract from that paper speaks for itself:

“States, municipalities, and parole departments have adopted policies banning known sex offenders from Halloween activities, based on the worry that there is unusual risk on these days. The existence of this risk has not been empirically established. National Incident-Base Reporting System crime report data from 1997 through 2005 were used to examine daily population adjusted rates from 67,045 nonfamilial sex crimes against children aged 12 years and less. Halloween rates were compared with expectations based on time, seasonality, and weekday periodicity. Rates did not differ from expectation, no increased rate on or just before Halloween was found, and Halloween incidents did not evidence unusual case characteristics. Findings were invariant across years, both prior to and after these policies became popular. These findings raise questions about the wisdom of diverting law enforcement resources to attend to a problem that does not appear to exist.”

Five years later, Jill Levenson wrote a post for this blog on this topic, pointing out that in her research with Chaffin et al:

“We then examined over 5 million crimes that took place in 30 states on or around Halloween in 2005.  The most common types of crime on Halloween and adjacent days were theft (32%), destruction or vandalism of property (21%), assault (19%) and burglary (9%).  Vandalism and property destruction accounted for a greater proportion of crime around Halloween compared to other days of the year (21% vs. 14% of all reports).  Sex crimes of all types accounted for slightly over 1% of all Halloween crime. Non-familial sex crimes against children age 12 and under accounted for less than .2% (2 out of every thousand crimes) of all Halloween crime incidents.

“Other risks to children are much more salient on Halloween. According to the Center for Disease Control, children ages 5 to 14 are four times more likely to be killed by a pedestrian/motor-vehicle accident on Halloween than on any other day of the year.  These findings call into question the justification for diverting law enforcement resources away from more prevalent public safety concerns on Halloween.” 

Many years of work in residential treatment later, it still amazes me how much our decision-making can be swayed by the emotions that holidays bring out in us. For example, poorly constructed family visits at Christmas that would never have been considered at another time of the year have sometimes led to life-altering consequences. Again, Jill Levenson summarized the emotional elements well:

“Lest some critics suggest that by pointing out the limitations of these laws I am demonstrating a lack of concern for the safety of children, I'd argue that we are all on the same side. We all want to live in safer communities and I agree that public awareness generated by these laws has led to important dialogue about intolerance of sexual violence. But as tax-paying citizens, don't we also want our resources to be utilized in ways that are most likely to achieve the expected goals? And don't social scientists have an obligation to help inform strategies designed to enhance the public good?”

The above points may be even more important today than when they appeared in 2014. It often seems that our public policies today are driven more by in-the-moment emotion than by facts. Here in 2023, as we prepare for more anxiety around Halloween, I hope we will remember all the other threats to children in the world and take the right actions accordingly.

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