Monday, July 17, 2017

Restorative Justice & Sexual Harm: Restoration, Reconciliation, Retribution?

By Kieran McCartan, PhD, & David Prescott, LISCW

One of the authors was at a public engagement event recently and met a person who had been sexually assaulted by a stranger. This person said that one of the ways that she had coped with and moved forward from her experience was to write fiction related to it. She described how in her writing she had developed a rapist from 4 or 5 pieces of information that she knew about him from the case [the case never got to court as he admitted his offence]. When asked if she would be interested in meeting the man who raped her she said no. She believed that in reconstructing this man through her writing she had gotten all the answers that she needed and that meeting him would produce no tangible gain for her. This was creative response to a devastating experience led us to consider the utility, rational and effectiveness of Restorative Justice in cases of sexual harm.

The concept of restorative justice is not a new one or even a controversial one (Restorative Justice Council). Restorative Justice considers offending as a violation of both the individual and society. It follows that there are obligations for the offender, community, and the victim to achieve solutions that promote repair, reconciliation, and reassurance (Zehr, 1990). Therefore, restorative justice revolves around repairing the harm that a crime has caused (Bazemore & Walgrave, 1999). Although this definition recognizes that what constitutes crime is defined by communities that can have differing interpretations from various perspectives (i.e., victims, offenders, professionals, etc.).

Restorative Justice traditionally revolves around a meeting, or a series of meetings, between the victim and the offender for both of them to voice the impact of the offending on them and for them to reach a shared understanding of the causes, consequences, and way forward. Consequently, restorative measures are often seen as an alternative to punishment that places the offender and the victim at the centre of the system in active problem solving roles. The idea that a meeting between victims and perpetrators could be useful in both of their journeys is widely accepted for many types of crimes; however, when it comes to sexual harm the restorative justice debate becomes challenging, complex and [in part] controversial.

Currently in the field of sexual harm the closest to a mainstream version of restorative justice that we have is a controlled version of “reintegrative shaming” (as opposed to the introduction of toxic shame) (Braithwaite, 1989) through Circles of Support and Accountability (McKenzie & McCartan, 2012 in Maile & Griffiths Public engagement and social science). Historically, those who have perpetrated and been victimized by sexual harm have not had access to traditional one-on-one restorative justice, as there are concerns about its effectiveness, utility, its impact upon the victim and concerns that the perpetrator may justify or rationalize his or her actions (McAlinden, 2008). Some of the main concerns linked to restorative justice and sexual harm is the risk of re-victimization and re-traumatization and that the person who abused may become stimulated by reliving the sexual abuse through the meeting. Therefore, the unintended consequences of restorative justice often outweigh the perceived benefits. In recent years there has been a growing interest in the use of traditional restorative justice in cases of sexual harm from the restorative justice council, victims, perpetrators and professionals; but the field is still divided with many still opposing. Restorative Justice has a potentially important role to play in the area of sexual harm, because;

-          Most of those who abuse and are abused know each other and therefore may have to remain in full or partial contact with each other throughout their lives;

-          Generally, people who experience sexual harm want to know why they were victimised as opposed to another person;

-          The process can aid perpetrators in their understanding of their offending behaviour, assist in treatment/rehabilitation, desistence and potentially preventing future offending; &

-          The process can aid victims in their understanding of their victimisation and how to move on.

In the case of sexual harm, it is central to recognise that restorative justice can be daunting and controversial for those who have been victimized as well as their supporters when we think about the impact that sexual harm has. However, given the widespread nature, multitude of definitions and interpersonal relationships intertwined with sexual harm restorative justice needs to be a personal, one-on-one decision.

In the end, we come back to central questions: Do we want this person to desist from causing harm in the future? Do we want to provide meaningful assistance to those who have been harmed and those around them? Do we want to increase public safety? Assuming that the answer to these questions is yes, it follows that we should ask what we can do, especially since studies have shown repeatedly that our punishment-only responses to sexual violence do not work.

For further reading on restorative justice please see;

             Braithwaite, J.  (1989). Crime, Shame and Reintegration.  Cambridge.  Cambridge University Press.

              Braithwaite, J.  (1999). ‘Restorative justice: assessing optimistic and pessimistic Accounts.  In: M.Tonry.  (Ed). Crime and Justice, A Review of Research.  Vol 25.  Pp 1- 127.

              Marshall, T.  (1998). Restorative Justice An Overview: Restorative Justice Consortium.  London:  Social Concern.

              Umbreit, M.  (1994). Victim Meets Offender, The Impact of Restorative Justice and Mediation.  Monsey, NY. Criminal Justice Press.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Having the Talk

By Becky Palmer, MS, ATSA Prevention Committee.

Here we are, all educated folks who talk about sex, sexuality and relationships every day at work. Words like intercourse, masturbation, consent, safety, penis, and vagina are regular parts of our work vocabulary. Yes, we work with adults and juveniles who have committed sexual offenses and our children and families wonder silently or aloud, “why do you work with these people?” Did you ever think in your wildest dreams you would be talking about sex every day at work?

Now comes another matter, which began amongst some of my friends and colleagues on Facebook. Here’s how the conversation began, “Hello friends and colleagues. I have a question for you. Half-professional, half-parenting. My daughter is nearly 5 and my wife and I are wondering what to do in terms of "Abuse proofing" her. Maxims like "don't talk to strangers" are dated and misguided.”

We want to give our children the best possible information and we want to provide the most appropriate safe guards, however, even though we can easily talk about sex, having this conversation with our children really is different. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend many years ago as I was preparing to speak to a group of parents, providing guidance about how to “have the talk”. I asked my friend if he remembered the first time his parents talked to him about sex. Here is his recollection of the talk, “I really don’t remember a thing my Dad said, but there was a lot of sweat coming off of his forehead.” Well, we certainly don’t want our children to have a similar memory as my friend. The resulting conversation over Facebook provided many helpful tools. We all agreed it would be useful to share this information with the rest of our ATSA colleagues. The ATSA prevention committee has also weighed in with some helpful direction and tools. This blog may not be able to contain all the information but following are some highlights for parents to use when talking with your children about sex, sexuality, consent, and safety.

-       One of the most preventive steps you can take is to be an attentive and engaged parent, as you’re doing.

-       Jan Hindman's   A Very Touching Book may be useful.

-       I talk a lot about respect, both from a receiving and a giving point of view. As she gets older, I have found Harris and Emberley to be very helpful in the regular conversations.

-    For us, it includes a lot more than talking about sex or safety - it also includes things about relationships with friends and others, feeling comfortable being in control of body, thoughts, & behaviors, and knowing how to set limits with friends.

-     We emphasized we wouldn't blame or punish him if he told us about something going on or something he was worried about, even if that included him doing something "wrong". What mattered was that he would talk with us and we would try to help.

-       It was always important that both of our boys know they could talk to us when they were worried, scared, happy, concerned. Our younger son also added that there were lots of "teachable" moments along the way. As our sons got older we ordered free material from Planned Parenthood.

-     "If someone asks you to do something that makes you feel scared, worried, or uncomfortable, or if it's something you feel like you can't tell us or someone else, then it's probably something not okay." That covers a lot of ground, obviously, but it's actually helped them contextualize it, and we've had them tell us a lot as a result.

-       We made and had many opportunities to talk about respect, consent, relationships which to me were the foundation for all the sex talks that we had throughout their lives.

-      Take a look at our ( tip sheets on Safety Planning, including our  Family Safety Plan. You may also find the following resources helpful when developing your safety plan: Prevent Child Sexual Abuse, Talking to Children and Teens, Ten Things To Remember When You Talk To Kids About Sexuality

So, while some of the learned experts have provided you with books and printed and online resources, there seemed to be a common thread throughout our conversation. The sex talk is the easier conversation to have. Building and nurturing an open dialogue is the foundation for answering and teaching your children that you want them to come to you with their questions, concerns, worries and hurts. 

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Bring me the Horizon! (and Kaizen)

By Kieran McCartan, Ph.D. and David S. Prescott, LICSW

Across the UK, but especially in England and Wales, the response to crime and management of those who break laws (especially those who sexually abuse) is shifting. The Conservative government has recently instituted changes to the management of offenders across the board with its transforming rehabilitation agenda. This agenda shifts the offender management landscape significantly, with one of the most contentious issues being the privatisation in the management of all low and medium risk offenders to Community Rehabilitation Companies on a payment-by-results model, with all high risk offenders remaining with a downsized, specialized probation service. Interestingly, this approach does not apply to all low and medium risk offenders. Sex offenders – regardless of their risk level – will be managed by a downsized probation service. In other words, all sex offenders are considered high risk regardless of the actual risk they pose.

In addition to these practical changes, there have been significant changes in policy and practice around sex offender treatment programmes. Up until recently, the cornerstone of sex offender treatment in the UK was linked to risk level, required that those entering treatment first admit guilt, and used cognitive-behavioural approaches. While there had always been a degree of scepticism about the impact and utility of sex offender treatment programmes, there was a view that programmes needed to be evidence based (Mann, 2014; Ministry of Justice, 2010) – or at least based on sound science – and that doing something was better than doing nothing. The Ministry of justice argued that:

·         Sex offender treatment models do not have a sufficient evidence base

·         They can therefore only be regarded as experimental

·         There are engagement issues with offenders participating

·        There are methodological limitations to the research and evaluation processes (especially  meta-analysis)

·         There is no clear consensus on the right way to treat sex offenders

                                                                                                (Mann, 2014; Ministry of Justice, 2010)

While some may argue with the Ministry of Justice’s perspective on sex offender treatment programmes in general, it was nonetheless respectable and defensible. However, this blog’s concern is that the demand for a solid evidence base seems to have started to dissolve. The swing from left to right with the conservative government, an increase in ideological (as opposed to science-based) policies, austerity and privatisation has brought about changes, but not necessarily what the Ministry advocated. What we have now is a change in the treatment of sexual offenders that might have its roots in research, but is not evaluated, evidenced based or necessarily coherent. Only time will tell; exit the “Sex Offender Treatment Programme” (SOTP) and enter “Horizon” and “Kaizen”.

Earlier this year (in March) the Ministry of Justice rapidly introduced two new sex offender treatment programmes: Kaizen (for high risk, high need, high priority offenders) and Horizon (for medium risk offenders) to replace existing SOTP programmes. Initially, it came as a surprise to many in the field, although there had long been murmurs of a change of direction, but recently it has emerged that there were issues relating to recent programmes and a related report was apparently suppressed (Daily Mail, 2017).

At first glance and on paper, the two new programmes look good enough. They appear to be strengths-based, positively orientated and focused on ideas found in the Good Lives Model and related approaches; this is certainly a welcome change from approaches of the past. The idea is that they build on and adapt the recently jettisoned SOTP – they are an update and remodelling of existing practices. As with previous versions of sex offender treatment in the UK neither Horizon or Kaizen are aimed at low risk sex offenders, but unlike previous programmes they have capacity for “Deniers”/”individuals who are maintain their innocence” which is a welcome shift. Both programmes are based on the sex offender treatment literature and pull together material from a range of sources.

-        Kaizen is based upon Risk, Need and Responsivity; multidimensional views of needs and interventions to be holistic, therefore incorporating biological, psychological and social aspects; strengths based approaches; desistance; and adaptive, appropriate and easy to engage with approaches to learning.


-        Horizon is based upon criminogenic needs and the recognition that sex offenders and non-sex offenders are similar and therefore addresses poor problem solving skills, poor self-regulation and relationship problems.

While these two new programmes are purportedly evidence based, it may be better to say they are evidence informed. In the pure research/evaluation/piloting sense they are not evidence based, having not been tested rigorously. This is ironic given the Ministry of Justice’s need for rigorous evidence in other areas of sex offender treatment/support (i.e., Circles of Support and Accountability). From our perspective, there are further ironies. New models often attract doubt and even scorn in the professional literature. There can be a paradox of putting down unproven innovation at the same time as there can be nothing proven until there is innovation. While we applaud the development of these new models and hope that they are successful, it is nonetheless strange to see that the Ministry of Justice’s complaints about unproven methods has led to more unproven methods being championed.

Therefore we need to make sure that the treatment, rehabilitation and (re)integration is fit for fit for purpose, publically accountable, transparent and not directed by “political”; especially in the arenas of sex offending given the increased public, media and political visibility the issue has. As Ruth Mann observed in 2014, the evil twin of evidence-based policy-making is policy-based evidence-making. It is for exactly this reason that we need more dialog and debate and not less.  

Friday, June 23, 2017

Author Q & A with Sebastian Brouillete-Alarie discussing "Three Central Dimensions of Sexual Recidivism Risk: Understanding the Latent Constructs of Static-99R and Static-2002R"

Brouillette-Alarie, S., Proulx, J., & Hanson, K. (2017). Three Central Dimensions of Sexual Recidivism Risk: Understanding the Latent Constructs of Static-99R and Static-2002R. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research & Treatment. Online First.

The most commonly used risk assessment tools for predicting sexual violence focus almost exclusively on static, historical factors. Consequently, they are assumed to be unable to directly inform the selection of treatment targets, or evaluate change. However, researchers using latent variable models have identified three dimensions in static actuarial scales for sexual offenders: Sexual Criminality, General Criminality, and a third dimension centered on young age and aggression to strangers. In the current study, we examined the convergent and predictive validity of these dimensions, using psychological features of the offender (e.g., antisocial traits, hypersexuality) and recidivism outcomes. Results indicated that (a) Sexual Criminality was related to dysregulation of sexuality toward atypical objects, without intent to harm; (b) General Criminality was related to antisocial traits; and (c) Youthful Stranger Aggression was related to a clear intent to harm the victim. All three dimensions predicted sexual recidivism, although only General Criminality and Youthful Stranger Aggression predicted nonsexual recidivism. These results indicate that risk tools for sexual violence are multidimensional, and support a shift from an exclusive focus on total scores to consideration of subscales measuring psychologically meaningful constructs.

Could you talk us through where the idea for the research came from?

In French/European countries, professionals tend to be lukewarm towards structured risk assessment. As a native French speaker, I often became involved in debates about the pros and cons of actuarial assessment. By participating in these debates, I became cognizant of the conceptual limitations of this approach. Although many criticisms were warranted (e.g., limited predictive accuracy), one always “struck a nerve” with me: that risk factors are clinically meaningless statistical entities that do not enable a true comprehension of the offender.

Since the dawn of psychology, observable behaviors have been used to infer personality traits (or dynamics of the unconscious mind). In this context, why would risk factors, i.e., measures of criminogenic behaviors, be any different? Although risk factors are first and foremost statistical correlates of recidivism, they are also windows into the psychological and sociological mechanisms that lead individuals to commit crimes. This latent trait approach has been described in the works of Beech and Ward (2004) and Mann, Hanson, and Thornton (2010). Their theoretical frameworks for sexual offender risk assessment illustrated how to integrate static, stable, and acute risk factors in etiological models of risk that have far more clinical resonance than “dry” risk scales. Luckily for me, nobody had (yet) thought to empirically test these models. Thus, it became the overarching goal of my doctoral thesis.

At the start of my Ph.D., I had the luck of being put in touch with R. Karl Hanson and his research team (Kelly M. Babchishin, Maaike Helmus) by my director, Jean Proulx. It turned out that Karl had a project quite similar to mine; he wanted to explore the latent psychological constructs underlying the items in sexual offender risk scales. The goal was to shift practice from the assessment of unidimensional and “atheoretical” risk scores to the assessment of multiple risk-relevant psychological propensities. These constructs could then be combined in specific ways depending on the outcome of interest. In a way, we were exploring the building blocks of risk rather than its finite structure.

This lead to our factor analysis of the Static-99R and Static-2002R items (Brouillette-Alarie, Babchishin, Hanson, & Helmus, 2016). We quickly realized that the literature on this topic was substantive; we found 13+ studies on the factor structure of the Static-99/2002/R. Most studies obtained a solution of 3 factors (ours included): sexual criminality, general criminality, and a third factor related to age and victim characteristics. Unfortunately, none of the studies had conducted any convergent validity analyses. They interpreted the factors by looking at the items constituting each construct. Although this was a good start, we thought that more empirically grounded interpretations were necessary. This led us to the current paper.

What kinds of challenges did you face throughout the process?

Doing convergent validity analyses was, in fact, the easy part. The hard part was coming up with the factor structure in the first place (in Brouillette-Alarie et al., 2016). Jean Proulx and I started the factor analysis project in the spring of 2011, as part of my master’s thesis. Then, we involved Karl’s team, who gave us access to worldwide validation studies of the Static-99. They also (rightfully) told us that our factor analytic procedures were outdated and that we needed to redo everything from scratch (a common occurrence according to Maaike!). We dutifully did so, which led to our 2016 paper.

What do you believe to be the main things that you have learnt about the nature of the risk dimensions of the Static-99R and Static-2002R?

First, we learnt that sexual deviance is not a cohesive whole. Variables concerning sexual criminality clustered in two negatively correlated factors: Persistence/Paraphilia and Youthful Stranger Aggression. These factors were associated with different ends of the agonistic continuum (Knight, Sims-Knight, & Guay, 2013). Persistence/Paraphilia was characterized by modus operandi devoid of physical coercion and intent to harm, while Youthful Stranger Aggression was associated with sexual sadism and hostility. Furthermore, these two dimensions did not predict the same types of recidivism: the former was exclusively related to sexual recidivism, while the latter was predictive of all types of recidivism (like General Criminality). Without surprise, Persistence/Paraphilia was more common in sexual aggressors of children, and Youthful Stranger Aggression was more common in sexual aggressors of women. In sum, our results encourage researchers and evaluators to clearly differentiate between pedophilic and sadistic tendencies, as they refer to substantially different constructs. More often than not, they will not characterize the same offenders. In some rare cases (e.g., sadistic pedophiles), they will nevertheless converge into a very high level of sexual recidivism risk.

Second, we found a strong General Criminality factor that naturally converged with antisocial/psychopathic traits and domains of the Level of Service/Case Management Inventory (LS/CMI; Andrews, Bonta, & Wormith, 2004). This confirms that sexual recidivism risk comprises a general deviance dimension that is common to sexual and nonsexual offenders. The generality of criminal behavior in sexual offenders has already been highlighted by numerous authors (e.g., Lussier, LeBlanc, & Proulx, 2005).

Now that you’ve published the article, what are some implications for practitioners?

Although it is not yet ready to be implemented in forensic practice, we hope that sexual offender risk scales (and those scoring them) will adopt dimensional scores in addition to total scores. Sexual recidivism risk is unanimously considered to be multidimensional, and our current risk tools do not convincingly reflect that. It is more clinically relevant to conceptualize risk as the interaction between psychological constructs and the social environment than the sum of discrete correlates. Our research program tries to bridge the gap between those two perspectives.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

HR1761: Bad Policy on the Horizon

By David S. Prescott, LICSW

The US House of Representatives recently passed HR1761. Within a few days, ATSA’s Executive Board of Directors issued a cautionary statement. The latest in a long tradition of tough-on-crime measures, this law – now on its way to the Senate – imposes harsh mandatory sentences (15 years at a minimum) for distributing sexually explicit images of minors. It aims to "criminalize the knowing consent of the visual depiction, or live transmission, of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct." Certainly, there is no question that we need efforts to clamp down on the distribution of media depicting child sexual abuse; there’s a lot of it out there, and many professionals have seen the direct harm that it can cause. What’s the big deal with this becoming law?


Unfortunately, critics of the law, including many ATSA members, have noted that the wording of the law is so vague that it could easily lead to adolescents serving very serious prison sentences for sending pictures of themselves naked to their boyfriend or girlfriend. It might make sense for readers to stop, pause, and consider our own impulsive acts as teenagers. Smartphones are ubiquitous amongst teens, as are questionable decisions. In some imaginable scenarios, a more effective response might be to require parents to take away the smartphone and ground their son or daughter for a month. A 15-year mandatory minimum sentence? Even adults can be prone to stupid online mistakes, whether sharing pictures with the wrong person, sending angry emails without thinking, or making an impulse purchase that they later regret. Don’t kids need guidance and education more than punishment? Going to prison at 17 and coming out at 32?


Of course, it is easy to complain about the cavalier ways that unhelpful legislation gets passed. One is reminded of policymakers unconcerned when their wide-cast nets catch more dolphins than tuna. On the other hand, professionals in the field often express deep disillusionment that our knowledge and expertise are not tapped in the creation of these laws. For many years it has seemed that we have to be on constant guard against well-intended but ultimately ignorant legislation.


The real story behind the news item is how difficult it is to fully grasp the complexities involved. The world has a long and unfortunate history of causing harm when attempting to legislate sexual behavior. Again, there is no question that young people should be protected from abuse. This outcome virtually always means more to professionals in our field, by far, than the income we receive. Still, the fact remains that sexuality is complicated. Adults sexting each other may seem “deviant” to some and yet is very common. The bright line is consent: one person’s intrusion is another’s intimacy. Who gets to make the call? I am quite certain that the restrictive nature of mandatory minimum sentences will not clarify this.


One colleague wondered aloud whether one purpose of the law might be to make it easier for prosecutors to negotiate ever-more-stringent plea agreements. If this is the case, one wonders to what extent this constitutes own form of bullying of young people by adults. It is the author’s belief that we will all benefit more from earnest attempts to help young people, including both those who abuse as well as those who are victimized than we will from this kind of punitive approach. Judicial discretion, assessment, and treatment where it is needed may not be perfect, but all of the indicators are that these are more effective approaches than mandatory minimum sentences for sexting.


Frankly, the author applauds ATSA’s board of directors not so much for writing their response, but for the restraint they showed in doing so. It is difficult to imagine how lawmakers would not imagine the downside impact of their actions or recognize how imprecisely they’ve defined their intentions.


For all of the above reasons, I know I speak for many when I urge readers in the US to contact their senator. Perhaps someday our lawmakers can use empirical measures of likely effectiveness of proposed laws similar to the ways that the Congressional Budget Office uses expert review to evaluate budgets.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Bridging the Gap: The Intersection Between Victim and Offender Treatment. A Conversation with Alison C. Hall

By Candice Christiansen, M.Ed., LCMHC, CSAT-S, EMDR Certified, Forensic Evaluator.

Historically, there has been a significant divide in the therapeutic community between professionals working those harmed by sexual violence and those who have caused the harm. However, for one professional, Alison C. Hall, the Executive Director of the Pittsburgh Action Against Rape (PAAR), the importance of understanding the treatment needs of both victims and offenders including the benefits of collaborating between both types of treatment providers has been her lifelong mission and vision.  
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Alison about her unique perspective and work with both victims of sexual violence, sex offenders, and bystanders. I was impressed by her dedication to the field of prevention.

Alison spoke passionately about how the movement towards primary prevention is one that revolves around social change. While Alison is a firm believer that rape crisis centers across the United States have indeed reduced sexual violence, she stressed the importance of collaborating with sex offender treatment providers. As she explained, “We can’t do this work alone. It is essential that we partner with others who want to end sexual violence.”

In 2006, Alison’s passion and determination to bridge the gap between treatment providers of sexual assault and sex offenders led to her efforts to establish the first sex offender court in the state of Pennsylvania. She convened a meeting with victim services, prosecutors, police investigators, public defenders, judges and treatment providers to discuss issues pertinent to sexual abuse and to understand each other’s work. She shared, “This was the first time these professionals were in the same room together discussing sexual abuse in Allegheny County.” As a result of that meeting, strong relationships developed and the first Sex Offender Management & Containment (SOMAC) Task Force was formed and continues to meet regularly.  

In recognition of her leadership in convening the first sex offender court in Pennsylvania she was awarded the Gail Burns-Smith Award in 2011. As she humbly stated, “It was the strength of the relationships of this task force that led to the creation of the first sex offender court in the state of Pennsylvania.”

Alison has worked at PAAR for 14 years in various capacities; she has been the Executive Director for almost 9 years. PAAR is dedicated to assisting victims of sexual abuse and ending sexual violence in the community. PAAR has served victims in Allegheny County for over 45 years, and is one of the first agencies in the US to serve victims of sexual assault. She shared, “It is the most motivating place I have ever worked.”

Alison was especially proud to share that through PAAR’s on-going outreach, each college in Pittsburgh currently recognizes PAAR as an important partner in the prevention and treatment of sexual abuse, and seeks PAAR’s direction to help develop appropriate responses to victims of sexual violence on their campuses.

As a member of the ATSA Prevention Committee, Alison has decided to run as the prevention representative to the ATSA board. When asked what her vision for ATSA’s future is, should she be accepted, Alison shared, “I believe that when those who specifically treat individuals who have sexually offended collaborate with professionals working with victims, we make greater strides in bringing about the social change required to end sexual violence.”

To learn more about PAAR, visit

Friday, May 26, 2017

Risk Assessment Promise and Peril: The Colorado Experience

By David S. Prescott, LICSW


The state of Colorado has long been at the forefront of attempts to develop effective methods for coming to terms with the risks posed by people who have sexually abused. In the days when each county or jurisdiction seemed to have different approaches, Colorado implemented the Containment Model. When there were no actuarial measures or other tools for structured professional judgment for grounding assessments, the Colorado Sex Offender Management Board (SOMB) assembled a list of 17 factors, which are a focus of the study below. For purposes of the study, these 17 items are treated as an alternative assessment measure, which was apparently not the original intention, although many evaluators have doubtless treated them as such. For its part, the SOMB is well aware that these 17 items are no longer the final word in assessments, even as they still receive consideration.

It seems important to note this background context, as Colorado’s efforts have indeed been pioneering over the years. In retrospect, it can seem easy to criticize the pioneering developments of groups of professionals. However, it should not be forgotten that when knowledge was scarce and approaches to sex crime resembled the Tower of Babel across the US, Colorado was among the first to develop approaches that numerous other states have emulated. Just the same, there is much we can learn from the study of these approaches, which is the subject of this blog.

The Research

An Online-First study by Katharine McCallum, Marcus Boccaccini, and Claire Bryson in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior, offers fresh insight into the practical application of risk assessment research. The abstract describes their findings succinctly:

In Colorado, evaluators conducting sex offender risk assessments are required to assess 17 risk factors specified by the state’s Sex Offender Management Board (SOMB), in addition to scoring actuarial risk assessment instruments. This study examined the association between instrument scores, the 17 SOMB risk factors, and evaluator opinions concerning risk and need for containment in 302 Colorado cases. Evaluators’ ratings of risk indicated by noninstrument factors were often higher than their ratings of risk indicated by instrument results, but only their ratings of noninstrument factors were independently predictive of containment recommendations. Several of the most influential noninstrument factors (e.g., denial, treatment motivation) have been described by researchers as potentially misleading because they are not predictive of future offending. Findings highlight the need for more studies examining the validity of what risk assessment evaluators actually do, as opposed to what researchers think they should do.

This is not the first study finding that professionals often over-estimate risk across a range of conditions. The authors provide an eye-opening literature review, and Dr. Boccaccini has elsewhere found that the results of evaluations are often swayed according to who is paying for the service. For a context in which evaluators consider 17 items originally developed by the SOMB as a part of their evaluations over and above the far more scientifically proven actuarial measures, it is not surprising that evaluators would give extra weight to the SOMB measure and the items within it. In reading the study, several points become clear:

First, the evaluators in Colorado seem to face a difficult assignment, having historically assessed risk using items shown in research to have no predictive utility. What is the evidence-based assessor to do? Among the most heavily weighted items in the SOMB measure are defensiveness, psychopathology, and level of empathy, which are famously not associated with risk (and therefore with summary risk ratings), but are very likely strong responsivity factors to consider. This leads to questions as to what kinds of risk is actually being assessed, risk for sexual re-offense or risk for problematic adjustment to the conditions of community supervision. If it is the latter, perhaps the findings in this study might be more understandable – even appropriate – if the SOMB tool became more of a measure of risk, need, and responsivity? In this way, risk for sexual re-offense would be evaluated as a first hurdle, with treatment needs and the ability of the examinee to respond to treatment as the second and third hurdles of a more comprehensive assessment.  Whatever the case, this study suggests that many evaluators were not pursuing evidence-based approaches in making recommendations related to detention; this should be of concern to anyone interested in effective policy and human rights.

Adding to the complexity of the task, many of the SOMB items most considered in evaluations seem to overlap with items in actuarial scales such as Static-99r, the VRAG, and SORAG. Examples include criminal history, offense history and victim choice, and the nature of the person’s social support system. All of these lead to questions about conceptual double-dipping; how many times does one review criminal history before assessment results become skewed?

At the risk of appearing to be a Pollyanna, it is at least encouraging to see as much use of empirically validated measures as there is. It wasn’t that long ago that risk was assessed with little structure in the process and low accountability for the examiner (e.g., even including the physical attractiveness of the examinee). Although these findings point to much hard work ahead for professionals and policymakers alike, we can at least take heart that our methods have improved in many jurisdictions.

Just the same, the apparent conflation of responsivity and risk factors should cause any professional or lawmaker to be concerned. This comes along with the persistent overestimation of risk, and the means by which conclusions take shape. Further, as Boccaccini’s other research has shown, biases can enter the assessment process through any number of ways, whether explicitly or beyond the awareness of the examiner. This study reminds us that, for all of the rich scientific evidence at our disposal, we are still human beings, subject to being judgmental, opinionated, and biased.

Extending this last point further, one of the most interesting findings in this study was also one of the least explored. In the authors’ words: “In the current study, evaluator differences accounted for 8% of the variance in SOMB summarized risk ratings and 21% of the variance in summarized actuarial risk ratings” (p. 13). In other words, who the evaluator is can be a highly variable part of the equation. For all of our attempts to – and bluster about – the importance of impartiality, we have yet to reach the goal of remaining objective. In some cases, this may be an artifact of using relatively vague items. In other words, evaluator bias may even be akin to the famous country song: “Ya gotta dance with the one that brung ya.”

Final Implications

Reviewing both the study and the Colorado experience itself brought to mind a number of important reminders:

-          First, although these findings echo related findings elsewhere, it is still a single study
-         Second, it is always important to keep in mind that our best measures and best policies are always subject to bias at the hands of the individuals involved. Our ultimate work should be in the direction of professional self-development and consistency across groups of professionals.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Q & A with Christina Mancini entitled "Sexual Assault in the Ivory Tower: Public Opinion on University Accountability and Mandatory Reporting"

Mancini, C., Pickett, J. T., Call, C., McDougle, R. D., Brubaker, S. J., & Brownstein, H. H. (2017). Sexual Assault in the Ivory Tower: Public Opinion on University Accountability and Mandatory Reporting. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment.

Highly publicized college sex crimes have recently captured public and policy attention. In response, greater discussion has turned to institutional accountability and controversial reforms such as mandatory reporting (MR). No study to date has measured public perceptions of campus sex assault procedures, however. This omission is notable because public opinion can directly and indirectly shape crime policy and because the topic has become increasingly politicized. Drawing on a 2015 poll of Virginia residents, this study evaluates views about campus sexual assault policy. Results indicate that two thirds of the public feel universities can effectively respond to sex crime and a large majority favors MR. Some differences in public opinion are evident. Research and policy implications are discussed.

Could you talk us through where the idea for the research came from?

The motivation of the study was to explore public attitudes toward a sensitive and increasingly politicized topic concerning sex crime, that is, perceptions of campus sex assault (CSA) policy in the U.S.  Our primary focus was on mandatory reporting and accountability views given growing public concern about how institutions of higher education (IHEs) are addressing and responding to CSA.  CSA affects everyone, not just those attending a college or university. IHEs are funded in part by public dollars and for that reason and others, the public would seem to be an important stakeholder in discussions and debates about how best to protect students and the campus community from sex crime.

We were fortunate to have access to a recent poll at the time, the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Commonwealth Education Poll conducted by the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs in 2015.  The statewide survey included questions concerning resident support for MR and perceptions about CSA and accountability.  Virginia is one of the first states to adopt an MR policy and so it was a natural starting point for us.  Under the law, “responsible employees” at any public IHE (faculty, administrators) are required to report allegations that are disclosed to them to the university’s Title IX Coordinator.  From that point, the Coordinator, in consultation with a committee of the university community, determines if the allegation is serious enough to report to local law enforcement.  In such cases, victims are contacted by either the Title IX Office and/or law enforcement.  The law is controversial because some opponents view it as paternalistic as it reduces victim autonomy in reporting.  Others worry that is will divert valuable law enforcement resources for claims that are potentially falsified (e.g., say a student “discloses” sexual assault in a creative writing class assignment but the allegation is false) or unsubstantiated.

An overwhelming majority of the public, over 90 percent, in our study approved of Mandatory Reporting.  Factors associated with Mandatory Reporting support include believing in accountability, that institutions can reduce rape among students, and also, older age.  Less agreement surrounded the perception that university policy significantly reduces CSA.  Approximately two thirds of the public agreed that administrative action would reduce sexual assault among students.  The characteristics that influenced this perception of accountability included holding the belief that universities are generally unsafe places, higher education, and Democratic political ideology.

What kinds of challenges did you face throughout the process?

The greatest challenge was defending the scope and goal of the project.  All too often, there is a devaluing of public opinion research.  “Why care what the public thinks?”  “The public is ignorant.”  These statements illustrate the disdain I have run across in pursuing this strand of scholarship in academic circles.  Even colloquially, I have heard my students or others claim, “I don’t care what people think.”  But I would counter that as criminologists, we MUST care, we MUST measure, we MUST track perceptions, views, attitudes, and knowledge among the public.  Public perceptions, yes, are difficult to capture, but if we extended that logic to our subject matter, we would be out of business.  I would argue that public opinion research is no more elusive or less deserving of attention than tracking trends in sexual assault, evaluating the efficacy of treatment and intervention, or examining the criminal justice response to sexual offending.  Public views, for better or worse, matter in the creation of sex crime policy. 

Off the soap box for now, but the skepticism toward public opinion research was the major substantive challenge we ran across.  Our hope, to some small extent, is that we have made the case for why we MUST give serious empirical attention to a scholarly topic that is often ignored.

Of course, like other research, our focus could be further explored and refined.  We were challenged by some of the survey items which were general indicators of views about Mandatory Reporting and accountability, and also by the limited predictors of perceptions available in the poll.  The data were also from a single state and findings are not necessarily generalizable to national trends.  But challenges represent future opportunities, no?

What do you believe to be to be the main things that you have learnt about campus sexual assault?

The main contribution is that the public supports various efforts and measures to better respond to CSA.  Few divides in public attitudes toward Mandatory Reporting and accountability were evident.  Having said that, some members of the public held different perspectives concerning the law and administrative action.  These divides are deserving of additional examination.

Now that you’ve published the article, what are some implications for practitioners?

A policy lesson here is that the public appears concerned about CSA.  When do 90%+ of the public EVER agree on a controversial policy like Mandatory Reporting?  This large consensus, admittedly less so for accountability perceptions, suggests that administrators and policymakers consider efforts to engage the public in discussions and debates about CSA, particularly when it affects publicly-funded institutions. 

Christina Mancini, Ph.D.