Friday, October 24, 2014

Halloween & Sex Crime: Myth vs. Reality

Jill S. Levenson, Ph.D., LCSW
Associate Professor of Social Work
Barry University
Miami Shores, FL

                It is almost Halloween, and as we begin to feel a chill in the air in the northern hemisphere, we also feel the excitement of that annual ritual of trick or treating. But while children look forward to a night of ghouls, ghosts, goblins and goodies, parents ponder the presence of real-life demons in the neighborhood: registered sex offenders. States, municipalities, and parole departments have adopted policies banning known sex offenders from Halloween activities (or, in some jurisdictions, from even leaving their homes on Halloween), based on the concern that they pose an increased risk to children on this day. So, my colleagues and I (Chaffin, Levenson, Letourneau, & Stern, 2009) set out to test this assumption…

                Using national incident-based reporting system (NIBRS) crime report data from 1997 through 2005, we examined 67,045 non-familial sex crimes against children age 12 and younger.  Halloween rates were compared to expectations based on time, seasonality and weekday periodicity.  There were no significant increases in sex crimes on or around Halloween, and Halloween incidents did not demonstrate unusual case characteristics. Findings did not vary in the years prior to and after these policies became popular.      If these policies were to have an effect on overall Halloween victimization, we would expect that the rates of offenses on Halloween would show a greater decline over time relative to the rates for other days.  In order to test whether there may have been greater reductions in sex offense rates on Halloween relative to other days over the nine-year span, a year-by-Halloween interaction term was added to the model.  No statistically significant differences were found. 

                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. 

                The disregard for evidence when it comes to sex offender policies is not unique to Halloween. We know that copious resources are expended for registration and notification (SORN) systems in the U.S., despite nearly two dozen research studies suggesting that SORN policies are responsible for little, if any, appreciable decline in sex crime rates or sex offense recidivism (see, for example, Ackerman, Sacks, & Greenberg, 2012; Agan, 2011; Letourneau, Levenson, Bandyopadhyay, Sinha, & Armstrong, 2010; Prescott & Rockoff, 2011; Sandler, Freeman, & Socia, 2008; Tewksbury, Jennings, & Zgoba, 2012; Vasquez, Maddan, & Walker, 2008; Zgoba, Witt, Dalessandro, & Veysey, 2009). Many other studies have documented the unintended consequences of these laws, including stigmatization, marginalization, and seemingly insurmountable reintegration obstacles to stable housing and employment (Levenson & D'Amora, 2007; Mercado, Alvarez, & Levenson, 2008; Tewksbury & Mustaine, 2009). The impact of residential restrictions on housing availability, transience, and homelessness is well documented (Levenson, Ackerman, Socia, & Harris, 2014; Zandbergen & Hart, 2009), as is the lack of evidence indicating that residential proximity to schools and other child oriented venues is correlated with risk for sexual recidivism (Colombino, Mercado, Levenson, & Jeglic, 2011; Duwe, Donnay, & Tewksbury, 2008; Zandbergen, Levenson, & Hart, 2010).

                Some scholars have opined that sex offender policies are designed to accomplish both instrumental and symbolic objectives, and that understanding both is essential in the continuing dialogue about SORN laws and prevention of sexual violence (Sample, Evans, & Anderson, 2011). Policy enactment can serve to inspire and reinforce social solidarity by uniting against a common enemy (Roots, 2004). Sex offender laws send a clear message that sexual victimization will not be tolerated and that politicians are willing to address public safety concerns (Sample, et al., 2011; Sample & Kadleck, 2008).  Sample et al. (2011) speculated that symbolic policies might achieve instrumental effects over time -- perhaps measured by a wider range of outcomes beyond recidivism -- but that in the cost/benefit analysis, the symbolic expression of zero tolerance for sexual violence will always outweigh offender rights, fiscal considerations, and empirical testing. 

                But policy analysis requires a continuous process of evaluation that measures progress toward intended goals as well as unanticipated consequences that might prove contrary to the best interests of the community. Levenson and D'Amora (2007) asserted that ignoring evidence is similar to Hans Christian Andersen's story of the Emperor's New Clothes  in which the king paraded around town nude, fooled into wearing invisible clothes that purportedly could be seen by only an enlightened few. Similarly, in the absence of compelling evidence indicating that these policies reduce sexual reoffending, attention should be paid to mounting proof of reintegration obstacles fostered by these laws.

                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?

                Enactment of social policies should consider scientific evidence, and policies are most likely to be successful when they incorporate research findings into their development and implementation. A more reasoned approach (Tabachnick & Klein, 2011) to sex offender policies would utilize empirically derived risk assessment tools to create classification systems that target more aggressive monitoring and tighter restrictions toward those who pose the greatest threat to public safety. In this way, laws could more effectively identify and manage higher-risk offenders within a more cost-efficient allocation of resources. As well, the collateral consequences of community protection policies could be minimized and sex offenders could be better enabled to engage in a law-abiding and prosocial lifestyle. Most sex offenders will ultimately be returned to the community, and when they are, it behooves us to facilitate reintegrative strategies that rely on empirical research to inform community protection. In fact, the unintended consequences of these laws might undermine their very purpose. After all, when people have nothing to lose, they begin to behave accordingly.


Ackerman, A. R., Sacks, M., & Greenberg, D. F. (2012). Legislation targeting sex offenders: Are recent policies effective in reducing rape? Justice Quarterly, 29(6), 858-887.


Agan, A. Y. (2011). Sex Offender Registries: Fear without Function? Journal of Law and Economics, 54(1), 207-239.


Chaffin, M., Levenson, J. S., Letourneau, E., & Stern, P. (2009). How safe are trick-or-treaters? An analysis of sex crimes on Halloween. 21(3). Sexual Abuse: Journal of Research & Treatment 21(3), 363-374.


Colombino, N., Mercado, C. C., Levenson, J. S., & Jeglic, E. L. (2011). Preventing sexual violence: Can examination of offense location inform sex crime policy? International Journal of Psychiatry and Law, doi:10.1016/j.ijlp.2011.04.002.


Duwe, G., Donnay, W., & Tewksbury, R. (2008). Does residential proximity matter? A geographic analysis of sex offense recidivism. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35(4), 484-504.


Letourneau, E., Levenson, J. S., Bandyopadhyay, D., Sinha, D., & Armstrong, K. (2010). Effects of South Carolina's sex offender registration and notification policy on adult recidivism. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 21(4), 435-458.


Levenson, J. S., & D'Amora, D. A. (2007). Social policies designed to prevent sexual violence: The Emperor's New Clothes? Criminal Justice Policy Review, 18(2), 168-199.


Levenson, J. S., Ackerman, A. R., Socia, K. M., & Harris, A. J. (2014). Transient Sex Offenders and Residence Restrictions. Criminal Justice Policy Review. doi: 10.1177/0887403413512326


Mercado, C. C., Alvarez, S., & Levenson, J. S. (2008). The impact of specialized sex offender legislation on community re-entry. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research & Treatment, 20(2), 188-205.


Prescott, J. J., & Rockoff, J. E. (2011). Do Sex Offender Registration and Notification Laws Affect Criminal Behavior? Journal of Law and Economics, 54, 161-206.


Roots, R. I. (2004). When laws backfire: Unintended consequences of public policy. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(11), 1376-1394.


Sample, L. L., & Kadleck, C. (2008). Sex offender laws: Legislators' accounts of the need for policy. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 19(1), 40-62.


Sample, L. L., Evans, M. K., & Anderson, A. L. (2011). Sex offender community notification laws: Are their effects symbolic or instrumental in nature? Criminal Justice Policy Review, 22(1), 27-49.


Sandler, J. C., Freeman, N. J., & Socia, K. M. (2008). Does a watched pot boil? A time-series analysis of New York State's sex offender registration and notification law. Psychology, Public Policy and Law, 14(4), 284-302.


Tabachnick, J., & Klein, A. (2011). A reasoned approach: Reshaping sex offender policy to prevent child sexual abuse. Beaverton, OR: Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.


Tewksbury, R., & Mustaine, E. (2009). Stress and collateral consequences for registered sex offenders. Journal of Public Management and Social Policy, Fall, 215-239.


Tewksbury, R., Jennings, W. G., & Zgoba, K. M. (2012). A longitudinal examination of sex offender recidivism prior to and following the implementation of SORN. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 30(3), 308-328.


Vasquez, B. E., Maddan, S., & Walker, J. T. (2008). The influence of sex offender registration and notification laws in the United States. Crime and Delinquency, 54(2), 175-192.


Zandbergen, P., & Hart, T. (2009). Availability and Spatial Distribution of Affordable Housing in Miami-Dade County and Implications of Residency Restriction Zones for Registered Sex Offenders  Retrieved 9/9/09, from


Zandbergen, P., Levenson, J. S., & Hart, T. (2010). Residential proximity to schools and daycares: An empirical analysis of sex offense recidivism. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 37(5), 482-502.


Zgoba, K., Witt, P., Dalessandro, M., & Veysey, B. (2009). Megan’s Law: Assessing the practical and monetary efficacy. Retrieved from


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Public Engagement and Changing Attitudes about Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is a complex and emotional public health issue that impacts everyone – individuals, communities, institutions, and society as a whole. Despite this reality, sexual abuse remains a difficult topic for open discussion and the complexities of sexual abuse are often not reflected by public opinion. This is understandable when we recognize that our perceptions are often influenced by the way sexual abuse, sexual abusers, and survivors are portrayed in films, on television, and in the popular media – too often a one dimensional and sensationalized, rather than factual, presentation. If our goal is to prevent sexual abuse and ensure there are no more victims, it is essential that the public become engaged and educated about sexual abuse, those who perpetrate sexual abuse, and strategies to prevent sexual abuse.

Studies have shown that reported offending has decreased for all types of crimes over the past 20 years and this is also true for sexual offending, both in the United States (Finklehor, 2004; Lauritsen & Rezey, 2013) and the United Kingdom (Crime statistics for England and Wales, 2013/14). Research on sexual abuse within the criminal justice and psychology fields has also vastly progressed over the past 30 years (Wilson & Prescott, 2014; Marshall, 2011) and we now know more about those who perpetrate sexual abuse,  their motivations, etiology and rehabilitation than ever before (ATSA, 2014; Wilson & Prescott, 2014; Carter, 2014). We also have more clearly defined laws and evidence-based criminal justice approaches for the management of individuals convicted of sexual crimes than ever before (CSOM, 2008; Kemshall & McCartan, 2014), as well as a greater understanding of innovative reintegration strategies that promote public safety, including community-based strategies such as Circles of Support & Accountability. We are even starting to see the traditional media reporting on sexual abuse in a more balanced, realistic, and engaged manner.

Despite these positive changes towards greater community engagement and understanding, improved victim services, and more effective treatment models, the most common attitude of the general public continues to be that nothing works for “sex offenders.” (McCartan, 2004, 2010, 2013; McCartan, Kemshall & Hudson, 2012). This is the greater paradox within our field, as well as criminology/criminal justice in general – public perceptions do not coincide or reflect professional experiences, or what the research tells us about the reality of the situation. 

This divergence between public attitudes and understanding versus the realities of sexual abuse is fuelled in part by myths created through stereotyping, miscommunication, prejudice, active disengagement, and poor professional interaction – all factors which speak to the need for greater public engagement and understanding about sexual abuse in order to facilitate prevention and safer communities. Public engagement is important for a number of reasons, including;

·         Community and self-protection: By better understanding the aetiology, behaviours, offence patterns, criminal justice responses and treatment models related to sexually abusive behavior, individuals are better prepared to protect themselves and others. Therefore education and understanding is a self-defense mechanism, as well as an integral component to creating a culture of non-acceptance of sexual abuse which promotes prevention (e.g., bystander intervention programmes).

·         Supporting appropriate responses to sexual abuse: The appropriate response to sexual abuse, like any crime or case of neglect, is to report it to the appropriate authorities so that they can respond to it. It is not to take the law into your own hands (McCartan, 2010; Vigilante hunter case, Daily mail, Independent; Haas, 2010) or too ignore the issue. By better understanding what the reality of sexual abuse is, what the authorities do (and why they do it in that way), and how sexual offense specific treatment and management works,  the public is better equipped to make informed decisions, as opposed to uninformed ones.

·         Dispelling miscommunications and rectifying myths: Sexual abuse has a lot of associated myths, whether these are rape myths, victim blaming, myths about who commits child sexual abuse, or the impact of abuse depending on the gender/age/ethnicity/cognitive ability of the offender or victim. These myths help no one and actually often compromise, rather than promote, public safety. By greater engagement with individuals and communities, through better education programmes and through more realistic media engagement, we can dispel these myths. While this may be a difficult task due to many of these myths being hardwired into our personal and cultural psyche, by dispelling these myths we can facilitate recognition of sexual abuse for the complex public health issue that it is and move forward towards a culture of prevention.

·         Influencing public policy and agenda setting: Public opinion shapes governmental policy and practice, from emotionally driven knee jerk responses to in-depth social change. This means that public opinion is vital beyond a social dialogue as it feeds into legislative and political agenda setting. A more engaged public results in a greater understanding of the reality of sexual abuse and the complexities of responding to these issues and this, in turn, leads us to a more informed and realistic sociological debate. It also results in the public campaigning for evidence based policies and laws that are both preventative and responsive, public health oriented as well as criminal justice oriented, and forward thinking rather than reactionary. 

While the prevention of sexual abuse may feel like a never ending task, we have come far over the past 30 years in not only our understanding of sexual abuse, but in our support of survivors, management of perpetrators, and prevention efforts. But our work is far from done and public engagement is key to continuing forward – although the prevention of sexual abuse requires a well-planned and comprehensive response founded on research, it is only through education, collaboration, and the involvement of everyone – community members, violence prevention professionals, victim advocates, law enforcement professionals, treatment professionals, journalists, and policy makers – that the prevention of sexual abuse can become a reality.

Interested in learning more about public engagement? Then join us for a free event open to all - Understanding Sexual Abuse & Sexual Assault: Causes, Consequences, and Prevention - on Tuesday October 28th at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego, CA. Co-sponsored by ATSA, CALCASA, CCOSO, IVAT, and NSVRC.

Kieran McCartan, PhD & Katie Gotch, MA


Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abuses (ATSA) (2014). Eight things everyone should know about sexual abuse and sexual offending. Beaverton, OR: Author.

Carter, A. (2014). Sex Offending Treatment Programmes: The importance of Evidence based practice. In: McCartan, K., ed. (2014) Responding to Sexual Offending: Perceptions, Risk Management and Public Protection. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 111 - 126. ISBN 9781137358127

Center for Sex Offender Management (CSOM) (2008). The comprehensive approach to sex offender management. Silver Spring, MD: Author.

Finkelhor, D. & Jones, L.M. (2004). Explanations for the decline in child sexual abuse cases. Juvenile Justice Bulletin, January 2004. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Haas, N.E. (2010). Public support for vigilantism. Leiden: Universiteit Leiden.
Kemshall, H. and McCartan, K. (2014) Managing sex offenders in the UK: Challenges for policy and practice. In: McCartan, K., ed. (2014) Responding to Sexual Offending: Perceptions, Risk Management and Public Protection. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 206-226. ISBN 9781137358127

Lauritsen, J.L. & Rezey, M.L. (2013). Measuring the prevalence of crime with the National Crime Victimization Survey. US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Marshall, W. (2011). Milestones in Sexual Offender Research and Treatment. Keynote at ATSA Annual conference. Toronto, Canada.

McCartan, K. (2004) Here there be monsters: The public's perception of paedophiles with particular reference to Belfast and Leicester. Medicine, Science & the Law,  44. pp. 327-342. ISSN 0025-8024
McCartan, K. (2010) Student/trainee-professional implicit theories of paedophilia. Psychology, Crime & Law, 16 (4). pp. 265-288. ISSN 1068-316X

McCartan, K. (2013) From a lack of engagement and mistrust to partnership? Public attitudes to the disclosure of sex offender information. International Journal of Police Science and Management, 13 (3). pp. 219-236.

McCartan, K., Kemshall, H. and Hudson, K. (2012) Public understandings of sexual abuse and sexual abusers. ATSA Forum, xxiv (3) McCartan, K. (2014) Euthanasia & sexual abusers. Journal of Sexual Abuse blog, 2014 (Sept).

Wilson, R., and Prescott, D. (2014). Community based management of sex offender risk: options and opportunities. In: McCartan, K., ed. (2014) Responding to Sexual Offending: Perceptions, Risk Management and Public Protection. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 20 - 47. ISBN 978113735812 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Protective Factors: A “New” Discovery?

Readers may be interested in de Vries Robbé, Mann, Maruna, and Thornton’s (2014) recent article, "An exploration of protective factors supporting desistance from sexual offending," currently published in the online first section of Sexual Abuse: A Journal Research and Treatment (SAJRT). This is actually one of a series of articles written by de Vries Robbé and various colleagues, but possibly the first in the “series” that specifically focuses on the role of protective factors in work with sexual offenders. In fact, Thornton (one of de Vries Robbé’s co-authors in this case) published an article last year (2013) discussing the implications of a model that recognizes both risk and protective factors in the treatment of adult sexual offenders, asking how treatment tasks might be revised “in light of this new knowledge” (p. 62). Similarly, focusing on the idea of “new knowledge,” Worling and Langton (2014) write that research into protective factors for sexually abusive youth is only in its earliest stages. Actually, Spice and colleagues (2012) might have been the first to point to the complete lack of research into the subject of protective factors, at least with respect to sexually abusive youth, and van der Put and Asscher (2014) are among the first to correct this situation in their study, examining the nature and effect of protective factors in the behavior of sexually abusive youth.


The addition of a literature that addresses and incorporates ideas about protective factors, and not just risk factors, in sexual offender assessment is welcome, a topic area to be further addressed in a forthcoming special theme issue of SAJRT. But, it seems important to add that although relatively new to sexual offender risk assessment, the idea is not especially new (and really not even that new to sexual offender assessment and treatment, at least not for those practitioners who work with sexually abusive youth). Although it may be accurate to say our empirical and theoretical examination of protective factors is new, the existence and function of protective factors in assessing risk is certainly not “new knowledge,” as Thornton described it. Rich (2003) wrote about protective factors over a decade ago, and in additional detail in 2009 and 2011. Furthermore, protective factors have been built into several juvenile risk assessment instruments since around 2001 with the introduction of the AIM assessment protocol, used in the UK, and further developed in the AIM2, revised in 2007. Similarly, the SAVRY, a general (non-sexual) adolescent risk instrument in use for over a decade, has included a table of protective factors since the instrument was released in 2002. The J-RAT, a juvenile sexual risk instrument in use since about 2000, has included a protective factor scales since 2012, as does the MEGA, a more recently introduced juvenile sexual risk instrument. Although neither are widely used, Bremer's Protective Factors Scale (1998, 2006) and Gilgun's (1999) Clinical Assessment Package for Client Risk and Strengths offer additional examples of instruments built around the presence of and designed to assess protective factors, both of which have been around for a number of years. In the world of adult sexual risk assessment, the ARMIDILO-S, designed for use in the assessment of intellectually disabled adults, has included an assessment of protective factors since its inception in 2004, as does the currently in-development youth version of the instrument.


So, what point is being made here? Just that the recent and happily expanding attention being paid to protective factors in our literature neither represents new knowledge nor recent innovation in the field of risk assessment or treatment. Jessor and colleagues discussed protective factors in understanding troubled adolescent behavior back in 1995, and in 2003 Rutter wrote of the obvious need to pay attention to protective factors, as well as risk factors. Going back a few years earlier still, in their exploration of resiliency among troubled and high-risk children Werner and Smith wrote about protective factors and relationships in 1992. This protective factors, or strength-based, approach to assessment and treatment recognizes that there is more to risk than risk alone, and more to treatment than simply containing risk. Instead, it tells us that we must recognize and assess factors that not only protect against risk, but also increase the likelihood of desistance from continued problem behaviors. It is gratifying to see increasing attention being paid to the presence and nature of protective factors and the mechanisms by which they harness or increase resiliency, but it is also oddly disturbing that we seem to have only recently "discovered" ideas that have actually been there all along, even within our own field. These are not new ideas; we just seem to have not "noticed" them before, or been too busy looking at other things to notice them, or perhaps simply unaware of the larger mental health field and the field of human development around us. It is possible that this has something to do with the formerly very narrow field of vision that has permeated and perhaps defined sexual offender treatment, and especially the treatment of adult sexual offenders.


An increasing awareness of protective factors, and an increasing prominence in our research, is welcome. However, protective factors have been there all along; they have already been “discovered.” The current task involves, not discovery, but better understanding protective factors, empirically and in clinical practice, including not only what we should count as protective factors, but also how they work and, importantly, how they interact with one another and how they interact with risk factors. It is this focus that most represents the area of new knowledge – not the discovery of protective factors, but instead how they work, and under what circumstances.

Phil Rich, EdD., LICSW



Bremer, J. F. (1998).  Challenges in the assessment and treatment of sexually abusive adolescents.  The Irish Journal of Psychology, 19, 82-92.   doi: 10.1080/03033910.1998.10558172

Bremer, J. (2006). Protective Factors Scale: Determining the level of intervention for youth with harmful sexual behavior. In D. S. Prescott (Ed.). Risk assessment of youth who have sexually abused (pp 195-221). Oklahoma City, OK: Wood & Barnes.

de Vries Robbé, M., Mann, R. E., Maruna, S., & Thornton, D. (2014). An exploration of protective factors supporting desistance from sexual offending. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/1079063214547582

Gilgun, J. F. (1999). CASPARS: Clinical assessment instruments that measure strengths and weaknesses in children and families. In M. C. Calder (Ed.), Working with young people who sexually abuse: New pieces of the jigsaw puzzle (pp. 50-58). Dorset, England: Russell House Publishing.

Jessor, R., Van Den Bos, J., Vanderryn, J., Costa, F. M., & Turbin, M. S. (1995).Protective factors in adolescent problem behavior: Moderator effects and developmental change. Developmental Psychology, 31, 923-933.         

Rich, P. (2003). Understanding juvenile sexual offenders: Assessment, treatment, and rehabilitation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Rich. P. (2009). Juvenile sexual offenders: A comprehensive guide to risk evaluation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Rich, P. (2011). Understanding juvenile sexual offenders: Assessment, treatment, and rehabilitation (2nd. ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Rutter, M. (2003). Crucial paths from risk to causal mechanisms. In B. B. Lahey, T. E. Moffitt, & A. Caspi (Eds.) Causes of conduct disorder and juvenile delinquency (pp. 3-24): Guilford Press.