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

Saturday, October 10, 2015

What are Young People Hearing? Getting the Message Right

Social rules and laws around interpersonal sexual conduct are culturally defined but locally enforced.  It is up to adults to help young people know the expectations, navigate the hazards of interpersonal sex, and understand that there are a lot things that can go wrong.  When sexual violations occur, it is also the responsibility of adults to help young people make sense of what happened, and whether they might be a victim or an offender, help guide them through recovery.

Sometimes sexual violence is so horrific that culpability is clear.  But other times sexual violations occur under ambiguous or mitigating circumstances.  When this is the case, too often adults ignore the social complexity of interpersonal sexual behavior, overreach with interventions, and send distorted, polarizing messages to young people.  When kids are involved in sexual violations, as a victim or an offender, what are the messages that they are getting from adults?   Do these messages help young people understand what happened, or do they just leave them more confused, full of anger or shame, or feeling hopeless?  Three cases to illustrate…

(A) In September, 2010, a federal judge in Minneapolis sentenced a man to 30 years in prison for taking sexual pictures of two teenage girls (he had also molested one of them and faced separate charges in state court).  When asked if he would like to make a statement before sentencing, the offender expressed remorse, apologized, and said that he prayed for the girls; which prompted the judge to say:

“These victims are never, ever, ever going to recover.   No matter how much you want God to do that, no matter how much you pray, it is not going to happen.”

The judge’s message was intended, of course, for the offender, but the judge’s comments were heard by everyone in open court and broadcast by the media.  Imagine the secondary trauma that the judge carelessly inflicted on the girls, their families, and friends...  that these kids are never, ever, ever going to recover, and not even God can change that?  Wrong message.

A better message might have been, “No child should ever have to endure the sexual violations that you inflicted upon these girls.  I’m sending you to prison for a long time to ensure that you will not have the opportunity to do this again.  You, sir, are a bit late in wishing the best for these children, but I will leave it to the girls and their parents to determine the sincerity of your message.  But let me assure the girls, and their family and friends, that these courageous teenagers will get the help they need that turns victims into survivors.  With support and guidance, these events and the sense of having been violated will fade with time, and these brave young ladies will move on with their lives.  Court adjourned.”

(B) In the fall of 2013, as a prank at a Sparkman High School football game near Huntsville, Alabama, 15 year old Christian Adamek ran naked across the football field.  Classmates cheered, and the next day they called him a “legend.” But the school proceeded to expel him and referred him for prosecution for lewd behavior.  A conviction could have resulted in Christian being put on the state’s sex offender registry.  Alabama has lifetime registration for sexual offenders, including juveniles.  The school moved quickly to expel Christian and, after he was cut-off from his friends, perhaps he decided not to wait to see if he was also going to be a “sex offender.”  Five days later Christian killed himself.  His father later reported that Christian was a troubled kid, but that does not change the message that Christian apparently got from the school.  One incident of streaking and he lost his school, his peers, his hope, and his life.   Wrong message.

One can only wonder if there would have been a different outcome with a different message, “Hey Christian, pretty funny streaking at the football game Friday night.  I totally understand why teenagers do those things.  Some staff have suggested that you should be charged with disorderly conduct, or maybe even indecent exposure, because we have to discourage that kind of thing – some people are offended and it is quite disruptive to football games.  But I am trying to not overreact so I’m going to suspend you from school for a couple days and if you do that again, you will be banned from participation in school sporting events.  Understood?   Great, thanks.  Game over.  See you on Wednesday.”

(C) Over this last summer a very public trial unfolded in New Hampshire regarding two prep school students who engaged in some sexual behavior.  He was 18; she was 15.  This was not the “Romeo and Juliet” situation that is quite common in high schools.  It seems he was participating in a school “tradition” that students called, “senior salute.” There was evidence presented at trial that she had agreed to getting together, but “only if it’s our little secret.”  Unfortunately, rather than keeping a secret, he was keeping score.  As often happens in cases of equivocal sex, it’s difficult for any third party to know the truth.  But even if there was some measure of sexual consent, there was clearly an absence of sexual respect.  He was charged with several misdemeanors and felonies.  The jury had to determine what versions of events to believe and decide each count.  After several hours of deliberations the jury delivered a split verdict.

The jury acknowledged that she was, in fact, underage, but apparently believed that there was some level of consent.  He was cleared of the most serious charges, but when he is sentenced on October 29, 2015 he still faces up to 11 years in prison and lifetime registration as a sex offender.  Both teenagers broke down in the courtroom.  He thought he was on his way to Harvard; now he is most likely on his way to prison.  Whatever the judge decides, everyone has lost – both the students, their families, their friends, and everyone at the prestigious prep school.  While the school administration has disavowed any “tradition” of “senior salute,” it apparently was well known to students over many years.  This story is another reminder that adults need to get ahead of any indications of hazing-like activities that often go unrecognized by kids and young adults, and help young people navigate interpersonal relationships, and the nuances of social acceptance. 

Sexual misconduct might not be the worst thing that kids have ever done, or the worst life experience that they have encountered, but the messages that young people too often get is that sexual abuse is so horrible that, whether they are victims or offenders, they will forever be defined by it, and they might never recover.  Professionals and other adults need to be vigilant about the messages we send, and ensure that young people, and their families, hear the important messages of hope and restoration. Whether it’s part of prevention, or part of recovery, people of all ages need help to understand the simplicity of sexual consent and the complexity of sexual respect.

Jon Brandt, MSW, LICSW

A Post Script:  On 10/29/2015, the young man convicted for his role in the “senior salute” received a suspended sentence of seven years in prison for the felony conviction of using a computer to lure a minor, and was sentenced to serve one year in jail on the remaining misdemeanor convictions.  He will be on probation for five years and must register as a sex offender for at least 15 years.  He was released pending appeal.  During sentencing, the young woman expressed that, “What he did to me made me feel like I didn’t belong on this planet and I would be better off dead.”  The judge expressed that both their “lives have been destroyed,” but quickly noted that they were both young and that he hoped he was wrong.  It is now up to adults to reframe the personal and social context of these events with a narrative of resiliency – one that will help both young people to get their lives back.  [JB]

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Public Engagement with ATSA & NOTA

The blog has previously discussed the importance of enging with the public on sexual harm and the potential outcomes (Public Engagement and Changing Attitudes about Sexual Abuse), the current blog posting follows on from this discussion by highlighting a series of past and forthcoming public engagement events held over the last year by ATSA (San Diego, October 2014; Montreal, October 2015) and NOTA (Dublin, September 2015).

The engagement events are designed to bring members of the public as well as professionals together to discuss how we understand, respond to and prevent sexual harm. In this respect what is meant by the term'public' we use it in the broadest possible sense to refer to any one that does not work in the sexual harm field or anyone working working in the criminal justice areana. The reason for this broad defination is twofold (1) that we all come from communities that are more or less informed and therefore will benefit from these conversations, and (2) we all have a broad social network that we share information with that we are more likely to respond postively to information shared by people that we closely identify with apposed to strangers. Therefore the events are to inform, educate, engage and start a conversation.

ATSA 2014

The first public engagement event was held at ATSA 2014 as a result of a conversation between myself, Katie Gotch and Maia. I had seen an advertisement for the festival of dangerous ideas and thought that maybe we could organise a similar event based around sexual harm at ATSA as way of educating the public and increasing societal understandings around sexual harm. We started by discussing what the topics should be and agreed upon four areas (1) sexual abuse as a public health issues; (2) general information about sexual offending; (3) collaboration in the sexual abuse field; and (4) preventing sexual abuse and bystander intervention. We then thought about who would be best to talk on these issues? We considered local, regional, national and international speakers (specifically those who were attending the conference), and reached out to and confirmed 8 speakers (Elizabeth Letourneau; Bob Geffner; David Prescott; James Cantor; Tom Tobin; Sandra Henriquez; Joan Tabachnick; Tracy Cox).

The format of the event was to get speakers to talk on one topic for a maximum of 10 minutes, without powerpiont, on one topic in plain English. The idea being that anyone could come to this event with no significant subject or area knowledge and walk away feeling informed, educated and empowered. We decided to group the speakers in to groups of two as predetermined topics, (1) sexual abuse as a public health issues (Elizabeth Letourneau; Bob Geffner); (2) general information about sexual offending (David Prescott; James Cantor); (3) collaboration in the sexual abuse field (Tom Tobin; Sandra Henriquez); and (4) preventing sexual abuse and bystander intervention (Joan Tabachnick; Tracy Cox)

So how to get people through the door? Always an issue! The first question is who are the public in this context and how do we reach them. We wanted to reach out to people that reflected and represented members of the wider community or engaged with them (community leaders and/or people from community groups). We developed a marketing and media strategy utilising social media (twitter, facebook, linkedIn and traditional email) via our contacts in the community (religious groups, sports clubs, schools, charities and NGO’s). After many months of advertising and dissemination the night of the event came around and we ended up with approximately 70 participants from the city of San Diego and the ATSA conference.

The event was chaired by myself and Katie Gotch who introduced and concluded the event as well as holding the speakers as well as the Q & A to time (easier said than done!). The attendees asked numerous questions about how to implement a public health approach, how to overcome the barriers that working with communities on sexual harm throws up, how we manage these perpetrators effectively and how we are going to change the conversation about sexual abuse. None of these questions and answers where confrontational and the event ended with a buzz in the room where the debate continued, people networking and reaching out to each other.  (We recorded the event as an educational tool, please see - The event was viewed as a success because of the conversation that it started and the people who were in the room to have the conversation; but it was felt next time we should have less speakers and more conversation.

NOTA 2015

The conversation about hosting an event at NOTA started at the ATSA 2014 public engagement event, which members of the NOTA NEC attended (Gail McGregor, Marcus Erooga and Jon Brown), and when the NOTA 2015 conference committee started to plan the finer details of the conference we approached them to ask if we could do a similar event in Dublin. They agreed and we started working! The first thing we agreed was that the event should be very much part of the conference and that the public should be invited into the event.

The big questions involved where would the event take place, at what point in the conference and who would speak. We agreed that it should be a mixture of local, national and international speakers [like the ATSA event]; therefore giving a range of perspectives. We agreed that the format, content and structure of the event should be similar to the ATSA; except shorter and more focused [8 was too much in two hours, so we agreed on 4 in 90 minutes]. Therefore, we agreed on two topics and four speakers (two practitioners and two academics, two regional speakers and two international) agreeing upon (1) “preventing sexual harm” (Elizabeth Letourneau and Sharon Beattie, Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland) and (2) “sex offenders 101” (Micheal Seto and Niall Muldoon, The Children’s Ombudsman for Ireland).

As with ATSA 2014 we reached out to people that reflected and represented members of the wider community (religious groups, sports clubs, schools, charities and NGO’s) or engaged with them (community leaders and/or people from community groups) via marketing and media engagement through social media (twitter, facebook, linkedIn and traditional email). After many months of advertising, dissemination and even media coverage (it was in the Irish Independent a couple of weeks prior to the event) we had to close the registration a week in advance as we had 90 applicants. These participants were all from the local and regional community with people from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The event itself was a success with 60 plus participants showing up, which is fantastic given that it was 6pm on a midweek evening on the outskirts of Dublin (with a car accident and rush hour traffic to contend with). The event was chaired by Mary Tallon and Marcella Leonard who introduced and concluded the event as well as holding the speakers as well as the Q & A to time (easier said than done!). The attendees asked numerous questions about how to implement a public health approach, what paedophilia is, what the function of treatment is, how we manage these perpetrators effectively and we are going to change the conversation about sexual abuse. All of these questions and answers where not necessarily confrontation free (which is simultiuously the risk and the benefit of doing these events), with lively debate over the innate/biological nature of paedophilia and whether treatment should be used at all. The interesting thing is that following the event there was a buzz in the room with the debate continuing, people networking and reaching out to each other.

ATSA 2015

ATSA will be hosting another public engagement event at the start of this year’s ATSA conference (ATSA Conference, 13th October, Montreal 2015 – see However, in Montreal we have an added dimension language, therefore we have to provide an English and French speaking version of the event; which meant that although the event is only going to be an hour we have to do it twice in too languages with different speakers (some presenters cannot not speak English, while others cannot speak French) to make sure all the topics are covered. We decided upon four topics and 6 speakers for the event, including (1) sexual victimization (Delphine Collin-Vezina & Isabelle Daigneault); (2) child sexual abuse imagery (Caroline Girard); (3) sex offender treatment innovations (Patrice Renaud);(4)the sex offenders register (Josee Rioux & David Herni). As with previous events we having been advertising through social media [see the ATSA website for more information] and are building up a healthly interest in the english and french events; but with two weeks to go we can not be complacent and would encouarage anyone in the area to publise the event.


So where these two public engagement events a success? Yes, as they engaged members of communities who would not necessarily have access to this information as well as facilitating a conversation and got people engaged and involved. Will it have an impact on community understandings and responses, only time will tell but it is a step in the right direction? If you are at the ATSA conference or based in Montreal please do come to the next event!

Kieran McCartan, PhD