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Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse

CHILDREN ON SEX OFFENDER REGISTRIES AT GREATER RISK FOR SUICIDE ATTEMPTS, STUDY SUGGESTS

--Other risks include sexual assault, being approached by an adult for sex and mental health problems

A new study led by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that children who were legally required to register as sex offenders were at greater risk for harm, including suicide attempts and sexual assault, compared to a group of children who engaged in harmful or illegal sexual behavior but who were not required to register.

The most troubling findings, the authors say, pertained to suicidal intent and victimization experiences. The study found that registered children were four times as likely to report a recent suicide attempt in the last 30 days, compared to nonregistered children. Registered children were nearly twice as likely to have experienced a sexual assault and were five times as likely to have been approached by an adult for sex in the past year. Registered children also reported higher rates of other mental health problems, more peer relationship problems, more experiences with peer violence and a lower sense of safety.

The findings, which were published online last week in the journal Psychology, Public Policy and Law, highlight the consequences of placing children on sex offender registries.

“The process of subjecting children to sex offender registration and notification requirements not only conveys to the child that he or she is worthless, it also essentially alerts the rest of the world that a child has engaged in an illegal sexual behavior,” says study lead Elizabeth Letourneau, PhD, a professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Mental Health and director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse. “Not only is this policy stigmatizing and distressing, but it may make children vulnerable to unscrupulous or predatory adults who use the information to target registered children for sexual assault.”

Thirty-eight states subject children under age 18 to sex offender registration for offenses adjudicated in juvenile court while all states subject children to sex offender registration for offenses adjudicated in adult court (i.e., when children are waived to criminal court). This practice has been controversial from its beginnings in the mid-1990s due to concerns about the stigmatizing effects of labeling children—often for life—as “sex offenders.”

For the study, the researchers surveyed 256 children ages 12 to 17 across 18 states who had received treatment services for engaging in harmful and/or illegal sexual behaviors. Of these, 74 had been required to register as sexual offenders and/or subjected to public notification in which law enforcement alerted others to the child’s status as a registered offender. Some children were even included on public sex offender registry websites. Five girls were included in the sample, although analyses were ultimately reported only for the 251 boys. Compared to nonregistered children in this study, registered children had worse outcomes on measures assessing mental health problems, peer relationships, safety and exposure to sexual and nonsexual violence.

To identify registered and nonregistered children for this study, researchers obtained referrals from frontline practitioners (e.g., psychologists, counselors, social workers) who treat children for problem sexual behaviors. Children completed surveys by phone, on hard copies or on computers and steps were taken to assure confidentiality. Most of the children identified as male (98 percent) and were on average 15 years old. Half were white, more than one-quarter were African American and 18 percent identified as Hispanic. Most participants, 86 percent, identified as heterosexual.

“Policymakers have argued that if sex offender registration improves community safety it is worth the costs associated with it, which begs the question, does registrations work? Does it make communities safer? The answer is a resounding no,” says Letourneau. “On top of that, our study suggests that these requirements may place children at risk of the very type of abuse the policy seeks to prevent, among other serious negative consequences. Our hope is that this study will convince even more policymakers that the time has come to abandon juvenile registration.”.

Previous research by Letourneau and others demonstrates that less than three percent of children adjudicated for a sexual offense go on to commit another. However, despite numerous studies, including this one, that have evaluated the effects of sex offender registration and notification policies, none have found any evidence that suggests that such policies prevent sexual abuse and assault or make communities safer and, in fact, the results from this study suggest that these policies may be harmful to children.

Previous research has examined the unintended effects of sex offender registration and notification on adults. This is the first study to look at the effects of registration policies on children.

“Effects of juvenile sex offender registration on child well-being: An empirical examination” was written by Elizabeth J. Letourneau, PhD; Andrew Harris, PhD; Ryan Shields, PhD; Scott Walfield, PhD; Geoff Kahn, MSPH; Amanda Ruzicka, MA; and Cierra Buckman, MHS.

The research was funded by the Open Society Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse.

Media contacts:
Johns Hopkins Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse: Stephanie Neal at 443-839-0478 or stephanieneal@jhu.edu.
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Barbara Benham at 410-614-6029 or bbenham1@jhu.edu.

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By Dr. Rebecca Fix

ATSA’s 36th Annual Research and Treatment Conference was held last month in Kansas City, MO. This year’s theme was Creating Balance. The theme emphasizes the need for the field of child sexual abuse intervention to strive toward equilibrium, as researchers and clinicians in the field may have competing interests. ATSA believes that by grounding ourselves in evidence-based research and treatment practices, we can strengthen our field while extending the scope of our work, thus creating balance.

The following are five main takeaways from the 2017 ATSA conference. I hope you find these takeaways inspiring and thought-provoking as you attend your next conference, prepare for your next client, develop your next research project idea, or just think about child sexual abuse.

1) The importance of language. While the field of psychology as a whole recognizes the importance of using person-first language, certain specialty fields within psychology are lagging behind in comprehensive adoption of such practices. In Nicole Pittman’s plenary session, she made a clearly reasoned call for the use of person-first language with children involved in juvenile justice. For example, instead of saying “juvenile offender”, “youth with harmful sexual behaviors” is preferable.

2) The utility of social media. Not only do ATSA members care about technology as it relates to child sexual abuse (e.g., via sexting, pornography exposure and access), we are moving toward greater social media usage. This allows us to better disseminate information to the general public as well.

3) National movements impact professional organizations. Even highly specialized professional organizations like ATSA have been impacted by movements like #BlackLivesMatter. We held a breakthrough forum on how to increase representation at ATSA and to reduce disparities in our field.

4) Multidisciplinary collaboration is key. To change policies, we need voices from many backgrounds. Researchers, attorneys, clinicians, probation officers and advocates were among the many professionals who came together to discuss policy change, especially eliminating juvenile sex offender registration and notification.

5) Movement toward child sexual abuse prevention. For far too long, the field of research on child sexual abuse has focused on after-the-fact interventions for survivors of child sexual abuse and individuals who have sexually abused. While the focus on prevention began in 2010, preventative efforts are still new to the field and are being promoted with greater intensity than ever before.

Luciana Assini MeytinLuciana Assini Meytin, PhD, joined the Moore Center as a research associate this summer. In her role, she collaborates in the development and implementation of research projects and assists in the dissemination of research findings.

“My research has been focused on the long-term consequences of adolescent parenthood and pathways to positive outcomes, including determinants of socioeconomic attainment among teen mothers and teen fathers in their adulthood. I am particularly interested in prevention science, life course research and gender differences in mental health outcomes,” says Meytin.

Prior to joining the Moore Center, she was a doctoral candidate and research assistant at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, College Park.   

“I was particularly drawn to the Moore Center’s research that has shifted the study of child sexual abuse from a reactive focus to a more comprehensive approach that emphasizes the need for primary prevention programs. The idea of focusing prevention efforts on potential perpetrators was very new to me. It was surprising to learn that some individuals struggle with sexual desire for young children, yet never act on it,” says Meytin.

Meytin earned a PhD in Public Health from the University of Maryland, College Park. Before that she earned a BS and MS in Psychology from the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil.

When she’s not at work, Meytin enjoys long walks with her dog and spending time with friends and family.

See the list of the Moore Center staff here.

Dr. Letourneau and Fr. RosicaOn October 4, 2017, Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau gave a talk at the World Congress for Child Dignity in the Digital World, a conference that brought together leaders and researchers from around the world to discuss the dangers of children becoming victims of online sexual abuse and bullying. The conference took place in Vatican City and was convened by the Child Protection Centre at the Pontifical Gregorian University. (Featured at left: Dr. Letourneau and Fr. Thomas Rosica.)

Dr. Letourneau’s talk was one of the few that introduced the idea of prevention and the importance of viewing child sexual abuse as a public health issue. She also discussed how most of our efforts in the U.S. go toward detection and punishment.

Minimum sentencing, sex offender registration and living restrictions are all policies that have been implemented after harm has already been done. None of these costly policies prevent child sexual abuse.

Another important concept that Dr. Letourneau covered was the idea that as long as we view people who sexually abuse children as monsters, we are going to overlook the people in our children’s lives that we would never suspect: coaches, priests, teachers and family friends are more likely to sexually abuse our children than strangers. We wrongly believe that people that hurt children are on a trajectory toward more offending and greater harm, when in fact, once caught, people who commit sex offences have very low risk of committing other sex offenses.

Watch Dr. Letourneau’s talk here.

Headlines about child sexual abuse prevention, research and policy from around the country

World Congress Child Dignity

Last week Dr. Letourneau, along with other researchers in the field of child sexual abuse prevention, attended this event held in Vatican City and convened by the Gregorian University's Center for Child Protection.

Dallas County’s Sex Offender Program is Letting Teens Down

State watchdog group issues report that details horrific negligence in the Dallas County Juvenile Department.

Halloween sex offender hysteria is starting early this year (see the long list of Patch.com’s sex offender maps)

  • Moore Prevention News: The Biggest Danger to Kids on Halloween is Drivers, not Sex Offenders.  Dr. Letourneau’s study looked at whether more sex offenses occur on Halloween night. The study found that there is no significant risk for child sexual abuse. The greatest risk to children on Halloween night is getting hurt by drivers who may not be able to see them in the dark.

Michigan’s Sex Offender Registry Needs Reform

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that the state cannot apply the sex offender registry laws to people retroactively. Michigan will have to revise the registry.

California Sex Offender Registry Laws to Change

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law that could purge 90 percent of the names off the state’s lifetime registry for sex offenders.

Colorado Lawmakers May Change Sex Offender Registry 

Lawmakers are reconsidering the fairness of the state’s sex offender laws