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Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse

Date: Nov 2015

help wantedYou may have seen recent stories about the German prevention project Dunkelfeld that offers treatment to people who are sexually attracted to prepubescent children. This treatment philosophy is a marked departure from how we in the US have typically prevented child sexual abuse: by target-hardening children and strengthening sex offender registration and notification policies that are meant to prevent future abuse but aren’t effective.

Our current study, Help Wanted, conducted by Elizabeth Letourneau, PhD, director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is one of three youth and family-focused research projects that are developing prevention efforts that target specific populations at risk of offending.

In the Help Wanted study, we’re conducting qualitative interviews with a little known or understood population: young adults attracted to prepubescent children, but who have not committed abuse. Many of these people have said that they recognized their attraction in adolescence, but did not know what to do. We want to find out how young people manage this attraction and develop an intervention for those adolescents who are looking for help.

Help Wanted Goals

  • Why? People often think of sexual abuse perpetrators as predatory monsters. This idea is reinforced in the media when stories frame pedophiles as inhuman and anyone attracted to children as an inevitable offender. This hopeless view hampers efforts to provide treatment services and/or promote efforts aimed at stopping abuse before a child is harmed.
  • Purpose: We’re bringing experts from law enforcement, therapy, victim advocacy, prevention, research and policy together to identify strategies to help youth attracted to children avoid acting on those interests.
  • Vision: This project is designed to create a safe place for young people to seek effective professional intervention early, to ensure that they have the skills and resources needed to prevent them from harming children and to equip them to develop in healthy ways that are safe for all involved.
  • Aim: We aim to develop, rigorously evaluate and broadly disseminate an effective prevention intervention for youth attracted to children that will be one step in our mission to prevent, and ultimately end, child sexual abuse.

Media Coverage:

PreventionIf you happened to listen to NPR last Monday, Nov. 2 when they aired this story, “What Happens if You Try to Prevent Every Single Suicide?” perhaps you were also struck at the similarities between suicide prevention and child sexual abuse prevention.

While there’s been a decline in the national homicide rate since the 1990s, suicide has been steadily increasing. In Detroit, to reduce the number of suicides, at-risk populations (people being treated for depression and other mental illnesses) have been targeted and assigned to appropriate care depending on initial screenings used to indicate how likely they might be to attempt suicide. This proactive approach is a marked departure from the past 15 years.

“The plan […] is intensive and thorough, an almost cookbook approach. Primary care doctors screen every patient with two questions: How often have you felt down in the past two weeks? And how often have you felt little pleasure in doing things? A high score leads to more questions about sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, thoughts of hurting oneself. All patients are questioned on every visit.

If the health providers recognize a mental health problem, patients are assigned to appropriate care — cognitive behavioral therapy, drugs, group counseling, or hospitalization if necessary. On each patient's medical record, providers have to attest to having done the screening, and they record plans for any needed care.”

Like suicide, child sexual abuse carries significant shame. In order to change beliefs and attitudes around both suicide and child sexual abuse, we need to continue to stigmatize the behavior while destigmiatizing asking for help. And like suicide prevention, we need to change the conversation from the idea that suicide and child sexual abuse are inevitable (“we can’t prevent them all”) to the belief that both are, in fact, 100% preventable with a targeted, evidence-based prevention program aimed at at-risk populations.