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Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse

Date: Sep 2015

YouthLately, there have been a lot of news stories about kids committing “sex crimes.” In Pikesville, MD, a middle school boy was charged with assault for kissing a fellow student on a dare.  Another headline-grabbing news story was the North Carolina high school student who was charged with sexual exploitation for taking nude pictures… of himself.

A criminal justice response isn’t necessarily the best course of action to take with youth who have acted like the kids mentioned above, and besides, once a crime has been committed, the harm has already occurred. At the Moore Center, we know that the best way to end child sexual abuse is to prevent it through evidence-based, primary prevention programs aimed at potential perpetrators while also making parents and guardians better equipped to keep kids safe.

Below are some quick facts about youth charged with sex offenses.

  • Research suggests that about half of child sexual abuse cases are perpetrated by juveniles under 18, and these offenses occur for a variety of reasons.
  • The efficacy of sex offender registration and notification policies is questionable. Of 14 recent studies examining policy effects on violent and/or sexual recidivism, 10 reported no significant effects, two reported reduced sexual and violent recidivism that may be attributable to policy effects and one reported an increase in sexual recidivism. (Sex Offender Registration and Notification Policy Increases Juvenile Plea Bargains. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. 2012. Elizabeth J. Letourneau, et al. Sage Publishing).
  • We don’t yet know the consequences of placing youth offenders on the sex offender registry, but we’re currently researching this.
  • Preliminary findings suggest that registration and public notification polices may be associated with mental health problems and may disrupt school experiences and social relationships – all risk factors that increase the likelihood of future criminal activity.
  • Family members, including caregivers and siblings, may also face a range of collateral consequences including harassment and compassion fatigue.  

Once our research project studying the effects of placing youth offenders on the sex offender registry concludes, will have additional information to add to the list above.  In the meantime, see an interview with Dr. Ryan T. Shields, assistant scientist at the Moore Center, on Fox 45 Baltimore speaking about the criminal response to the Pikesville middle school boy’s assault charges.

ResearchWhen it comes to clarifying popular myths, making new assertions rather than restating the commonly held myth is more effective. Researches found that denials and clarifications can reinforce popular myths rather then dispel them.

Joan Tabachnick, a good friend and smart colleague, recently reposted the article “Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach” by Shankar Vedantam published in the Washington Post in 2007 to the ATSA list serve. It's a good reminder for us that if we want people to understand the reality of sexual offending, we should avoid framing the issue around the myths the public already believes.

Here is the take-away last paragraph: 

“Mayo found that rather than deny a false claim, it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth. Rather than say, as Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) recently did during a marathon congressional debate, that ‘Saddam Hussein did not attack the United States; Osama bin Laden did,’ Mayo said it would be better to say something like, ‘Osama bin Laden was the only person responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks’ -- and not mention Hussein at all.”

Read the entire article here. 

Civil Commitment

A recent editorial in the New York Times (“Sex Offenders Locked Up on A Hunch”) critiqued the usefulness of indefinite civil commitment for sex offenders and suggested that we should redirect resources from civil commitment toward community supervision. However, whether society commits indefinitely or enhances supervision, a child has already been harmed. Instead of directing more resources toward supervision, we need to invest in new approaches to stop child sexual abuse before it happens.

How can we prevent child sexual abuse? Research suggests that about half of child sexual abuse cases are perpetrated by juveniles under 18, and these offenses occur for a variety of reasons. Rather than solely funding after-the-fact approaches, scarce public dollars would be better spent researching and developing evidence-based, primary prevention programs that strengthen families’ ability to protect children from victimization and teach youth at risk for first-time perpetrating about responsible behavior with young children. This approach is consistent with the epidemiology of child sexual abuse and is similar to other kinds of violence prevention programs currently in practice.

We can no longer wait until harm has occurred before we respond. The stakes are too high.

Kenny FederKenny Feder recently joined the Moore Center team and is a PhD candidate in the Department of Mental Health. He received a BA from Wesleyan University in 2012 and majored in both Physics and Psychology. After graduating, he completed a Fellowship at Connecticut Voices for Children, a think tank that uses research and advocacy to promote policies in the best interests of Connecticut's children.

“For most of my time at Voices, my work focused on defending the rights of children in the State's foster care system. This work was rewarding, but also frustrating, because while a lot was being done to support victims of abuse and neglect, very little was being done to actually prevent abuse and neglect in the first place. This sparked my interest in public health and prevention research,” he says.

Kenny relocated to Baltimore this month and will start his PhD program in the fall. Having friends in Baltimore has helped his transition, and he sees many similarities with his native Philadelphia.

“Baltimore is similar to Philly in a lot of ways, most of all because it has so many neighborhoods, each with a distinctive character. I'm enjoying the process of getting to know the little cities within the city,” he says.

Kenny believes that his work with Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau at the Moore Center over the next few years will give him the experience and opportunity to combine his interest in public health policy and his desire to make communities safer for vulnerable children.

“I came to Hopkins because of the opportunity to work on sexual abuse prevention at the Moore Center. In my experience, child sexual abuse seems so scary and intractable that even professional advocates often shy away from the topic. At the Moore Center, we want to use research and evidence to change the way the public thinks about child sexual abuse from inevitable to preventable,” he says.

Kenny also brings with him a passion for teaching, playing music and singing. “I worked as a middle school physics teacher in an enrichment program for high-achieving, low-income students from Philadelphia. I was also involved with arts and music at Wesleyan, performing in a few plays and directing a student a cappella group. I love music, and I play the guitar and sing. I'm hoping I have the time to keep that up once I dive into the PhD program.”

True to his high-achieving nature, Kenny is already looking ahead to life after Hopkins. “I think I could be happy working in academia, a think tank or in a public health or child welfare agency, and in my dream world, I'd like to spend time working in each of the three. But regardless of where I do it, what I want to do is work to prevent childhood victimization.”