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Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse

Keyword: child sexual abuse

USA GymnasticsRecent coverage (see Indianapolis Star, Washington Post and National Public Radio) of child sexual abuse allegations within USA Gymnastics and their policy of systematically disregarding accusations from bystanders, during which time numerous young gymnasts were abused by multiple coaches over the course of decades, is a sobering reminder that institutions too often fail in their responsibility to protect children from sexual abuse. This investigation should motivate other youth-serving organizations to adopt and maintain best practices that can prevent the sexual abuse of children. Indeed, how organizations respond to the first allegation can set the stage for whether child sexual abuse is prevented or promoted.

This is a lesson that every organization should have learned after the 2012 Penn State child sexual abuse scandal. Yes, we know that it’s very hard for people to respond to allegations of child sexual abuse when the offender is someone who is well known and respected in their community, but failing to do so creates an environment that places children at risk. This is why it is essential for youth-serving organizations to implement and enforce best practices for protecting children.

For example, mandatory reporting policies require that if you’re employed by an organization that serves children, you have a duty to report any and all cases of suspected child sexual abuse to authorities. Since USA Gymnastics is considered a youth-serving organization, their policy that child sexual abuse allegations are dismissed as hearsay if reported by someone other than a victim or parent clearly violates this responsibility.  

Right now, most sex crime policies in the United States focus on punishing the perpetrators after the fact. But there is much more we could do to study and test programs and policies for preventing abuse in the first place. In the meantime, organizations must place the wellbeing of children above organizational prestige and adopt best practices that we know can help keep our children safe.

Help WantedWe are pleased to announce that the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse received a one-year grant for $50,000 from Raliance – a collaborative initiative dedicated to ending sexual violence in one generation. This grant will help fund our “Help Wanted” project that aims to reduce perpetration of sexual violence by developing a web-based prevention intervention for adolescents sexually attracted to children that will also include additional resources for families and practitioners.

“Securing funding for our ‘Help Wanted’ project has been an up-hill battle, in part because there aren’t as many resources available to study prevention science as there are to address the aftermath of child sexual abuse – victim services and punishment for offenders, for example,” says Ryan Shields, assistant scientist at the Moore Center and the project’s principal investigator. “With funding from Raliance, we are excited to begin the next phase of 'Help Wanted'.”

“Help Wanted” is the Center’s flagship prevention project that aims to create a highly effective prevention intervention that is available to all youth who are attracted to children. The main goals of the intervention are to reduce the risk that adolescents attracted to children will act out on those attractions and to enhance their own healthy development.

Raliance was recently founded by three leading sexual violence prevention organizations – the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA)-PreventConnect and the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence (NAESV). The organization will serve as the central hub for effective allocation and distribution of programmatic funding for sexual violence response and prevention efforts.

As its first initiative, Raliance has funded 27 projects – including “Help Wanted” – totaling nearly $1.2 million in the first round of an ongoing grant program. This initiative is made possible through a multiyear, $10 million commitment from the National Football League (NFL). 

Register Now

Register now for our fourth annual symposium on Thursday, April 21, 2016 at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. 

This year's symposium will highlight the unique experiences of families dealing with child sexual abuse. International and national experts in the field of child sexual abuse prevention will present their latest research findings as they pertain to the family impact of child sexual abuse. Our panel discussion will include the perspectives of both parents of child victims and youth with problem sexual behaviors with a special focus on understanding how family members are affected by child sexual abuse.

  • Special Guest Speaker: Jennifer Bleyer, senior editor and writer for Psychology Today, will speak about her recent work on child sexual abuse prevention and moderate our panel. Other featured speakers will highlight the science of child sexual abuse prevention.
  • Lunch and Learn: Please join us for a luncheon and talk by Dr. Ryan Shields who will present the latest findings in our Help Wanted study and take questions from the audience. For more information, click here.
  • Child Maltreatment Poster Session: Please join us for our free poster session and dessert featuring research by graduate and undergraduate students. The session will begin at 12:45 pm in Feinstone Hall (E2030) and all are welcome. Winners will be announced at the end of the day. For more information and to submit a poster, click here.

Questions? Please direct all questions to Amanda Ruzicka at aruzicka@jhu.edu.

Dr. Andrew HarrisAndrew Harris, PhD recently presented at our 2015 symposium, Child Sexual Abuse: A Public Health Perspective. He defined the polarization in sexual offender policy by the way each side perceives the other. Proponents on one side see the other as reactive, punitive, resistant to evidence, and inclined toward kneejerk reactions. On the other side, advocates see researchers as soft on offenders and detached from reality. While one side may be convinced that legislators aren’t very sensitive to the evidence on effective prevention and treatment, the other would claim that research is out of touch with the pragmatic reality that law enforcement and other practitioners see on a day-to-day basis.

The challenge, Harris said, is to move beyond a bilateral framework, in which the response to child sexual abuse is based either on criminal justice or public health and human services. When the options are set that starkly, policy and program decisions become an arbitrary choice between:

  • Criminal justice policies driven mostly by top-down statutes, grounded in law enforcement, courts, correctional institutions, and probation and parole agencies, and attentive to prevention primarily as a tertiary activity
  • Public health and human service policies driven mostly by ground-up practice and programs, grounded in health agencies, school systems, youth-serving organizations, community and religious institutions, and families, and more comprehensive in their approach to primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention.

Justice-based policy responses to sexual violence fall into two streams—investigation, enforcement, and interdiction, and perpetrator sentencing and management—with the first one tracing its roots back to the Mann Act of 1910. “The Federal Bureau of Investigation was formed that year,” Harris said, “and until Prohibition, its main mandate was to enforce the laws against white slavery.” That role has continued to evolve, with the adoption and subsequent amendment of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 and, over the last few years, the rapid expansion of state laws against human trafficking.

The federal effort to disrupt child pornography and, later, Internet-based exploitation began with the 1977 Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation Act and culminated in the 2008 PROTECT ACT and KIDS ACT. On a parallel track, state sentencing and management initiatives date back to sexual psychopath laws and first-generation sex offender registries in the 1930s and 1940s, followed more recently by civil commitment, sentencing reform, and community notification laws beginning in 1990.

Increasingly, Harris said state civil commitment strategies “basically mean wrapping people up and incarcerating them so they can’t harm anyone. By 2014, an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 sexual offenders in 21 states had been committed under mental hygiene laws, with post-release confinement based on their assessed levels of mental abnormality and the threat they posed to the community. After 25 years of program experience, the principal problem is that it’s “very easy to get people in. It’s not very easy to let them out,” Harris said. That means the state pays $100,000 per person, per year for civil commitment, compared to $20,000 for mental health treatment.

Many states have also opted for longer, tougher mandatory sentences, with more limited discretion in sentencing and less allowance for parole or “good time” credits. Between 1993 and 2009, according to National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP) data, median months served before first prison release increased 70 percent for offenders convicted of rape and 52 percent for perpetrators of other forms of sexual assault, compared to 33 percent for all offenses and 26 percent for all violent offenses.

“The net result is that sexual offenders grew 50 percent as a percentage of state prison populations over two decades, from 8.2 percent in 1991 to 12.4 percent in 2011,” Harris said. Sexual offenders under institutional or formal community supervision included 161,000 state prisoners, 13,500 federal inmates, 3,000 to 4,000 under civil commitment, and 202,000 under parole or probation supervision.

In the community, lifetime supervision with electronic monitoring has been mandated for a subset of high-risk offenders, but law enforcement is following a whole other, larger group to enforce statutory restrictions on residence, employment, loitering, and use of the Internet and social media. “There’s really no other categorical group of offenders” to which such restrictions apply after they’ve served their terms in prison, he noted, and the monitoring provisions lead to mission creep between parole agencies and law enforcement.

Harris reviewed the trends in offender registration and community notification laws in 1990, noting that all 50 states had systems in place by the end of that decade. The federal role expanded between 1994 and 2006, and states passed 312 pieces of legislation between 2008 and 2013 that were in some way related to offender registries.

The jury is still out on whether these initiatives are effective, but the direction of public policy is set in part by the proportion of Americans who believe sex crimes have become more frequent, less frequent, or stayed the same in the last 20 years: Incidence has actually declined, but only 6 percent of survey respondents answer the question correctly.

“Opportunity begins with talking about it,” Harris said, and high-profile cases like the arrest and trial of ex-football coach Jerry Sandusky have “made people take a much broader, more grounded view of this issue.” Ultimately, children’s safety and well-being will be protected by an integrated approach that combines offender sentencing and management, investigation and enforcement, early intervention, community dialogue, strengthening families, and victim support. Watch Dr. Harris' presentation here. To read more presentation recaps, click here.

Andrew Harris, PhD, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Programs, College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Massachusetts Lowell

Drs. Ryan Shields and Elizabeth LetourneauI’m thrilled that Dr. Ryan Shields and I were featured in this month’s issue of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Magazine. The article, Safer Harbors: Emphasizing Prevention Over Punishment, wonderfully written by Maryalice Yakutchik, discusses our newest research project on Safe Harbor legislation, which we’re launching soon.

Safe Harbor laws protect children who have been arrested for prostitution by directing them to supportive services and shielding them from prosecution. There are still too many people who believe that children in these instances are not victims, but are committing adult offences and should be charged accordingly. For more on this research, be sure to download Child Sex Trafficking in the United States: Identifying Gaps and Research Priorities from a Public Health Perspective, a white paper that resulted from a symposium with the Advisory Council on Child Trafficking (ACCT).

I’m glad to see more news coverage of Safe Harbor laws and child sex trafficking in the last few months. From lawmakers in Georgia pushing for stronger penalties for sex trafficking while protecting child victims to traction in the federal government by Senator Chuck Grassley from Iowa co-sponsoring the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act in Congress, this topic is important and more than ever, we are coming to agreement that children who are victims of sex trafficking should be shielded from arrest and given the support they desperately need.