Skip Navigation

Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse

Keyword: prevention

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.

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:

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.

Age of OpportunityAre you raising a pre-teen or teen? Do you work or interact with these special beings?  If so, I highly recommend reading Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence by Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Temple University and a leading expert in adolescent brain development, risk-taking and decision-making behaviors.  With this wonderfully written book, Steinberg synthesizes the research on adolescents and distills it into actionable recommendations for parents and for reforming our high schools and juvenile justice systems. This book provides a brilliant analysis of why kids behave the way they do, and why we as parents and community members need to ensure the love, support and scaffolding kids need in order to not only stay safe but to thrive. 

Dr. Steinberg’s basic premise is that “adolescence now lasts longer than ever, and the adolescent brain is surprisingly malleable. These new discoveries make this time of life crucial in determining a person’s ultimate success and happiness.”  Many of us recognize the importance of the early years (zero to three) for cognitive development, but adolescence is another time when brain development ramps up.

In particular, Steinberg argues that teens are wired to take risks, are more sensitive to rewards, and are less inhibited.  Moreover, their self-regulation skills have a “now you see it, now you don’t” quality that so many of us have witnessed in ourselves and in our own kids.  In a structured, supervised setting, this combination of qualities can propel adolescents to greater achievement – making them more likely to take riskier, harder courses at school or to take on challenging extracurricular activities.  But in an unstructured, unsupervised setting - such as those hours that fall between the end of school day and the end of parents’ workday - this combination of qualities is a recipe for disaster. 

During unstructured, unmonitored time, some youth will engage in sexual behaviors and some of those behaviors will be developmentally inappropriate or even illegal.  Apart from the qualities Steinberg notes, youth also receive little in the way of helpful instruction around healthy sexual behavior.  For example, how many of you have explicitly told your pre-teens and teens that they should never touch a younger child’s penis or vagina?  We rarely provide this type of information, assuming that twelve, thirteen and fourteen year olds somehow know better.  They don’t, and that ignorance, combined with the strong pull of sexual desire, insufficient self-regulation, and insufficient adult monitoring leads to many youth engaging in exactly this type of behavior.  They then face juvenile (and sometimes adult) adjudication and severe post-adjudication consequences like lifetime, public sex offender registration. 

Keeping low-risk youth out of the juvenile justice system by ensuring that they never engage in illegal sexual behavior with younger children is the aim of one of our Center’s research project, in which we hope to develop a universal prevention program targeting young adolescent boys and their parents. For more information about this and other research projects, please visit our website.

Our goal with this and all our projects is to develop a culture of prevention so that, ultimately, fewer children are victimized and fewer youth face life-altering consequences for harmful but often transient and certainly preventable behaviors. It is up to all of us to make sure all our children are given every chance to reach their full potential. 

Help WantedFrom a quick scan of headlines related to child sexual abuse, it’s clear that the public often thinks about sexual abuse perpetrators as monsters. Perhaps it’s easier to think of them as inhuman and to think of child sexual abuse as inevitable rather than believe that these crimes are 100 percent preventable. (I wrote about this “monster frame” in an earlier blog where I reviewed Channel 4’s recent documentary “The Pedophile Next Door.”)

At the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse, our mission is to support and conduct research that betters our understanding of child sexual abuse, educate policymakers and the public, and cultivate partnerships with organizations to develop proven strategies that prevent child sexual abuse.  In order to further our understanding of what causes child sexual abuse, we’re launching a research project called Help Wanted.

The purpose of Help Wanted is to bring 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. 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.

The idea that anyone who is attracted to children will become an offender is hopeless and unhelpful. This view hampers efforts to provide treatment services and/or promote efforts aimed at stopping abuse before a child is harmed. Through our work we hope to change the way this issue is discussed and create a better understanding of interventions that work to prevent child sexual abuse.

To read more about this project’s scope and goals, please click here.