Abstract: Exploring the Relationships Between Trauma, Dissociation, and Juvenile Sexual Offending (Society for Social Work and Research 14th Annual Conference: Social Work Research: A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES)

12428 Exploring the Relationships Between Trauma, Dissociation, and Juvenile Sexual Offending

Saturday, January 16, 2010: 10:00 AM
Garden Room A (Hyatt Regency)
* noted as presenting author
George Leibowitz, PhD , University of Vermont, Assistant Professor, Burlington, VT
David L. Burton, PhD , Smith College, Asst Professor, Northampton, MA
Purpose: The contemporary dissociation literature has examined the association between exposure to traumatic stress and dissociative phenomena, e.g., alterations in conscious experience and breakdown in psychological functioning (van der Hart, Nijenhuis, & Steele, 2005;Vermetten, Dorahy, & Spiegel, 2007). Adolescents may activate dissociation as a defensive system and cognitive strategy to alleviate traumatic memories, and dissociative symptomatology related to previous abuse may occur in the context of subsequent offending behavior (Becker-Blease & Freyd, 2007; Moskowitz, 2004; Stein, 2007). Despite findings that the rates of sexual victimization among male sexual abusers are significantly higher than among generally delinquent youth (Burton, Miller, & Shill, 2002), and that victimization may begin the sequence of delinquency (Finkelhor, 2008), there is a paucity of research on dissociation among sexually abusive youth. The present study explored the relationship between five types of trauma and dissociation among a large sample of male sexually abusive youth and delinquent adolescents. Additionally, using logistic regression models we tested whether dissociation contributed to a significant incremental improvement in the prediction of sexual and nonsexual offending when the types of victimization were included in the model.

Method: Survey data were collected from two racially/ethnically diverse groups of sexually abusive youth (n=332) and nonsexually abusive delinquent male adolescents (n=170) with an average age of 16.6 (SD=1.53) in court-ordered residential treatment. This study used standardized instruments that assessed various types of child maltreatment (Childhood Trauma Questionnaire; Bernstein & Fink, 1998), and that evaluated aspects of posttraumatic stress and dissociation (Trauma Symptom Checklist 40; Elliot & Briere, 1992).

Results: The juvenile sexual offender group had significantly higher dissociation mean scores than the general delinquent group (t395d.f.=-7.165 (p<.001). The strength of the correlations between the abuse variables and dissociation was moderate. Emotional neglect was negatively correlated (r=-.09) with dissociation, however, it was not statistically significant. Logistic regression analysis indicated that dissociation was significant in predicting sexual offender status (χ2=41.38, df=1, p < .001). Moreover, dissociation, sexual victimization, and physical abuse showed significant effects in predicting membership in the sexual offender group.

Implications: The results of this study have implications for the assessment and treatment of sexually abusive youth, and dissociation may preliminarily be viewed as one of several extant links to sexual misconduct. Dissociation seems a valid treatment target in addition to trauma symptomatology for some sexually abusive youth. Since various phenomena exhibited by victimized adolescents, such as attentional problems and sexual behavioral problems, can be related to dissociation, it is important to develop appropriate clinical assessments and individualized treatment goals that address an adolescent's vulnerability to dissociation. Etiological and clinical implications will be discussed. Given that about a third of professionals who make up the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) are social workers, this research focusing on traumatic sequelae, and the factors contributing to sexually abusive behavior is very pertinent to the field.