Abstract: Adverse Childhood Experiences and Sexual Offending (Society for Social Work and Research 20th Annual Conference - Grand Challenges for Social Work: Setting a Research Agenda for the Future)

Adverse Childhood Experiences and Sexual Offending

Friday, January 15, 2016: 9:45 AM
Meeting Room Level-Meeting Room 16 (Renaissance Washington, DC Downtown Hotel)
* noted as presenting author
Jill S. Levenson, PhD, Associate Professor, Barry University, Miami Shores, FL
Melissa D. Grady, PhD, Associate Professor, The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC
Background and Purpose:  Sexual violence is a social problem of concern in our communities. Prior research suggests that perpetrators of sexual violence have higher rates of child maltreatment and family dysfunction than the general population. The purpose of this study was to explore the influence of adverse childhood experiences on characteristics of sexual offenses in a sample of convicted sexual offenders.  Based on developmental theories of criminal behavior, it was hypothesized that higher early adversity scores would be associated with higher levels of sexual deviance and violence.  An additional aim was to determine the predictive influence of various types of childhood adversity on sexually abusive behavior.

Methods: Data were collected from over 700 convicted sexual offenders in outpatient and prison-based treatment programs throughout the U.S.  Measures included the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) scale (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013) which is a 10-item scale in which participants endorse whether or not they had experiences prior to 18 years of age that included: abuse (emotional, physical, and sexual), neglect (emotional and physical), and household dysfunction (domestic violence, unmarried parents, and the presence of a substance-abusing, mentally ill, or in­carcerated member of the household). One's total ACE score is the sum of the items endorsed (range = 0-10). As well, the survey included demographic factors and offense-related characteristics. T-tests were used to compare the mean ACE scores in various categories of interest. Logistic regression was used to examine the influence of ACE items in predicting sexually abusive outcomes.

Results: Significantly higher ACE scores were found for those with male victims, stranger victims, victims under 12 years old, and for those offenders who had used force, weapons, or caused injury during the commission of a sex crime (p < .001). Factors that significantly predicted sexual deviance (male victim, victims under 12) included childhood sexual abuse, unmarried parents, and emotional neglect (p < .001). Factors that significantly predicted violent sexual offending (weapons, injury) included child physical abuse, substance abuse in the childhood home, and having a family member who was incarcerated (p < .001). ACE scores were significantly higher for generalist offenders rather than for those specializing in sexual crime.

 Conclusions and Implications: These findings have implications for trauma-informed sex offender treatment as well as for policies that seek to interrupt the cycle of interpersonal violence for maltreated children. First, the results underscore the need for clinicians treating sex offenders to assess the existence of early adversity and to understand the role of traumatic events in the development of high-risk and abusive behaviors.  In terms of policy, it is well-established that adverse childhood experiences are associated with increased risk for adult psychopathology and criminal behavior. American social policies have historically responded to the problem of child maltreatment by emphasizing the roles of offender punishment and child placement instead of primary prevention. Investing in prevention services for maltreated children and at-risk families is an important step in disrupting the cycle of interpersonal violence and crime in our communities.