Protective Factors and Recidivism in Adolescents Accused of Sexual Offenses

» Posted by on Dec 18, 2014 in Alpha Blog | 0 comments

by Steven Bengis, David S. Prescott, and Joan Tabachnick

The Question
Is there any statistically significant correlation between protective factors and desistance from sexually abusive behaviors in adolescents?

The Research
Most of the research and assessment tools for sexually abusive behaviors have focused on risk factors for sexually abusive behaviors. Among adolescent research, less information is available about protective factors for these behaviors. In this recently published article, Verena Klein, Martin Rettenberger, Dahlnym Yoon, Nora Köhler and Peer Briken reported on their study of 71 teenagers accused of some form of sexual abuse for an average of four years. They explored whether there was any predictive accuracy that would link protective factors with desistance from sexual crimes. Like others before them, they suggest that this tight focus on just the risk factors for recidivism may not consider motivational aspects of criminal behavior or offer opportunities to intervene to change the development trajectory of these adolescents.

Their extensive literature review identified a number of factors that have contributed to minimizing violent behaviors and in some cases protect against engagement in sexually aggressive behavior. Previous studies, while few, showed that some protective factors were correlated with reduced psychopathological problems among youth who sexually offended.

With these limited but encouraging results, the authors chose to explore protective factors using the Structured Assessment of Violence Risk in Youth (SAVRY: Borum, Bartel & Forth, 2001) and the Structured Assessment of PROtective Factors for violence risk (SAPROF: de Vogel, et al., 2009) instruments to measure the protective factors. The SAPROF in particular examines 17 items which are divided into three scales: 1) internal items that characterize the individual (e.g., secure attachment, empathy), 2) motivational (e.g., work, leisure activities, attitude towards authority), and 3) environmental factors (e.g., social networks, living circumstances).

They found that the protective factors measured by the SAVRY showed no predictive accuracy. However, the SAPROF protective factors did indicate moderate validity for violence and general recidivism, but no relationship with sexual recidivism. The authors state that further research is needed, with a particular focus on intelligence and self-control, factors not fully explored with the SAVRY and SAPROF. Finally, while these results might lead some to believe that there is no value in examining protective factors, the authors suggest that these factors can continue to have value in counteracting the risk and deficit orientations of many assessment tools and help to improve the important relationship between client and clinician. Indeed, while professionals have sought to build strengths and develop capacities for many years, research in this area remains in its infancy.

Although this initial research did not show a strong relationship between protective factors and the likelihood of living safely in the community, the authors highlighted the value of examining what is good in a client’s life (e.g., protective factors) as well as the need for further research.

Implications for Professionals
Although this research showed that there is not yet enough evidence to use protective factors in any risk assessment protocol for sexually abusive behaviors, it does not remove our obligation to look at protective factors in our broader assessments and treatment interventions. In the absence of more extensive research to guide our decision-making, judicious use of available information is part the art of engaging with individual clients. Given that risk is developmental, contextual and systemically influenced, the task becomes even more complex. As we shift our focus from exclusively on prediction to treatment and prevention, a broad pallet of information can assist all of us in making better and better decisions about the best intervention and risk management approaches.

Implications for the Field
Although the researcher notes that this study will not be helpful to defining risk in adolescents, they state that this information remains useful to understanding the complex interface between context, development and intervention as well as to establishing a positive relationship with the client. Although there is a dearth of research into protective factors that have the greatest impact on safe outcomes, we owe it to victims, the community and our clients to craft the most effective individual treatment and intervention plans possible. Further research to guide those decisions would be most welcome and our field needs to support that effort.

To date, research on juvenile sexual offender recidivism has tended to focus on risk factors rather than protective factors. Therefore, very little is known about protective factors in the population of juveniles who sexually offended. The aim of the present study was to examine the impact of protective factors on non-recidivism in a sample of accused juveniles who sexually offended (N = 71) in a mean follow-up period of 47.84 months.

Protective factors were measured with the Protective Factor Scale of the Structured Assessment of Violence Risk in Youth (SAVRY), and the Structured Assessment of PROtective Factors for violence risk (SAPROF). Criminal charges served as recidivism data. The internal scale of the SAPROF, in particular, yielded moderate predictive accuracy for the absence of violent and general recidivism, though not for the absence of sexual recidivism. No protective factor of the SAVRY did reveal predictive accuracy regarding various types of the absence of recidivism. Furthermore, protective factors failed to achieve any significant incremental predictive accuracy beyond that captured by the SAVRY risk factors alone. The potential therapeutic benefit of protective factors in juvenile sexual offender treatment is discussed.

Klein, V., Rettenberger, M., Yoon, D., Köhler, N., and Briken, P. (2014). Protective Factors and Recidivism in Accused Juveniles Who Sexually Offended. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. DOI: 10.1177/1079063214554958.