We now have added "Informational Posts" which are tidbits of information that may come in handy at some point.

The Sex-Offender Test

7-9-15 National:

Can the Abel Assessment tell if you're a potential child-molester?

D. Gene G. Abel, one of America’s foremost researchers on child molestation, has cultivated an aura of eccentric brilliance. His hair, a tangle of white curls, forks into ample sideburns. He favors loud ties, suspenders, and frumpy little one-liners. “You know,” he said recently, sitting in his Atlanta office, “I’m much more handsome than I appear.”

At 76, Abel has devoted the majority of his psychiatric career to the minds of those whom many consider the least redeemable. He has interviewed thousands of child molesters and run federally funded research projects on how to identify them. He has taught at Columbia and Emory Universities, authored two books and more than 100 articles in scientific journals on child molestation, and testified before the United States Sentencing Commission on the subject of child pornography. But he is best known for the Abel Assessment for Sexual Interest, a test he has refined over the last two decades. When people are accused of sexually abusing children, this computerized test can help to decide their fates—in decisions about probation and parole, in custody battles, and even in criminal trials.

Mental health professionals often spend hours interviewing convicted and alleged child molesters and other sex offenders, but they also rely on measurement tools to gather psychological information that a patient might not want to share: Does he have an innate attraction to children? Is it an exclusive attraction or is he also attracted to adults? Does he have other problematic sexual interests that must also be addressed in therapy?

To answer these questions, clinicians have used a variety of tools, including the polygraph, as well as the penile plethysmograph, a device attached directly to the penis that measures arousal. Both of those tests are invasive and hard to administer; taking the Abel Assessment simply involves answering a questionnaire and viewing a series of pictures on a computer screen. With the information it provides in the form of percentages and graphs, clinicians can make more informed decisions about the best course of treatment. Over the last 20 years, Abel estimates his assessment has been administered more than 170,000 times.

One of those times, 10 years ago, the test was given to Rich B. (The two men in this story who were ordered by courts to take the Abel Assessment asked that I withhold their last names to preserve their privacy.) In the midst of a messy divorce, Rich’s daughter told a counselor that Rich had “felt under her shorts.” Such accusations are not uncommon in custody battles, and psychiatrists tend to be cautious about them since children can be swayed to make such accusations by a parent desperate to win full custody. Rich maintained his innocence, passed a polygraph, and was never charged in a criminal court, but the divorce judge ordered him to undergo an evaluation to determine whether he might be a sexual threat to his daughter. As a part of that evaluation, he took the Abel Assessment.

He started with a list of more than a hundred questions. He was asked whether he was attracted to children (he said no) and whether he was interested in non-traditional sexual situations such as sadism, fetishes, or voyeurism (he said no).

Then Rich was told he would look at a series of 160 images, twice. The first time was just for practice. The second time, he had to rate each image on a scale from one (“disgusting”) to seven (“highly sexually arousing”).

It is impossible to know exactly how these instructions were given, but Rich’s description matches that of the journalist Daniel Bergner, who watched a man take the test for a 2005 New York Times Magazine story. Abel’s company said Rich’s description was partially incorrect but that they could not give me any specifics about the test-taking instructions because it might compromise “the integrity of the assessment protocol.”

Rich said he looked at a series of slides depicting men, women, boys, and girls of different ethnicities and ages, all in various situations and states of undress (though never nude). “One picture was a group of people in a crowd,” Rich told me, “and a man with his hand on a lady’s rear end. You know—it’s kind of crude.” In the New York Times Magazine story, Bergner described some of the photos in detail: “A blond woman in somewhat prim white lingerie; then a clean-cut man in a plaid shirt and khakis; then a boy, who looked to me around 12, straddling a bicycle with a book bag over his shoulder; then a girl around the same age wearing a straw hat and eating strawberries; then a pudgy little girl of maybe 4 in a blue one-piece swimsuit.”

Rich spent about two hours completing the test. The clinician sent his results to Abel’s company in Atlanta. Soon after, they faxed back his scores. Rich didn’t see the paper, but it displayed percentages and graphs the clinician had been trained to interpret. Rich was found to have a slight “sexual interest” in children. When the clinician testified to this in family court, Rich’s lawyer challenged whether the Abel Assessment was a credible way to determine the risk Rich posed to his own daughter.

In the end, Rich’s custody level did not change—he continued having supervised visits with his daughter—but he was suspicious of the test and worried that other divorced fathers might find their own claims to custody imperiled if they scored poorly. He found the prospect of having a decision made about him based not on his actions but on his thoughts to be eerie. He searched on Google for more information and published a page about the test on InnocentDads.org, a website he had created for men in his situation.

From Abel’s writings in scientific journals, Rich learned that the test is based on a theory called “visual reaction time.” There are other psychological tests that measure how fast a subject responds to stimuli, including studies of “implicit associations” related to gender and race, but Abel developed his own system independently. He has never published exactly what his assessment measures—and he claims the methodology is more “complex” than the descriptions his company has provided publicly—but at its most basic level, it records how long the subject looks at each image. The test, Abel has written, “assumes that the longer a subject focuses on a slide…the greater the sexual interest in the slide's content.” The implication is that if you linger on images of children, you are more likely to register as having a “sexual interest” in them.

Along with disgruntled fathers like Rich, a handful of professors and practicing psychologists have been grumbling privately and publicly for years about the Abel Assessment. They’ve observed that almost every scientific article about the usefulness of the questionnaire and the test of “visual reaction time” has been written by Abel or others who work directly with him. “Although the scale is widely used in clinical and court cases, there is surprisingly little actual published research with this instrument,” University of Wisconsin psychology professor Robert Enright wrote in 2012, voicing a concern expressed to me by a half-dozen other mental health professionals. “There just are not enough studies to give me confidence that the scale has strong and enduring psychometric properties for use in predicting a particular person’s sexual interest.” ..Continued.. by Maurice Chammah on the Marshall Project website. This is a VERY LONG article.

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