Friday, July 10, 2015

The Pedophile Test - Is the Abel test a valid indicator of sexual interest in children?

Dr. 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.[...]

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. [...]

Some psychologists argue that since the test has not been rigorously validated, it should not be used at all. Others, including Abel himself, say the test should be used as part of larger, more comprehensive evaluations of people convicted of sex offenses (and in some cases merely accused of them). The stakes are high; a poorly designed test, coupled with overzealous clinicians and trusting judges, would be a recipe for railroading innocent people into being judged as high-risk pedophiles (this certainly worries Rich). At the same time, if the test can be easily beaten by actual pedophiles, who study how to control the length of time they linger on each image, then it could put children at risk.

Another issue is that not everyone who has a sexual attraction to children acts on it. There are online support groups for people who pride themselves on restraining their sexual attraction to children. (One is called Virtuous Pedophiles, and has a manifesto which reads, “We do not choose to be attracted to children, and we cannot make that attraction go away.”) Some researchers believe these groups can actually help prevent sex crimes; the University of Toronto psychiatrist James Cantor has called such groups a “potential pressure valve.” Abel himself has found that it is quite normal for adult heterosexual men to be attracted to adolescents. In light of these discoveries, the idea of making decisions about people based on their thoughts, rather than actions proven in an adversarial court system, gives many psychologists and lawyers pause.[...]

Part of the reason the assessment cannot be relied on too heavily, Abel said, is that there is no way to avoid false negatives and false positives (a common issue with most psychological tests, given the complexity of the human brain). Nine percent of men who have not sexually abused a child show up—falsely—as having done so, according to Abel. [...]

Abel is now in the midst of expanding his business with another proprietary testing tool, The Diana Screen, which is marketed to non-clinicians with the purpose of preventing molestation. It has been tested in pilot projects with The Episcopal Church Pension Fund and The Boys and Girls Clubs of America. It is supposed to be able to help organizations determine whether a job applicant might pose a “sexual risk to children.” Abel’s company markets it to churches, summer camps, schools, and foster care agencies, and it is already used by juvenile detention and residential treatment centers.

When applicants take The Diana Screen, there are no pictures—only a lengthy questionnaire—so it is easier to administer than the Abel Assessment. The responses are measured against a data pool, as well as information from professional literature and the FBI. Abel’s company tells clients that they should not deny someone a job solely based on their failure on the screen, and that the result “should be used as one part of the organization's overall decision-making process.”

The warning is not enough for some psychologists, who worry that people will be denied jobs based solely on the results of the screen, even when they may in fact pose no threat. Others worry the test will, as psychologist Anna Salter put it, give organizations a “false sense of security.”

Abel takes the flak in stride, he told me, because his goal is to stop a tragedy he feels society at large does not address with enough frankness. He views his life’s work as an effort to show Americans that they need to be more proactive about preventing child sexual abuse, noting just how wrong the prevalent stereotypes about strangers have tended to be. “Child molesters are your neighbors and people you know,” he said as we sat in his office that afternoon. “They’re hiding in plain sight.” Whatever the flaws of the Abel Assessment, he argued, the result of not having such tools—and failing to prevent the sexual abuse of children—would be far worse. “This is not a perfect test,” he told me. “There are no perfect tests.”

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