By David Perry
Ryan Shields, assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Justice Studies, is sharing a $1.5 million, four-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study a unique approach to deterring child sexual abuse.
Shields and his longtime research partner and the grant’s primary investigator, Elizabeth Letourneau of Johns Hopkins University, will study the effectiveness of “Help Wanted Prevention Intervention,” the online program they developed as intervention for people who are sexually attracted to children.
Child sexual abuse is a “significant public health problem,” says Shields. “The intervention provides resources around understanding child sexual abuse, how to talk about one's attraction, coping with sexual attractions, building a positive self-image, and building a healthy sexuality. The purpose of the intervention is to prevent child sexual abuse perpetration, and to assist people who are looking for help to have healthy and happy lives."
The grant will allow the team to “rigorously evaluate” the intervention to see if “Help Wanted” is effective.
Shields, a 2013 Florida State University graduate, began his academic career at Johns Hopkins, working with Letourneau at the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse in the Bloomberg School of Public Health. He worked as an assistant scientist in the Department of Mental Health, where the Moore Center is housed.
“Help Wanted” aims to prevent child sexual assault perpetration and provide help-seekers with resources and tools to support their well-being.
The grant will also be used to examine psychosocial stressors as potential mediators or moderators. The intervention will be revised based on the study’s findings.
During his graduate work, Shields studied adult sex offender punishment and sex crime policies, and he found “a ton of policies but not a lot of supportive evidence.”
“In the course of my work, I came across a surprising statistic: Approximately half − and recent evidence suggests up to 75 percent − of cases of child sexual abuse are perpetrated by other children under the age of 18,” says Shields, whose CDC is grant is specifically focused on primary prevention of adult-perpetrated child sexual abuse.
From his research, he concluded that prevention strategies are lacking.
Responses, treatment and punishment come after the problem emerges, Shields says.
“We rarely do anything to prevent these events from happening in the first place. So, the CDC grant to support prevention is, in my view, a game-changer. I hope it opens the door to a larger national investment in prevention,” he says.