While earning his master’s degree, Shields worked for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, helping to improve the state’s Violent Death Reporting System. Working alongside police, he did research into factors that increase the risk of death by homicide, suicide, drug overdose and other causes.
“That was my first really big research project looking at a criminal justice problem from a public health perspective, which has informed my work ever since,” he says.
Now Shields is using a public health approach to tackle one of the most controversial and difficult social problems from both a mental health and criminal justice standpoint: preventing child sexual abuse.
“I believe in the power of prevention to make life better for people,” he says. “The limits of the standard criminal justice approach – responding after a victim has been harmed – led me to an interest in prevention.”
His newest project is an online mental health intervention to prevent teens and young adults from committing child sexual abuse.
The intervention, dubbed “Help Wanted,” will explain the consequences of sexual abuse for both perpetrators and victims and strengthen skills to develop a healthy sexuality. That’s often enough to steer young people away from harmful behavior, Shields says. It will also offer guidance and resources for those who need more help.
“This is something positive we can do that will make a real difference,” he says. “Helping kids is something we can all get behind.”
Shields is the principal investigator on “Help Wanted,” which he is developing under a $50,000 grant from Raliance, a coalition of nonprofit organizations dedicated to preventing and treating child sexual abuse.
Shields’ focus on child sexual abuse began when he was pursuing his doctorate at Florida State University. He got a summer job at the Florida Department of Corrections, going through all their case files on sex offender risk assessments as part of a multistate research project.
He began looking at sentencing disparities by race, gender and age. He used the data for his dissertation on felony sexual assault cases.
Most of his research since has focused on child victims and youths with problematic sexual behavior, who account for approximately half of all cases of child sexual abuse. Only 3 percent of youthful offenders re-offend, so for this age group, prevention and rehabilitation efforts make more sense than punishment, he says.
As a member of the research faculty at the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins University, Shields studied risk factors for child sexual abuse and how sex-offender registration, residency restrictions and adult penalties affect youthful offenders.
“Kids are highly responsive to redirection if they’re caught, but in the juvenile justice system, we’ve shifted away from rehabilitation to an adult model of punishment,” he says. “That’s not the right direction to go if we want to prevent child sexual abuse. Kids thrive when they can build relationships – and prison and other punitive policies can sever those relationships.”
Shields came to UMass Lowell so he could get back in the classroom and share his expertise with students – and because there is a cluster of researchers here who focus on sexual violence.
“The research we’re doing here has policy implications. It’s applied, rigorous and real-world,” he says.