Table of Contents
Polygraph Testing for Juveniles in Treatment for Sexual Behavior Problems: An Exploratory Study
Amy Van Arsdale
Marymount University, Arlington, Virginia
Theodore Shaw and Pam Miller
The ITM Group, Gainesville, Florida
Mike C. Parent
University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida
Amy Van Arsdale, Department of Psychology, Marymount University, Arlington, Virginia; Theodore Shaw, The ITM Group, Gainesville, Florida; Pam Miller, The ITM Group, Gainesville, Florida; Mike Parent, Department of Psychology, University of Florida, Gainesville.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Amy Van Arsdale, Department of Psychology, Marymount University, Arlington, VA 22207; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The authors thank Brandi Smith for her assistance in data preparation.
Keywords: sex offenders; treatment programs; assessment; juvenile offenders
Post-adjudication polygraph testing for juveniles with sexual behavior problems remains controversial. This study investigated the impact of polygraph testing in a sample of 60 adolescent males participating in specialized outpatient treatment specific to this population. Polygraph testing resulted in a significant increase in the number of victims disclosed. The types of victims disclosed as a result of polygraph testing tended to be younger and male, compared with the types of victims disclosed before polygraph testing. There was a non-significant trend toward proportionately more disclosure of extra-familial victims during polygraph testing than before. In addition, a substantial proportion of participants revealed sexual contact with same-age peers that they had previously not disclosed during the course of treatment. Results suggest that polygraph testing may be used to gain additional information and potentially help to inform specialized treatment.
Data from a variety of sources indicate that adolescents commit a large number of sex offenses. According to official data from the U. S. Department of Justice’s National Incident-Based Reporting System (2004), juveniles comprise more than one in four sex offenders and perpetrate more than one in three sex offenses against other youth. Unofficial reports, such as victim surveys, suggest that the actual number is even higher, given that a vast number of sexual assaults go unreported, particularly in cases of incest (Snyder & Sickmund, 2006). Given the extent of this problem and the serious threat it poses to society, measures should be taken to improve the efficacy of juvenile sex offender treatment and promote community safety (Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, 2004; Center for Sex Offender Management, 1999).1
Polygraphs have emerged as a tool that may substantially improve the management (Center for Sex Offender Management, 2008), supervision (Consigli, 2002; Matte, 1996), and treatment (Ahlmeyer, Heil, McKee, & English, 2000; Grubin, 2008) of individuals with sexual behavior problems. Polygraph testing has been integrated into the recommendations of leading adult sex offender treatment and management organizations: For example, the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers Adult Male Practice Standards and Guidelines (2004) include recommendations for the post-conviction polygraph testing of adult male sex offenders; Colorado’s “community containment approach” involves a multidisciplinary case management team comprising a probation or parole officer, a treatment provider, and a polygraph examiner who gather as much accurate information as possible to reduce access to victims and opportunities to reoffend (English, Jones, & Patrick, 2003). While the use of polygraphs for the treatment and supervision of juveniles with sexual behavior problems is increasing, polygraph testing in this population is used less often than polygraph testing among adults (McGrath, Cumming, & Burchard, 2003). This may be due, in part, to continued controversy over the reliability and validity of polygraph testing as well as to a lack of empirical research that includes adolescent populations. In this paper, we provide a brief overview of how polygraph testing is used with adolescents with sexual behavior problems, specifically in treatment settings, and then present an empirical study of polygraph testing with juveniles in an outpatient treatment center.
The use of polygraphs with juveniles with sexual behavior problems
Similar to adult sex offenders, juveniles are often reluctant to admit the full extent of their offense histories (Barbaree & Marshall, 2006; Hindman & Peters, 2001; Marshall, Laws, & Barbaree, 1990). Unsurprisingly, fear of legal recourse and societal stigma lead many offenders either to deny their crimes altogether, or simply admit to the minimum they think is necessary (Blasingame, 1998; Hindman & Peters, 2001). For example, in a study of 20 adolescent males admitted to an outpatient treatment clinic, 40% denied having any interaction with the victim or denied that the interaction constituted a sexual offense; an additional 50% minimized their responsibility for the incidents, the harm to victims, or both (Barbaree & Cortoni, 1993).
Offenders who are in denial about their offenses do not typically engage in and comply with treatment (Hunter & Figueredo, 2000; Maletzky, 1991). Most therapists agree that the first goal of treatment is to assist the perpetrator in acknowledging that he exhibits behavior that is problematic (Schlank & Shaw, 1996). To benefit optimally from treatment, the offender needs to hold himself accountable for his abusive actions, recognize his difficulty in managing his sexuality (Winn, 1996), and give up the secrecy that accompanies offending behavior (Barbaree & Cortoni, 1993). Perpetrators who deny their offenses are less likely to complete treatment (Levenson & MacGowan, 2004) and may be at a higher risk to reoffend than those who admit their offenses (Maletzky, 1991). Thus, there is a need to encourage complete disclosure among this population.
Proponents of polygraph testing argue that such testing can be used to attain more accurate information about a youth’s history, range of victims, types of offending behaviors, and possible paraphilic interests, resulting in treatment that addresses his specific needs as closely as possible (Emerick & Dutton, 1993; Heil, Ahlmeyer, & Simons, 2003). While most adolescents with sexual behavior problems are not sexual predators and do not meet the DSM-IVR criteria for pedophilia (American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Becker, Hunter, Stein, & Kaplan, 1989), a number have deviant sexual arousal and/or deviant sexual fantasies, which they may be reluctant to admit during group therapy. Information gained from polygraph testing can potentially assist clinicians in the differential diagnosis of youth who meet the criteria for paraphilias as opposed to those who do not. Considering many sexual preferences develop during puberty, and research suggests that adolescents’ sexual arousal patterns are more amenable to change than adults’ (Hunter & Becker, 1994), intervention during adolescence may facilitate such change (Groth, Longo, & McFadin, 1982).
According to the Center for Sex Offender Management (1999), several different types of polygraphs are commonly used with sex offenders. “Sexual history” polygraphs are the most common type of polygraph, involving verification of the completeness of the entire sexual history the offender has disclosed; this is generally accomplished by having the offender complete a comprehensive sexual history questionnaire. “Maintenance” polygraphs, those required for an individual’s treatment and/or parole, verify the offender’s report of compliance with supervision rules and restrictions. Finally, “specific issue” or “instant” offense disclosure polygraphs test the accuracy of the offender’s report of his or her behavior in a particular sex offense, usually the most recent offense related to being criminally charged.
In this paper, we focus on sexual history polygraphs and their use in treatment settings. Grubin (2008) notes that because the focus of these polygraphs is not on “passing” or “failing” but on facilitating disclosures that assist in treatment, post-conviction polygraphy of sex offenders differs significantly from testing that is conducted in criminal investigation settings. In this context, sexual history polygraphs are “probably better thought of as a truth facilitator than a lie detector” (Grubin, 2008, p. 182). In the outpatient treatment program that is the focus of this study, polygraph testing is used in the initial stages of treatment to supplement the offenders’ self-reported sexual history.
Another way polygraph testing can potentially improve treatment is by increasing the rapport between client and therapist, as well as establishing trust between the youth and his family and/or group therapy members (Blasingame, 1998). In situations where denial and secrecy are common, many people in these youths’ lives understandably find it difficult to have trusting relationships; thus, a main objective of treatment is to re-establish trust between the youth and his family, and between the youth and his peers (Barbaree & Marshall, 2006). Within a post-adjudication treatment setting, this goal can be facilitated when therapists discuss the results of polygraph examinations with the youth and his family. This process has the potential to benefit clients as well as the other stakeholders involved. One study of 95 convicted adult sex offenders found that the majority reported polygraph testing to be a helpful part of their treatment, and these clients agreed with examiners’ conclusions 90% of the time (Kokish, Levenson, & Blasingame, 2005).
Despite the potential benefits of polygraphs, their use with adolescents with sexual behavior problems remains controversial. In a recent review, Meijer et al. (2008) concluded that evidence for the claims about the clinical potential of polygraph tests is “weak, if not absent” (p. 423). Such conclusions are based on understandable concerns about polygraphs’ reliability and validity and the possibility that confessions may be due more to offenders’ beliefs that procedures will elicit a confession than the polygraph test itself (Ben-Shakar, 2008). Critics also argue that polygraph testing can have a negative effect on therapeutic relationships or an offender’s self-esteem (see Grubin, 2009). A major concern is the current lack of well-conducted empirical studies demonstrating the efficacy of polygraph testing within the therapeutic context. Much of the existing research on polygraph testing has focused on reliability and validity in relation to investigation-type protocols and criminal justice settings, often employing the use of mock trials (Grubin, Madsen, Parsons, Sosnowski, & Warberg, 2004). Less research has been conducted examining the actual application of post-conviction polygraphs with sex offenders, and there is a dearth of empirical studies that specifically include adolescent populations.
The current study
To date, there has been little research on polygraph testing with juveniles with sexual behavior problems (Hunter & Lexier, 1998). The purpose of this study was to explore whether polygraph testing, when utilized as part of offender-specific evaluation and treatment, resulted in disclosures of new victims among juveniles in an outpatient treatment program. We expected participants to disclose significantly more victims during polygraph testing than before testing. We also hypothesized that more offenses against male victims would be revealed, in part due to the stigma associated with male-on-male sexual behaviors (Sorsoli, Kia-Keating, & Grossman, 2008).
In the outpatient treatment program that is the focus of this study, we used sexual history polygraphs to assure the greatest treatment benefit and to minimize the risk for future offending behaviors and possible punitive legal measures as these adolescents become adults. We made decisions related to service delivery, length of stay, and goals on a case-by-case basis; these decisions were informed by the sexual history, clinical issues, and presenting needs of each youth. This approach represents a contrast to the “one size fits all” method of service delivery that has not been proven effective (Center for Sex Offender Management, 1999; Zimring, 2004). For youth who could potentially benefit from a polygraph exam, these examinations were paid for by the treatment contract. We believed that information about all sexual history, including the youth’s own possible victimization, should be revealed and addressed in therapy. Sexual history polygraphs allowed this information to be presented following the initial stages of treatment.
We randomly selected polygraph data from 60 case files for inclusion in this study. Participants were males aged 12-19 enrolled in an outpatient treatment program for juveniles with sexual behavior problems in Florida.2 Demographic characteristics are presented in Table 1. This group included youth who received only outpatient treatment as well as those returning to the community for aftercare services following commitment to a residential program specific to youth with sexual behavior problems. Services provided included group, individual, family, and crisis counseling specific to this population. The program director and clinicians were licensed mental health providers who met established criteria for providing treatment to juvenile sex offenders in the state of Florida. All participants had exhibited sexual behaviors toward younger children and/or peers, the majority of which were hands-on (contact) offenses ranging from exposure to penetration. These behaviors caused enough attention or concern for family members or law enforcement personnel to refer the youth for assessment and, subsequently, treatment for sexual behavior problems. All youth were court-ordered for services specific to their sexual behaviors. As relatively few females were referred for treatment, only male participants were included in this study.
Table 1. Demographic Characteristics of the Sample
Age at polygraph testing
Age at first offense
|14 1||23 2|
Following the recommendations of the Center for Sex Offender Management (1999; 2008), polygraph testing in this treatment setting is generally conducted with adolescents aged 14 and older because younger juveniles have generalized movements that often result in inconclusive exams. Youth who are under age 14 are referred for polygraph testing only when it is recommended by their therapists—usually in cases of persistent denial.3
Two independent examiners conducted the polygraph testing between 2006 and 2008. Both examiners are members of the American Polygraph Association and have worked extensively with juveniles who have sexual behavior problems. These examiners used the Axciton/Acer Computerized Polygraph System and the Lafayette LX 4000 Computerized Polygraph System. Both systems used the PolyScore computer scoring algorithm developed by Johns Hopkins/Applied Physics Laboratories for the purposes of score reliability and validity confirmation.
The two examiners mentioned above conducted polygraph testing as part of treatment specific to juveniles with sexual behavior problems. The polygraph testing was funded by the treatment contract. Polygraphs were used for treatment purposes only and the results were made available only to qualified clinicians. Juveniles had typically been in this treatment program for an average of one to six months at the time of their examination. The therapists gave juveniles the opportunity for disclosure in group and individual therapy settings prior to the polygraph exam, and informed the juveniles that the purpose of the exam was to support their disclosure and validate their history. Scheduling was often based on the comfort level of the juvenile and reported readiness for testing. The examiners provided written and verbal information on the clinical polygraph to the juveniles and their parents or caregivers at initial assessment; parents, guardians, or other caregivers gave their permission for the juveniles to take the polygraph examination. The examiners reviewed medical and other information about the juveniles, as well as their ability to understand instructions, prior to the exam. The examiners provided the juveniles with a detailed explanation of the polygraph instrument, examination procedure, and physiology as it applies to the polygraph, and gave them the opportunity to ask questions before the examination. Youth were advised of the voluntary nature of the polygraph examination and indicated willingness to be examined in writing.
The polygraph examination contained pre- and post-test components. The pre-test established which questions the examiner would ask based on 1) the juvenile’s self-report of new admissions of past offending, or 2) the absence of accountability statements for known offending behaviors identified at the beginning of treatment. Polygraph testing consisted of the examiner measuring the youths’ cardiovascular, respiratory, and galvanic skin resistance to three relevant questions (e.g., “Have you sexually touched anyone you have not told me about?”) regarding his past sexual offending behaviors (Zone Comparison Technique; Gordon, Fleisher, Morsie, Habib, & Salah, 2000). The post-test consisted of the examiner reviewing the information obtained throughout the examination and addressing areas of deception with the examinee. The juvenile was then given the opportunity to disclose any additional victims and/or sexual contacts to the examiner or therapist.4
Of the 60 polygraph examinations included in this study, 39 (65%) had No Significant Response (nondeceptive), 11 (18.3%) had Significant Response (deceptive), and 10 (16.7%) had No Opinion (inconclusive) results. These rates are similar to other polygraph studies using similar methodology (e.g., Gordon et al., 2006).
We conducted the following statistical analyses to compare the disclosures made before and during polygraph testing: 1) Paired samples t-tests to compare the total number of victims disclosed; 2) Chi-square analyses to test for differences regarding victim gender (male or female), use of force (force, contact, or exposure), and relationship to victim (intra-familial or extra-familial); and 3) Paired sample t-tests to compare the average age of victims disclosed.
First, we examined whether polygraph testing resulted in disclosures of additional victims. Indeed, results indicated that polygraph testing resulted in an increase in the number of victims disclosed (before polygraph M = 1.42, SD = 0.98; during polygraph M = 2.15, SD = 1.55). A paired-samples t-test indicated that this increase was statistically significant, t(59) = -4.89, p < .001; see Figure 1. Under polygraph, 24 participants disclosed a total of 45 new victims, with the number of new disclosures ranging from one to five new victims (M = 0.73, SD = 1.16).
Figure 1. Average number of victims disclosed before and after polygraph.
We then explored whether patterns emerged in the types of new disclosures made. During polygraph, the average age of victims disclosed trended toward younger victims (before polygraph M = 8.28, SD = 4.32; during polygraph M = 7.11,SD = 3.77;t = 1.56, p = .12, Cohen’s d = .29), and toward male victims (before polygraph, 54 female and 27 male victims were disclosed; after polygraph, an additional 22 female and 23 male victims were disclosed; this proportionate increase in disclosures of male victims trended toward significance, χ2 [1, N =125] = 3.32, p = .07).
Of the new victims disclosed under polygraph testing, 33 were contact victims, 10 involved use of force, and two were victims of exposure. In contrast, victims disclosed without polygraph included 45 involving the use of force, 32 involving contact, and eight involving exposure. Differences between the types of offense disclosed before and during polygraph were significant, χ2 (2, N =130) = 15.00, p < .001. The victims disclosed before polygraph testing included 35 intra-familial victims and 41 extra-familial victims. Of the new disclosures, 14 were intra-familial and 30 were extra-familial. There was a nonsignificant trend for proportionately greater disclosure of extra-familial victims during polygraph testing than before, χ2 (1,N = 120) = 2.34, p = .12. Summary data are presented in Table 2.5
Table 2. Summary of Polygraph Data
|Variable||Before Polygraph||During Polygraph|
Number of victims
Age of victims
Gender of victims
Type of offense
Key Findings and Implications
As expected, juveniles disclosed significantly more offenses during polygraph testing than before. While this finding is consistent with our hypothesis, it is particularly interesting considering these youth had been involved in treatment prior to undergoing the polygraph examination; in fact, at least one-third of participants in our study were aftercare clients who had already completed a residential program and were in outpatient treatment for follow-up. Thus, even while in confidential treatment settings, a substantial proportion of these boys had failed to reveal pertinent information, suggesting that polygraphs served to elicit additional disclosures above and beyond what would typically be revealed throughout “treatment as usual.” These results support the use of polygraphs for providing relevant information that can subsequently be addressed in therapy. In addition, the fact that a substantial proportion (40%) of new disclosures revealed child victims aged 6 or younger, many of whom were family members, suggests that polygraph testing may directly impact community safety.
Interestingly, many new disclosures were admitted during the pre-test interview, before the sensors of the polygraph were actually connected. This finding is consistent with Grubin et al. (2004), who found that most of the new information disclosed in their sample of 50 adult male sex offenders was obtained during the pre-test interview. Apparently, the expectation of an upcoming polygraph test is sufficient to make many offenders disclose information (Grubin et al., 2004; Meijer et al., 2008); in a treatment setting, the process of preparing for a polygraph examination may facilitate disclosures made to therapists (Blasingame, 1998). Critics of polygraph testing conclude that pre-examination disclosures have less to do with the polygraph as a method for the detection of deception than the process of questioning and intimidation during the examination (Ben-Shakhar, 2008; Meijer et al., 2008). Supporters of polygraphs contend that the need for complete and accurate information in sex offender treatment is so fundamental that it outweighs these concerns (English et al., 2003; Grubin, 2008). Considering studies of juveniles who have undergone polygraph testing have revealed deception among 50% of youth in one study (Chambers, 1994) and 80% in another (Ahlmeyer et al., 2000) , polygraphs may be critical in bridging the information gap.
In addition to disclosing additional victims, some participants revealed other information that could help inform treatment. More than one-third of participants revealed sexual contact with same-age peers that they had not previously disclosed in treatment. This suggests that although some youth were not hiding information about their victims, they nonetheless had not been fully forthcoming about their sexual behaviors. Information about all types of sexual contact is important when treating sexual behavior problems because it helps therapists to determine the nature of the youth’s sexual interests and possible deviant interests. When youths reveal such information, therapists are in a position to help them develop healthy sexuality (Barbaree & Marshall, 2006).
Perhaps most significant for treatment was the finding that under polygraph, nine participants (15%) disclosed that they themselves were victims of sexual abuse—information that up to that point had not been revealed during the course of treatment. This finding is consistent with research suggesting that male victims of sexual abuse may be reluctant to disclose these experiences due to the feelings of shame, isolation, and sociocultural stigma associated with male victimization (Sorsoli et al., 2008). Considering qualitative studies suggesting that youth are often reluctant to initiate disclosures of their experiences of abuse, they may be more willing to do so when specifically asked, and in a private setting (Jensen, Gulbrandsen, Mossige, Reichelt, & Tjersland, 2005). Polygraph examinations may serve to facilitate this process. Such acknowledgement of their own victimization and its role in their psychosexual development can be a key part of treatment for juveniles with sexual behavior problems. Research suggests that disclosure of one’s own victimization may moderate negative abuse-related symptoms and reduce the likelihood of further victimization (Kogan, 2004). Disclosure experiences that juveniles perceive as positive and that are met with support have been associated with fewer negative psychological symptoms in adulthood (Roesler, 1994).
Future Research Directions
An interesting avenue for future research would be to investigate the role of internalized homophobia and/or perceived masculinity as a mechanism that may prevent youths’ disclosure of offending behavior against males, as well as disclosure of their own victimization. Research suggests that men who hold strict masculine stereotypes may be less likely to disclose their own victimization than those who do not (Pollack, 1998). As we found to be the case with several boys in our study, males are much less likely than females to voluntarily bring their experiences of abuse to the attention of mental health professionals (Grossman, Sorsoli, & Kia-Keating, 2006). In a qualitative study of adult male survivors of childhood sexual abuse, Sorsoli et al. (2008) found that few of these men had disclosed their experiences during childhood; for those who did report the abuse, most reported their disclosure brought negative consequences. Indeed, females are more likely than males to disclose childhood sexual abuse to others and to obtain positive responses, such as empathy and support, after doing so (Ullman & Filipas, 2005).
Limitations of the Study
Considering that only approximately one-third of children who are sexually victimized ever report the abuse to anyone (Finkelhor, 1984), one significant limitation of our study is that it only included youth whose crimes were detected and who were subsequently referred for treatment. Thus, this study’s results may not be generalizable to the entire sex offender population. In addition, our cross-sectional design prevented us from exploring whether polygraph testing impacted treatment outcome and re-offending. Future researchers may wish to conduct longitudinal research to better understand the longer-term impacts of polygraph testing among adolescents with sexual behavior problems. Finally, we did not include a control or comparison group of juveniles who did not undergo polygraph testing; Grubin (2008) notes that few studies have implemented such designs, and such methodology could help to determine whether differences in treatment outcome are specifically related to polygraph testing.
A substantial proportion of the youth in our sample admitted to additional sexual offending behaviors while undergoing polygraph testing. As with other psychophysiological tools, the Center for Sex Offender Management (2008) recommends that polygraphs never be used in isolation, and treatment decisions should not be made solely on the basis of their results. More importantly, even when conducted by qualified examiners, the reliability and validity of polygraph testing remains questionable; as such, information gained from polygraph testing should be used in conjunction with information from other sources. We propose that results be processed with the client in a feedback session, and his reactions addressed in therapy. These interactions can provide rich clinical information; no matter what technological advances develop, it remains the client who is our most valuable source of information regarding his ability to change and willingness to take responsibility for his behaviors. With these ethical and practical guidelines in mind, our study’s results have promising implications for the use of polygraph testing as part of a comprehensive treatment approach for juveniles with sexual behavior problems. Our results suggest the need for further research to better determine how polygraph testing can be integrated into treatment for youth with sexual behavior problems.
About the Authors
Amy Van Arsdale, PhD, is Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, Marymount University, Arlington, Virginia.
Theodore Shaw, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and founding partner of the ITM Group in Gainesville, Florida.
Pam Miller, MA, is a licensed mental health counselor, a juvenile sex offender specialist, and is Adolescent Services Director at the ITM Group in Gainesville, Florida. Ms. Miller has specialized in the field of sexual abuse since 1984.
Mike C. Parent, MS, is a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Florida, Gainesville.
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