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Registrants: Uncompensated Research Subjects

Are registrants uncompensated lab rats?

TN sex offender treatment includes the use of VASI/Visual Assessment of Sexual Interest screening. From the little amount of information available online regarding VASI, it’s similar to the AASI/Abel Assessment for Sexual Interest developed by Dr. Gene Abel as an alternative to the invasive plethysmography, whose efficacy is reported at only 35%.

The ASSI was designed to predict whether or not someone is likely to be a sexual predator by using eye tracking methodology. (Here we go with the crystal ball again!)

Both the VASI and AASI are two part tests consisting of a survey/questionnaire and 100+ visual pictures, all done on computer. That’s right, the computer, that evil technology that parole boards and the registry deem so detrimental to registrants that some can’t be trusted with it! In this instance registrants just sit in front of a computer screen, never actually touching the computer, so I guess that’s OK with parole and registry.

According to an article from The Marshall “Abel has never published “exactly” what his assessment measures claiming that his methodology is more complex than the brief descriptions provided to the public, but at it’s basic level it records how long a subject looks at each image. The longer a subject looks at each image, the greater the subjects sexual interest in the slides content.” The implication is that if you look at images of children longer than you look at images of adults, you are more likely to register as having a sexual interest in them.

Is Dr. Abel saying the public at large may be too dumb to understand his testing methods? He doesn’t know us, maybe if his methods were disclosed, some of us might just be able to understand them.

Dr. Abel’s test seems to have been around awhile, over the past 20 years, it’s been administered over 170,000 times, not only to registrants, but it’s also been used in court cases and divorce, where one parent has accused another of sexual improprieties with children. Judges have used his AASI test results to help calculate sentences, prosecutors have used them to guide the terms of plea deals and the test is used as a tool for court ordered sex offender treatment in several states. While some courts have condoned the use of this testing methodology, others have challenged it’s credibility.

In 2005 – Appeals Court of Massachusetts – Ready v. Commonwealth, the appellate court affirmed a 2002 trial court’s exclusion of the AASI results in a case dealing with a sex offender seeking release from Massachusetts Treatment Center for Sexually Dangerous Persons. The court decided that the theories and techniques underlying the AASI haven’t been sufficiently tested for admissibility in that particular proceeding and the court concluded with an odd comment: The court noted that the AASI is a proprietary instrument whose underlying formulas are not released to other professionals, and stated “For all we know, they and their components could be mathematically based and founded upon indisputable empirical research or simply the magic of young Harry Potter’s mixing potions at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.”

The court also concluded that the AASI’s high error rate, coupled with Dr. Abel’s solution to the error rate which is to “merely lower the cut-off score thereby erroneously labeling non-molestors as molestors” substanially detracts from the petitioners contention that the AASI is scientifically sound and sufficiently reliable to assist the trier of fact.

From what I can gather, almost all the scientific articles about the usefulness of the AASI have been written by Dr. Abel or others who work directly with him.  In 2012, University of Wisconsin psychology professor Robert Enright said this,” there is surprisingly little published research with this instrument and not enough studies to give other mental health professionals confidence that the scale has strong and enduring psychometric properties for use in predicting a particular person’s sexual interest.”

Dr. Abel’s company is “for-profit” and charges $2500 for the software and license for the AASI program and then $99 to score the test, which incidently, all raw data must be sent to his Atlanta office for scoring. He is currently expanding his business with another testing tool, The Diana Screen, marketed to non-clinicians with the purpose of preventing molestation. It’s currently being tested by The Episcopal Church Pension Fund and the Boys & Girls Club of America to help determine if job applicants might pose a sexual threat to children. (I wonder what job applicants are told when they are given this test? And what recourse would they have if they were denied a job based on the results?)

So what does any of this have to do with the VASI in TN and registrants being research subjects?

The VASI was developed by Eric Sellers and Mike Adler, founders of a company called HemispheresNeuro in Johnson City, TN, which was reported to be self-funded back in 2015. Adler states ” I developed an assessment and treatment program that keeps those likely to do so (repeat as a sex offender) off the streets and treat those who can be rehabilitated.”

A great claim, but is there any more scientific data available to the public to back this up than there is to Abel’s claims?

Sellers had expertise in eye-gaze, something Adler believed was a key indicator of propensity to become a sex offender or to be a likely repeater. Their company is reported to have conducted a double-blind test in which it’s approach was 96% reliable in discriminating sex offenders from non-sex offenders.

Some TN registrants in sex offender treatment groups are required to take the VASI test. They are told there is no passing or failing of the test. They are also required to sign a release (supposedly anonymous yet they have to include their name and birthdate, which doesn’t sound at all anonymous to me) which advises them that information gained from the test may be used as research material.

Interestingly enough, when a registrant asked Eric Sellers who happened to be giving the registrant the test exactly who interprets the test results, the registrant was told that the data is sent to Dr. Abel.

So, do Abel and Sellers and Adler all somehow work together? 

Someone, somewhere is certainly going to benefit monetarily from this research, aren’t they? But, unlike most voluntary research subjects who are financially compensated by researchers, the registrants aren’t necessarily “willing” participants and they certainly aren’t being monetarily compensated for their part in the research.

As it turns out, Mike Adler is listed as an approved supervisor for the TN Sex Offender Treatment Board (from an earlier blog you will remember that the TSOTB’s philosophy is that they are “advocates for the victims, not the sex offenders”. )

So let me understand this, the VASI test that the registrants are being made to take and thereby becoming not necessarily “willing” participants, but more of a “captive” audience in a research project, has been developed by one of the people who has direct interactions with the TN Sex Offender Treatment Board? He and his company will probably make a financial gain and benefit from any testing research that the registrants are being made to participate in.

How convenient that all the scientific guinea pigs needed for this research are right there, made available courtesy of the TSOTB and mandated sex offender treatment!

It would seem that there’s some conflict of interest here?  A company making money off the data received from tests given during the course of sex offender treatment, one of the founders of that company is certified by the TSOTB and the registrants don’t really have the option of saying “No, I don’t want to participate in your research” because the treatment is mandated and in compliance with TSOTB.

Where are the registrants rights in all of this?

And here’s a peculiar piece of the puzzle. 50% of the VASI consists of pictures of name brand items, everything from Craftsmen to Pepsi, Sprite, Honda, Toyota and name brand athletic wear. Nothing but pictures and questions about your preference for brands. Sounds a lot like a marketing survey to me.

What can looking at trademark logo pictures possibly have to do with determining whether or not someone is at risk to offend or re-offend? (If I look at some of these brands too long in stores, will that somehow predict that I’m likely to be a sexual predator?) Why not look at pictures of broccoli or carrots?

My first thought was, are these name brand companies aware that their trademark logos are being used in visual testing for sex offenders? That seems like a strange place to market their brands?  Surely they must know. But, on the off chance they aren’t aware of it, I do hope they read this blog, I’d like to cash in on the “whistle-blower” windfall from that lawsuit!

Secondly, although the registrants taking this VASI were told that they didn’t have to pay for it “this time”, why should any registrant be made to to pay for  testing that has only been verified accurate by the people who designed the test?  If courts and clinicians can’t agree whether or not the Abel visual testing provides undeniable, accurate information based on undisputed empirical research, then is there any difference with the VASI, other than what the test’s designers claim?

I don’t know about you, but as far as visual assessments to determine whether someone is a sex offender or re-offender, I’m leaning towards the above mentioned court’s idea that it may be nothing more than a “magic and mixing potions theory.”

But don’t let your eyes linger too long on any name brand items at the store, just in case!







2 thoughts on “Registrants: Uncompensated Research Subjects

  • Lois Marshall

    The basic theory for the use of brand name items and questions about preferences for those products is to establish reactions to those things which interest the subject, like the baseline in a “lie detector” test. The problem is that it merely determines interest, not specifically sexual interest. Most people are legitimately interested in children. Parents, grandparents, or even just nice people, enjoy a child’s innocence or enthusiasm. Sex does not usually have anything to do with it.

  • Funny you should mention this new ‘method’ of discerning propensity to abuse children. WAR had an exhibit at the Association for Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) Conference in October 2017 where, by the way, we had the best ever discussions and reception by attendees. There was a booth across from us where the gentleman was having folks try the eye tracking methodology. Oddly enough one guy was challenging the results of the test.


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