Similar early risk factors found for sexual and violent non-sexual offenders
Feature Photo: Kelly Babchishin, lead author of the ground-breaking new study
Sex offenders and violent non-sexual offenders’ birth and parent risk factors are more alike than they are different, according to a ground-breaking new study from The Royal’s Institute of Mental Health Research (IMHR) and the Karolinska Institutet (Sweden).
The study, “Parental and Perinatal Risk Factors for Sexual Offending in Men: A Nationwide Case-Control Study,” was recently published in Psychological Medicine, a prestigious and frequently cited scientific journal.
“A breadth of evidence suggests the factors around our birth and the characteristics of our parents are important predictors of a wide range of later life outcomes,” says the paper’s main author, Dr. Kelly Babchishin of The Royal’s IMHR, affiliated with the University of Ottawa. “We found that birth factors and parental characteristics similarly predict both sexual and violent non-sexual offenders.
Dr. Kelly Babchishin recently received a prestigious Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research as well as the John Charles Polanyi Prize for young researchers.
Gathering the evidence: collaborating with international partners
Through collaboration with the Karolinska Institutet, this research used Sweden’s detailed national registries giving Babchishin and her five fellow researchers, including Dr. Michael Seto, IMHR’s Director of Forensic Mental Health Research, access to a huge volume of accurate data for this study. The researchers looked at birth factors (such as birth weight and size) and parental factors (such as parents’ age, education level, past history of mental illness, and criminal history) for 13,773 male sexual offenders, 135,953 male violent non-sexual offenders, and a control group of more than 740,000 men.
Ground-breaking findings challenge current theories
“There’s considerable overlap in the factors that increase one’s chance of committing sexual offences or violent non-sexual offences. Surprisingly, we did not find risk factors that were unique to sexual offending in this particular study,” says Babchishin, noting that Canadian and Swedish demographics, crime rates and other indicators are similar enough to expect the results to be applicable in Canada.
“The results were very surprising because most theories, public policies and treatments for sexual offending assume this is a unique form of crime and that unique factors must be involved,” says Seto.
The main predictors of future violent criminality, sexual or otherwise, are having young parents with criminal records, psychiatric issues, or lower education; and indicators of poor maternal health, such as low birth weight.
This means interventions tackling maternal health and parent resources could result in fewer offences of both kinds.
Towards a path for prevention
“The purpose of the research is not to stigmatize, but to know what to focus on when it comes to preventing sexual violence from occurring in the first place,” Babchishin says. “These findings suggest prevention efforts aimed at increasing parental education and helping parents cope with mental health problems, as well as maternal health initiatives, could not only reduce sexual offending, but violent offending as well.”
Babchishin is a joint post-doctoral fellow with IMHR and the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. Last year, she received a prestigious Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research as well as the John Charles Polanyi Prize for young researchers. The study team included researchers from The Royal’s IMHR, the Karolinska Institutet, and the University of Oxford.
Seto says there are more studies in the works to better understand what causes people to commit sexual offences. “This study is the first of a number of planned collaborations that will look at risk factors for sexual offending, across the lifespan, in order to better understand its causes,” he says.
“We hope the results will make important contributions to how we respond to sexual offending.”
The Royal Ottawa Health Care Group is one of Ontario’s 24 research hospitals that contribute to a healthier, wealthier, smarter province. Look for other RESEARCH SPOTLIGHT posts on our Healthier, Wealthier, Smarter blog or join the conversation about why health research matters for Ontario on Twitter, using the hashtag #onHWS.