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B.C. suspends controversial testing of teen sex offenders

The B.C. government has temporarily suspended a controversial testing program for teenage sex offenders that measures their arousal when they are shown sexually suggestive pictures of children.

However, the director of the Youth Forensic Psychiatric Services responsible for the program said he is confident that a review now initiated by the province's child advocate will show that the testing technique, called penile plethysmography (PPG), is useful for treatment.

"We're very confident that this is a test that can bring some benefit to informing the treatment goals of this population, which is adolescents who have been found guilty of serious sex offences and who have been referred to us by the courts," said André Picard.

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Controversy about the testing program erupted this week when the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the advocacy group Justice for Girls brought it to public attention after finding a reference to the testing in a specialized academic journal.

Although controversial because of its invasiveness and connotations to the movie A Clockwork Orange, PPG is used in many treatment programs in North America. It is less commonly used with adolescents - only about 10 per cent of American programs and 20 per cent of Canadian programs rely on it exclusively - because many researchers say the testing has proved to be unreliable with a group whose sexual preferences are shifting as they mature.

The B.C. researchers recently published a study that examined the results of testing for 132 teenage boys who had gone through the service's treatment program, some as young as 13.

The province's child advocate, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, said she will have a lot of questions for the service about how the technique helps with treatment, since it appears to be used primarily for research in the B.C. program. She said she's also concerned about the ethics and how consent for the test is obtained from the teenagers, some of whom are likely in foster care.

"Also, the impact that has on an adolescent who may have been sexually abused himself is a concern," she said. "You may have a form of exposure that could be harmful. There's a number of questions that are going to be difficult."

She said the issue came as a surprise to her, since she's never had a single call about it among the 4,000 calls made to her office since she was appointed four years ago.

Mr. Picard said he is sure that Ms. Turpel-Lafond will see that the program is run ethically and responsibly.

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"In Canada, we are considered at the forefront, leaders in the field of treating young sex offenders."

The service treats about 75 to 120 young sex offenders at any given time through its eight clinics in the province.

Mr. Picard said the test was not being done at the moment anyway, since the service did not have a qualified medical technician available to administer it.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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