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CBC - B.C. suspends penile sex tests on young offenders

B.C. suspends penile sex tests on young offenders

CBC News, Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The B.C. government has suspended a controversial test called a penile plethysmograph, which it was using to assess young sex offenders to determine their risk of reoffending after treatment.

On Wednesday, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association demanded the government intervene after it learned of the tests.

Within hours, the government suspended the sex testing after the provincial advocate for children and youth announced she would conduct a review.

B.C.'s Children's Representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond says she only learned last week of this clinical testing on young people, about a week before the BCCLA went public with its concerns.

Turpel-Lafond says after she raised concerns with senior ministry officials, the practice was suspended.

"They have assured me this testing is not happening at the moment and they will not continue this testing until my office has completed a review of the matter," she said.

"I think we're going to look very carefully at the balancing of the rights of the youth, their vulnerability, the process that was used," she said. "Is this a necessary tool? Is it valuable? I think we're really going to have to look at all of the key issues with this."

Youths shown images of naked children

During the test, a youth would attach a device to his penis that is designed to measure his physical sexual arousal.

Researchers in another room then play images of adults having sex, followed by images of naked children and infants, as they monitor the youth's level of arousal, according to Robert Holmes, the president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

The images are accompanied by audio of a male voice that describes forced intercourse with male and female infants as young as two, according to Holmes.

The youth's genitals are covered by a sheet during the testing, and the youth is monitored by researchers behind one-way glass who measure whether or not there is some kind of stimulation effect, said Holmes.

"Male children, often abuse victims themselves, are subjected to this treatment by a government responsible for their care and well-being," said Holmes.

The youth subjects are predominantly children involved in the criminal justice system in B.C., he said.

"In our view, serious rights issues are involved with this. That is particularly so given that the individuals involved are vulnerable youth. The public is entitled to a full explanation," he said.

"These tests are a clear breach of the children's basic human rights. In any other context, subjecting children to violent pornography would be considered sexual abuse," said Annabel Webb, director of the advocacy group Justice for Girls.

Proponents of the program say a youth's parents have consented to the tests, which they say allow officials to predict whether the youths are likely to reoffend.

But Holmes questioned whether consent was properly obtained from the youths and their families. He also said the test has a high error rate and could adversely affect the youths involved.

Used to determine risk of reoffending

The tests are conducted by Youth Forensic Psychiatric Services, part of the Ministry for Children and Family Development.

Children and Family Development Minister Mary Polak says the test is conducted only on young people who have committed serious sexual offences as part of a treatment process to try to determine the youth's likelihood of reoffending.

"The ministry relies on the advice of medical professionals and clinical practitioners with regard to research and therapeutic intervention as it relates to the treatment of youth who have committed — and have been found guilty of — serious sexual offences," Polak said in a statement released Wednesday.

Polak said it's completely voluntary, involves parental or guardian consent and can be withdrawn at any stage, but she takes the concerns seriously and will co-operate with the review by the Representative for Children and Youth.