Molesters versus the sex lab: Controversial testing technique a key to stopping child abusers
BY GENE SAPAKOFF
Monday, June 6, 2011
It is another disturbing and productive day inside William Burke’s modest Summerville office. A photo of a scantily clad little boy pops up on a laptop, followed by a picture of a bound and gagged young woman.
The Visual Sexual Preference test images keep coming, one as innocent as a girl in a one-piece swimsuit —department store catalog stuff —and the next something way more sordid.
Burke explains that his clients, many of them prisoners, must watch carefully before the exam is over.
“The first time, you just see the slides,” Burke says, nodding at the screen. “The second time, you have to rank them on a scale of 1-7 by how sexually interested you are in them or how disgusted you are. So I guess you get the idea on how that works. Later, we can go down the hall.”
Down the hall is the Sexual Arousal Lab. ‘We’re testing someone right now,’ Burke says.
Inside a 12-by-12-foot room, a shackled and handcuffed man let out of an Upstate jail for the day is viewing a series of 27 photos —with a state-of-the-art plethysmograph firmly attached.
An armed guard stands watch as the device —essentially a penile polygraph —measures arousal.
There is audio too. For instance, the voice of a man who has spotted a boy in a camp shower room.
Burke, 53, has been using the plethysmograph (or PPG) and other innovative ways of preventing child abuse since 1996. Not everyone endorses the technology in use at more than 100 testing facilities in the U.S.; results are challenged in court, and a Lowcountry judge once dubbed him a ‘witch doctor.’
But this facility and Burke’s other offices in Columbia and Lexington are South Carolina’s primary stops for the risk assessment, treatment and supervision of sex offenders. Law enforcement officials, South Carolina’s volunteer Guardian Ad Litem staff and the Department of Social Services have Burke on speed dial.
A few of his current 300 clients come voluntarily for treatment. He gets referrals each week from men —or their workplace HR offices —seeking help with Internet pornography addiction. But roughly 80 percent of Burke’s work, he says, involves men who have sexually abused children.
Goal: Stop them.
“Our assessments are very thorough and they meet the standard of care, which dictates the kind of instruments you should be using,” Burke says.
Sometimes there are interruptions.
The phone rings.
‘Excuse me, I have to take this call,’ Burke says with a sudden frown.
“Of course, our first interest is always the safety of the children, and what you’re telling me is bad enough,’ Burke tells the caller. ‘But if video has been put on the Internet, uh, that’s taking it to a whole different level.”
The Czechoslovakian army, of all institutions. It christened the PPG during the 1950s ‘Cold War.’
‘They wanted to test guys trying to avoid military service by claiming to be gay,’ says Burke, a Rock Hill native who received psychology and clinical counseling degrees at The Citadel and a PhD in counseling at South Carolina.
The PPG has been in use in the U.S. since the 1980s. Burke’s Canadian-made Limestone Preftest model features straps that measure phallic size increases by blood flow as patients are exposed to photos and/or recordings. The data shows up on computer graphs in an adjacent room.
The Visual Sexual Preference test and Abel Screen also are included as part of a basic Burke assessment, which lasts from eight to 14 hours spread over one or two days. The Abel Screen is an evaluation concept with more than 1,000 questions and 340 slides aimed at categorizing and correlating sexual arousal.
The PPG test is Burke’s pride and joy.
“The most exciting thing for us is the stimulus material and how that has evolved,” he says.
Burke played a role in that development, by accident.
“Up until two or three years ago, what a person would listen to in the laboratory was a male monotone voice telling a story about sexual behavior,” Burke says, “and the response rates were not that great. By that I mean we positively identified, say, a person aroused by a rape scenario only about 58 percent of the time. Now it’s over 90 percent.”
Charleston-based FBI agent Cynthia McCants mentioned to Burke that often when computers were seized from pedophiles, the evidence discovered was not visual but audio versions of victimized children.
“That got me thinking,” Burke says.
He approached a talent agency in search of kids. Parents were informed and signed waivers. The child actors were given scripts.
“We would have them say things that had nothing to do with sexual behavior,” Burke says. “Like a scenario with a lady walking her dog, and you want to pet the dog but you are a little nervous and you ask, ‘Can I touch it?’ We clip that sound out and drop it into a story of a guy in the camp shower with a 10-year-old.”
The child voices have been echoing in Burke’s office, and other PPG facilities around the country, since 2006.
“I have difficulty saying this because it sounds so outrageous,” Burke says in a hushed tone. “But on average we had 200 percent or greater levels of (phallic) response in the laboratory to the voices of the children. That is cutting edge and that’s really cool to be a part of.
“Now, the false positive identification rate is next to zero. It’s just not going to happen. There are just too many safeguards for that.”
Burke stresses that his role is not to decide guilt or innocence, but to make risk recommendations. He does pre-trial assessment, offers second opinions and sometimes first opinions.
“If a man accused of molesting his stepdaughter is brought in and tests positive for arousal to young girls,” Burke says, “I will suggest he not be allowed back home.”
It goes beyond ‘gotcha.’
Burke also monitors and treats patients. Some are on probation. Some are awaiting trial.
There are no “typical” cases in this line of work.
“A lot of folks come in and say they didn’t do it,” Burke says. “Well, OK, we’ll start there. We have our interviewing and a variety of tests.
“Say someone has been accused of molesting a couple of boys and he denies it. I get a history from him and then we put him in the Sexual Arousal Laboratory and, lo and behold, he’s aroused by little boys, and after the test I say, ‘Hey, you’re aroused by little boys.’
“Sometimes that’s enough for them to say ‘I did it. And maybe I need some help.’ If that’s enough, we polygraph them to find out more information.
“It’s not guilt or innocence. But if I’m responsible for whether or not somebody is going to be released into the community, or if a judge is going to take my recommendation and report, I have to know what I’m dealing with.
‘I’m not going to be able to sleep at night if I think I’ve played a part in somebody dangerous getting out.”
‘A witch doctor’
Burke and fellow PPG lab managers —including Burke-trained R. Gregg Dwyer at MUSC —have fans, and critics.
“He does a phenomenal job,” said Micky Talley, agent in charge of the Dorchester County Probate, Parole and Pardon Services. “I don’t think we could supervise the sex offender population or do our job without Dr. Burke. It certainly helps reduce recidivism,” which is repeating previous bad behavior.
PPG testing is a condition of Dorchester County sex offenders on probation and parole. Talley and Burke meet regularly to go over test results and compliance.
Charleston County Assistant Solicitor Debbie Herring-Lash likes the PPG concept too.
“It helps (defendants) be able to go into court and admit it,” she said. “They’re going to get out of prison eventually, and sometimes it helps to be able to have treatment after they have served their sentence.”
Among his court roles, Burke offers expert testimony and participates in parole revocation hearings and sentencing phases.
His recommendations have been challenged.
“I’ve had a judge look me in the eye in a courtroom full of people and say, ‘I don’t think you’re any better than a witch doctor and I don’t believe any of this,’?”Burke says.
Some defense attorneys consider PPG testing “Orwellian.” Expensive too —$2,200 per test, at least (initially billed to those tested). British Columbia last July established a moratorium on PPG testing of youths. Fresh and objective studies on the disputed device and recidivism are hard to come by.
But South Carolina’s Sexually Violent Predator act of 1998 has made the PPG more palatable here and in states with similar laws.
“Research says it’s the single greatest test of recidivism for child molestation, over any other factor,” Burke says, citing studies done by Canadian clinical psychologist, researcher and author R. Karl Hanson and different partners. ‘If you had one thing you could choose about who is going to re-offend, it’s going to be the PPG result.
“But, again, we don’t want to do these tests to say whether somebody did something or didn’t do something. Because it’s certainly possible that someone might have some arousal to kids and he didn’t do it.
“It’s certainly possible he did do it and it didn’t show up. I don’t think that’s a valid reason to use the test. It’s a risk assessment.”
Burke also gives each patient conventional polygraphs twice a year.
“Just by threatening a polygraph, offenders start admitting to having victims and a greater number of victims,” Burke
“Just by threatening a polygraph, offenders start admitting to having victims and a greater number of victims,” Burke says.
Not everyone is cooperative. Some Burke patients have thrown PPG devices against the wall and attempted to flee —hence the armed guards for those incarcerated. And the off-duty police officer on hand for group therapy meetings.
Once, a patient tried to corner a female therapist. Burke has been the victim of a bomb threat.
“Another guy was beating on the door of my house at 2 a.m.,” he says. “Sometimes when we say, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t think you should have access to your children,’ people get really mad.”
You want no part of this chair, or anything attached.
The PPG fits around the penis.
A respirator monitors breathing patterns.
When you feel like squirming —and you will —a motion detector in the seat picks up every wiggle.
This afternoon, the shackled male is well into the PPG series of 27 “trial challenges.”
The first part of the test includes nude images of adult women and adult men in hopes that there is some response. No other nude photos are used.
“One way of looking at it is that if there is no arousal to nude adults but there is arousal to a kid in a bathing suit, that’s significant information,” Burke whispers as he observes the process from an adjacent room.
In each trial challenge, a photo appears for seven seconds.
Then a 90-second scenario.
Then six other photos related to the scenario.
Two of the challenges include ‘neutral’ stimuli, a skyscraper and furniture.
The entire test is videotaped.
“Just another way of measuring across the board,” Burke says.
But here comes trouble, the rape of a young girl at a desolate beach. She pleads. She weeps.
Then a scene in which a man beats his daughter for her apparent failure to pick up around the house.
The patient is restless.
The graph lines on the computer start moving.
“Unfortunately, he is getting aroused,” Burke says of the one-man captive audience.
This patient already has been through the Visual Sexual Preference exam, part of which includes an audio/photo scenario featuring an adult male preparing to molest a fourth-grade girl: “Why don’t you come sit with me on the couch.” “OK.” “Let’s snuggle up close so we can both see the book.”
Elements to prevent faking are built in. It’s hard to close your eyes or tune out photos when part of the drill is pressing a button whenever a picture changes or the audio gets violent.
“When you combine the tests together, the probability that you’re going to pick up whether or not someone has deviant arousal goes up to 96 or 97 percent. Which is valuable information,” Burke says. “If you just do one test independently, you’re in the low 70s.”
Ultimately, Burke says, the PPG lab is all about breaking down denial.
“Most guys deny, deny and deny. Most guys would rather say ‘I murdered my grandmother’ than admit that they have sexual fantasies about children,” he says.
“Often the only time we can get to that is through this process. That helps break down their denial, which helps us increase our ability to help them. Because sexual fantasy is the basis for 99.9 percent of all deviant sexual behavior.”
Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593.
What to look for
Search for registered sex offenders in South Carolina:
Signs of sexual abuse
Consider the possibility of sexual abuse when the child:
•Has difficulty walking or sitting
•Suddenly refuses to change for gym or to participate in physical activities
•Reports nightmares or bedwetting
•Experiences a sudden change in appetite
•Demonstrates bizarre, sophisticated, or unusual sexual knowledge or behavior
•Becomes pregnant or contracts a venereal disease, particularly if under age 14
•Reports sexual abuse by a parent or other adult caregiver
Consider the possibility of sexual abuse when the parent or other adult caregiver:
•Is unduly protective of the child or severely limits the child’s contact with other children, especially of the opposite sex
•Is secretive and isolated
•Is jealous or controlling with family members
Childwelfare.gov, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services