Early last month, New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services released a groundbreaking study of sexual and gender diversity among the city’s foster youth.
Hailed by advocates and covered by The New York Times, The Imprint and other news outlets, the survey of teenagers found more than 30% of those in foster care identify as LGBTQ. That group was also more likely to report discrimination and a lack of supportive adults in their lives. Along with the study, the city’s child welfare agency released a detailed action plan that pledged more targeted services and improved training for caregivers.
While the survey’s findings are not being questioned, prior research and publications by its author, Columbia University professor Theo Sandfort, are now coming under heightened scrutiny — with advocates questioning his suitability to lead the city-commissioned project and why his complete academic background hadn’t been vetted.
In books and articles on the topic of pedophilia published between 1979 and the early 1990s, Sandfort wrote that children as young as age 10 can be in consensual sexual relationships with adults decades older and should not always be labeled as “victims.” His published works include such titles as: “Pedophile Relationships in the Netherlands: Alternative Lifestyle for Children?,” “Boys On Their Contacts with Men: A Study of Sexually Expressed Friendships,” and “Male Intergenerational Intimacy: Historical, Socio-Psychological, and Legal Perspectives.”
The research led Sandfort to conclude that the Netherlands should narrow age-of-consent laws, to allow “the right to accept as well as to refuse the sexual initiative of an adult,” as he put it in the May 1984 issue of the Journal of Sex Research.
On Friday, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) informed The Imprint that the agency’s current leadership had not previously known about these publications and that it has “severed all ties” with Sandfort.
“The City of New York has zero tolerance for pedophilia. The health, safety, and well-being of children is our top priority, and those who endanger children are contrary to the values of our city,” Children’s Services spokesperson Marisa Kaufman stated in an email. “Our work with Dr. Sandfort began over five years ago and current ACS leadership was not aware of these previous writings until after the survey findings were released. ACS has severed all ties with Dr. Sandfort.”
On Saturday, one of the firms representing foster children in New York City called for an examination into how Sandfort came to design the survey conducted in 2019, which Children’s Services had commissioned four years prior. The survey involved interviews with young people, ages 13 to 20, who had been removed from their parents following neglect and abuse allegations.
“We call on ACS to conduct a full inquiry into how Dr. Sandfort was cleared to oversee this survey in 2019,” stated Karen Freedman, executive director of Lawyers For Children, in an email. “We hope that ACS will collaborate with us and others to identify a researcher with a demonstrated track record of ethical and substantive research in the field of child welfare to complete work on this important project.”
Meanwhile, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a prominent philanthropy that helped fund the foster youth study, has removed mentions of it from its website.
In a statement sent Monday, the organization’s spokesperson Norris West wrote: “The Foundation learned early this month that this researcher has published work in the past that is fundamentally inconsistent with our values. Therefore, we’ve removed all references to this study from our website and other digital platforms.”
The child welfare agency — which spent roughly $416,000 in public and private funds over the course of five years for the survey project — has now said it will no longer consult with Sandfort for follow-up training and analysis.
In an interview with The Imprint last month about the study of LGBTQ foster youth, Sandfort, a professor of clinical sociomedical sciences, spoke about the importance of acknowledging their great needs, including more supportive foster families and caseworkers.
Sandfort did not directly respond to requests in recent weeks for a follow-up interview about his prior research. Instead, on Dec. 8 he emailed a statement through a spokesperson for Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center. In it, Sandfort addressed criticism of his earlier work, which a parent activist posted on Twitter after the foster youth survey was released in November.
He noted that “some individuals have tried to discredit this study on social media by pointing to papers based on my earlier academic research on pedophilia, conducted in the Netherlands more than 25 years ago.”
Sandfort closed his statement by saying, “I have never advocated for adult-child sexual interactions, and I have never promoted or participated in such activities.”
After pledging to provide further information and comment, Sandfort and the university medical center spokesperson had not done so by Tuesday evening.
Sandfort, who is in his late 60s, is a postdoctoral training director at Columbia University’s HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies, a past president of the International Academy of Sex Research, and a fellow with the American Psychological Association. For more than 40 years, he has conducted research studies around the world on sexual and gender diversity, with a specific focus on sexual orientation and mental health, sexual behavior and HIV risk.
He is considered a pioneer in identifying mental health risks for the LGBTQ population, and is an editorial board member for several well-regarded academic journals. His former students have praised him on social media in recent years for his mentorship.
One of his former students and research co-authors in the Netherlands, Henny Bos, a professor of sexual and gender diversity in families and youth at the University of Amsterdam, called it “a strange and stupid decision” for New York City to sever ties with Sandfort. She emphasized the quality of his recent study of LGBTQ foster youth, calling it characteristic of his “extremely important” work on related topics.
Reached Monday by phone, Bos, a leading expert on lesbian mother and gay father families, added that she was aware of but not familiar with his pedophilia research.
It appears that many in the United States also were unaware, although over the years, Sandfort’s early work on pedophilia has prompted debates over his methods and findings. The core of that work involved interviews with 25 boys ages 10 to 16 about their ongoing relationships with men in their mid-20s through their mid-60s, including details of specific sex acts they engaged in.
In the 1983 paper, published in a journal called Alternative Lifestyles, Sandfort concluded that “the partner and relationship, including sexual aspects, were experienced in predominately positive terms; evidence of exploitation or misuse was absent.” The findings had implications for social policy, he argued further, stating “that such relationships can be viable for some children.”
In the paper, Sandfort describes an interview he had with a 12-year-old boy he called Rob, who told him that Chris, 38, “taught me things, which my mother will never be able to teach me, even if I were 20 … Especially sexual things, I think.” A 10-year-old named Ben reportedly told Sandfort of his older partner: “I like to sleep together, then I’m not alone in bed. Sometimes I’m a little afraid to go to sleep, if I have seen a movie.”
Wouter, 12, described feeling at home with Gerard, who was 42.
“I really can take shelter there from my father. It is of great help to me,” Wouter told Sandfort. “He is a nice fellow and you can do what you want with him, ha ha, if you just don’t go too far. He makes allowances for you and then you also have to make allowances for him.”
Sandfort describes these remarks as evidence that “the older partner emerges as someone the boys can talk to easily and with whom they can discuss their problems.” In the text of his 1987 book, “Boys On Their Contacts with Men,” Sandfort also writes that what the boys had described were criminal offenses in the Netherlands at the time, but he does not indicate he notified authorities or parents of what the boys told him.
“Any new or revised legislation must provide protection for young people against sexual abuse,” he wrote, but added that “at the same time it must not obstruct their right to sexual self-determination.”
Sandfort was listed as an editorial board member of a journal called Paidika, which was printed from 1987 to 1995, and featured his two-part series on the “sexual experiences of children” in 1993 and 1994 editions. The first issue of Paidika includes a statement of purpose that read: “We intend to demonstrate that paedophilia has been, and remains, a legitimate and productive part of the totality of human experience.” Other editorial board members included a newsletter writer for the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), a pedophilia advocacy group.
Susan Clancy, a former postdoctoral fellow at Harvard with a Ph. D in psychology, and the author of a book on childhood sexual abuse, “The Trauma Myth,” said Sandfort’s pedophilia research looks “shockingly biased,” and would likely fail to pass ethical muster with institutional review boards in the United States today. It was not surprising to her that some children like Ben, Wouter and Rob could report positive experiences with older men, but she disagreed with the conclusions Sandfort drew from them.
“Many victims only understand the full nature and significance of what happened later on in life,” Clancy wrote in an email. “Tragically, as adults, they often blame themselves for what happened as children. They think they were at fault because they didn’t say no.”
Other scholars reached by The Imprint were unaware of Sandfort’s earlier work and were reluctant to second-guess his collaboration with the New York City welfare agency, citing his noteworthy career and the importance of the LGBTQ survey released last month.
But earlier critiques can be found in academic journal archives, including comments from David Finkelhor, now director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. Finkelhor was one of several American child welfare experts critical of Sandfort’s work in the 1980s, calling his survey of boys “extremely unrepresentative” and having “little relevance for policy.” He added that it is contradicted by numerous studies of children’s suffering from sexual abuse.
Finkelhor argued in 1991 that the prohibition on adult-child sexual contact is also a moral issue: “Some types of social relationships violate deeply held values and principles in our culture about equality and self-determination.”
In his statement last week, Sandfort noted that he is an author or co-author on more than 280 academic papers, the majority of which have focused on “gay and lesbian sexuality and mental health, determinants of HIV risk behavior, and sexual health promotion.” He also noted: “Some of this work has involved the study of adolescents, including several papers in the 1980s and 90s dealing with pedophilia.”
According to publicly available research, Sandfort appears to have abandoned pedophilia research by the mid-1990s, and has gone on to have a prolific career as a social psychologist who studies sexuality and health.
There is no mention of Sandfort’s pedophilia research on his Columbia University faculty pages or in his author biography published in the recent foster youth study.
Youth advocates in New York City now question why the child welfare agency chose Sandfort to conduct the recent survey on gender and sexual identity among foster youth. There is widespread agreement that the findings are significant: More than 30% of foster youth identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, agender, asexual or intersex, and many said they had no option for housing other than group care.
Sandfort told The Imprint he interviewed some youth in person on the campus of a suburban group home in 2016 and 2017.
Mary Keane, former executive director of the foster youth support organization You Gotta Believe, said she believes Sandfort should not have been allowed to conduct in-person interviews, particularly given that his pedophilia research appeared to include advocacy for some sexual relationships between men and boys.
“He should never have been working with any kids under any official banner, but kids in care are just that much more vulnerable,” Keane said.
She and other advocates expressed hope the author’s past work does not distract from the serious concerns of LGBTQ youth revealed by the survey, and the need to get those young people more resources and emotional support.
“Pedophilia is a danger to children,” stated Christina Wilson Remlin, lead counsel of Children’s Rights, in an email. “Child welfare agencies must enforce strict standards to keep those associated with it away from children. If Theo Sandfort has authored articles arguing for the acceptance of pedophilia, he should not have been hired by ACS to lead or participate in any survey of foster youth.”
Wednesday, December 16, 2020: This article has been updated to reflect additional information provided by Columbia University professor Theo Sandfort after publication. Sandfort interviewed some foster youth in person on the campus of a suburban group home in 2016 and 2017, not last year. He also said New York City officials in office in 2015 were provided information about his pedophilia research.
Megan Conn contributed to this report.