NOTA Annual Conference 2019

By Kieran McCartan, PhD., & David Prescott, LISCW

The annual NOTA conference took place from the 18th – 20th September in Belfast. NOTA, the National Organisation for the Treatment of Abuse, is a long-time partner to ATSA. This year’s conference was a real mix of research, practice, and engagement with over 300 colleagues from across the UK, Ireland and internationally in attendance (with attendees and speakers from a range of countries including the USA, Gibraltar, Norway, Ireland, and from all four countries of the UK). The conference focused on abuse within and across systems, with even Brexit getting a mention. In this blog, we are going to take you on a whistle-stop tour of the event.

The 2019 plenaries combined research, practice and innovate approaches from a very broad group of speakers. The Conference started on Wednesday with Professor Teresa Gannon presenting the findings of her recent meta-analysis, which included this year’s HMPPS report, on the effectiveness of treatment programs for men convicted of a sexual offence. The headlines from Professor Gannon’s presentation was that treatment does have a positive effect on behaviour change, including recidivism, compared to none and that the role of consistent, well trained and engaged providers is important. Following on from this we had a “conversation with Karl Hanson” whereby Professor Don Grubin discussed with Karl a combination of pre-submitted audience questions and his own thoughts. The topics ranged from risk assessment, treatment, risk management, and professional practice; it was an insightful alternative to a traditional keynote that allowed participants to gain more of an insight into Karl’s work and thinking. The Thursday started with a keynote from Professor Anne-McAlinden on peer-to-peer abuse, based on NOTA research committee funded work (a good reminder of the annual research grant scheme that was also launched at the conference), which indicated that we need to potentially reconceptualize risk in the context that young people live and doing so would enable us to prevent as well as respond to sexual abuse better. The was followed by a trio of Ireland based practice initiatives which where focused on children who committed sexual harm and/or engagement with their families (Carol Carson talking about AIM 3; Rhonda Turner talking about the work of the National Inter Agency Prevention Program; and Gareth McGibbon talking about the development of the Capacity & Ability to Supervise and Protect Framework [CASP]), all of which demonstrated best practice and a series of tools that conference attendees could take home with them. The final day of the conference opened with Professor Erick Janssen discussing research on sex, emotion and risk, followed by a roundtable of police experts (from England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Northern & Gibraltar) on the potential impact of Brexit on cross border co-operation and data sharing. The roundtable was fascinating and raised several questions about the impact of a no-deal Brexit and the issues that changing data sharing agreements would have on risk management, background checks, and deportation. The conference closed with a powerful and very relevant piece by the Geese theatre group examining the interactions of abuse within the family system and how it spills into other closely aligned systems (school, sport and the community).. 

The conference had 40 parallel sessions with over 50 speakers across the Wednesday and Thursday afternoon,  spanned a full range of topics and speakers (of which this is just a flavor) including, integration of people who have sexually offended back into the community (Public Protection Arrangements Northern Ireland), people who have committed sexual abuse as service users and hearing their views (Kieran McCartan, David Prescott; Lynn Saunders; Karen Martin), trauma-informed care (Catherine Gallagher, Maggie Tai Rakena); youth who sexually harm (Carol Carson; treatment (David Briggs; Adam Deming; TUSLA; AIM project Eleanor Woodford & Ben Evans; Gallagher; Geraldine Akerman); sibling sexual abuse (Jacqueline Page; Melissa Maltar, Nancy Falls): 3 sessions dedicated to research and another on important issues for practitioners in critically engaging with research by the research committee.

The workshops were a good mix of research, evaluation, practical working, professional learning and knowledge exchange.

In addition to the traditional conference activities NOTA 2019 also had an engagement event that was open to all co-organised with Public Protection Arrangements Northern Ireland and took place away from the conference site. We advertised the engagement event to professionals who have safeguarding as part of their jobs, but that safeguarding is not their main role (and therefore would not be attending the NOTA conference) including, teachers, foster carers, members of charities and NGO’s, etc. We had 60 participants sign up to attend the event, all of whom attended.  The session heard from national (DSI Paula Hamilton, Julie Smyth & Kieran McCartan) and international (Eileen Finnegan & Maia Christopher) speakers about the aetiology, prevention and risk management of people convicted of sexual offences in the community.

NOTA 2019 saw Professor Simon Hackett step down as Chair of NOTA and Professor Sarah Brown take over the role. Unfortunately, Simon could not be in Belfast with us but his contribution to the organisation was applauded in his absence and he was thanked for all his hard work. Also, NOTA 2019 was Gail McGregor’s last conference as conference chair and she too was thanked for all her hard work.

NOTA 2019 fitted a massive amount of material in across three days, which left us informed, refreshed and looking forward to next year’s meeting in Leeds.

The Mersey Care Prevention Service

By Lisa Wright

The Mersey Care Prevention Service, launched last year, developed from discussions between Mersey Forensic Psychology service, part of Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust, and Merseyside Police. The Police recognised that some of the people they had arrested for sexual abuse may not have gone on to commit these offences if they had received help earlier. Knowledge of our work with convicted adults in the region led them to approach us and we jointly created and funded the new service.

The original idea was a service aimed at adults who had become concerned about their own sexual feelings or behaviours and were motivated to engage in psychological intervention to reduce the chances of them acting in an abusive or illegal manner. The ideal client would not have committed any illegal act but be concerned that they may do so without help. The Police hoped to identify individuals who came to their attention for problematic sexual behaviour but not reach the threshold for prosecution and we also sought referrals from GPs, counselling and mental health services and Social Care. However our criteria was later expanded due to difficulties in recruitment – very few ideal clients came forward!

We based the intervention approach on our prior work with adults who had sexually offended and our smaller client group of those people professionals had considered to pose a risk of sexual offending.

Mersey Forensic Psychology Service is foremost a therapy service, providing formulation based individual psychological therapies aimed at reducing risk of offending or re-offending. This takes place in the community and within North West prisons. The therapy approaches used vary and are based on the methods that we assess as most suited to the client and their formulation. We utilise EMDR and Schema Therapy most frequently as they are best suited to re-processing the trauma that we frequently find lies at the heart of the problematic behaviour we encounter.

These therapies have been used in mental health services to change the emotional and physiological feelings arising from trauma that drive problematic behaviours, including sexual behaviours, and have transitioned well to our setting. Clients feel understood, emotionally connected to the origin of their problems and report significant change in sexual feelings and behaviours.

The range of clients that have been referred to the prevention service has been varied and far from the ideal we had envisaged. Often Social Services have referred men who have raised concerns by behaving in inappropriate ways towards children but have not been prosecuted and are attempting to prove that they are not a risk to their children. They are therefore unlikely to ‘open up’ and engage in intervention. Other clients have already offended, been involved in on-going Police investigations or may believe that they have not offended but it emerges that they have committed a criminal act. These types of cases we are duty bound to discuss with the Police, causing some distress to the individuals involved –  not ideal! These referrals have led to us revising the information provided to prospective clients and referrers to make clearer the remit and legal obligations of the service and avoid any of the above issues recurring.

We have had some more appropriate and successful referrals – men who appear not to have offended and are motivated to understand and change their feelings and behaviours – but they have been the minority of our overall referral list. Therefore in order to generate more interest we publicised the service in the local press.

The reaction to the publicity for the prevention service might help to explain why people we are attempting to reach are not coming forward. The hatred, anger and aggression expressed on social media towards people who might experience a sexual attraction to children was horrific. It’s not surprising that the vast majority of our clients have already come to the attention of a professional and then been referred on rather than deciding independently to seek help.

Increasing awareness of the service, in a way that minimises the risk to potentially interested people and doesn’t create negative publicity, is tricky. Furthermore, the referral process, approaches to safeguarding issues and reporting of information are obviously heavily influenced by both the founding organisations’ policies and procedures, which may be a significant barrier to engagement for some people but is difficult to get around.

We have now expanded the service to include individuals who have convictions for exposure. This was based on Police concerns and case examples of young men who had committed exposure and then later gone on to commit violent sexual contact offences. This has increased the numbers of appropriate referrals and widened the aims of the service.

We are therefore continuing to adapt to the situations we are faced with in trying to provide a meaningful and effective service to those who want it and to make it more attractive to those that currently don’t. The men who have engaged in therapy are progressing well and reporting significant psychological change. Overall then, the results of our intervention for those who have engaged in therapy, are largely positive and we will continue to explore ways of reaching more people who would benefit from the interventions that we can offer.