Do high-risk offenders remain high risk forever or do we just want them to be?

By Kieran McCartan, Ph.D., & David Prescott, LICSW.

NOTE: It is important to state that the authors have no more information on the risk posed by Colin Pitchfork than has been released into the public domain. The aims of this blog are not to challenge or validate any decisions that have been made, rather debate the question of change and, ultimately desistence, in high-risk individuals – Kieran

Earlier this week it was announced that Colin Pitchfork, one of the UK’s most notorious child killers would be released from prison back into the community after the parole board stated that it was safe to return him to the community. As well as killing his victims, Pitchfork also sexually assaulted and raped them. At the time of his offence and conviction, his case made national headlines, which has not abated during his time in the prison system and all his parole hearings as well as appeals. The Pitchfork case presents a challenge between evidence, practices, public opinion, and “politics” and in doing so reminds us of the mantra, and the challenge laid down by Karl Hanson that not all high-risk offenders will always remain high risk.

The balancing act in the pitchfork case is multi-layered and complicated, involving the nature of his offence, the public and political reaction, media commentary, trust in the state to manage people after their release, and a fundamental question of whether we believe that people can change. To start to understand the complexity we need to pick apart the social, political, and cultural dimensions that surround the case.

  • The offence: Colin Pitchfork raped and murdered two schoolgirls in the 1980s in Leicester England. They were Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth, both 15, in 1983 and 1986 respectively. The offences while harrowing, are particularly salient given the nature of the crimes and victims. These events have provoked public and political reactions, creating, and reinforcing stereotypes and misperceptions about the reality of these offences as well as the people who perpetrate them. One reason that this case made national headlines was that Pitchfork was the first person in the UK to be convicted, in 1988, by use of DNA evidence. At the time of conviction, he was sentenced to two life sentences, 30 years in the UK, to be executed simultaneously, which meant that he was initially due for release in 2018.
  • Public and political reaction: Given the nature of the crime and the conditions of the conviction, and international media coverage at the time, Pitchfork’s case was in the public and political interest. This resulted in many consecutive Secretaries of State becoming involved, right up to and including the current one. Currently, the Ministry of Justice and Robert Buckland, MP, have come out and said that they are disappointed by Pitchfork’s release and are considering a root and branch review of the parole board and their decision-making processes. This adds complexity to the case; it reinforces public concerns (that can often be laden with misconceptions) and calls into question professional standards and decision-making processes. It begs the question of whether high profile offenders should, could, and are being treated differently than other offenders because of the reaction that their release creates.
  • Media commentary: The media’s close attention to the case often highlighted the salacious nature of Pitchfork’s offending behaviour, especially at key points in the trial, sentencing, and previous attempts at release. The media have often reinforced the public and political view that pitchfork is a constant and unrelenting threat, and therefore he should not be released. No counterpoint has examined the legitimacy of the potential risk management plans, the risk assessment, or the expertise of the professionals responsible for these decisions. The media often state that they are following and discussing the story because it’s in the public interest. The real question, however, is whether they are framing the story in a way that is in the public interest.
  • Practice and evidence base: The extant research and practice evidence bases highlight that people can and do change, especially over the course of many decades and as they age. They very often desist from further crime and community as well as social support often help in this. This knowledge base includes not only people who have committed sexual offences and murders but also other people who have committed serious offences that have resulted in life sentences. The reality is that Pitchfork was given a life sentence (i.e., 30 years) and not a whole life tariff (i.e., that he would die in prison). Therefore, there has always been the expectation that he would be moving towards release and community integration at some point. We can see through his time in prison that this was the objective, especially given the treatment and rehabilitation programs that he attended as well as the fact that was moved to an open prison towards the end of his sentence. Additionally, Pitchfork has had an extensive and restrictive risk management plan developed as part of his release, highlighting the centrality of community safeguarding and public protection in his release from prison. All of this raises the question of whether the real issue is whether the sentence, tariff, and process are not what the public, media, and politicians wanted. After all, the prison service and parole board’s methods are obliged to be in line with the evidence base.

The Colin Pitchfork case creates more questions than it answers. It begs the question of whether the public, political, and media reactions are based on the nature of the crime and the perceived nature of punishment required. Looking at the evidence base, HMPPS and the parole board have delivered what they were meant to and that they have worked towards. If society at large is not happy with that, then the question needs to be asked if it is more that they are not happy with the sentence, tariff, or processes involved rather than what has currently been delivered. Therefore, we need to reflect upon the public and political perceptions of punishment, rehabilitation, risk assessment, and risk management versus the evidence-based reality of practice in this area. How do we bring perception and reality closer together? How do we create an informed, evidenced understanding of the challenges and processes involved in successful (risk) management of high-profile cases?  

‘It hasn’t had much effect on me… social contact has been limited since arrest’: part 2

 By Kirsty Teague

Please note that Kirsty Teague, Lecturer in Criminology and Doctoral Candidate at Nottingham Trent University is supervised by Dr. Nicholas Blagden, Professor. Belinda Winder, and Dr. Paul Hamilton. This is part 2 of a 2 part blog.  Kieran

Parts 1 and 2 of this extended blog post provide reflections and realisations as a result of conducting face-to-face (F2F) data collection over a 6-month period during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst Part 1 focused specifically on participant recruitment and participant vulnerability, Part 2 explores barriers to engagement with meaningful others experienced by men with sexual convictions during the pandemic. The latter part of the post looks at the impact conducting f2f research had on the researcher during this time.

Restrictions preventing engagement with meaningful others

Have you even lived through the COVID-19 pandemic if you haven’t had to participate in a video call and/or online quiz with family and friends?

Video calls and quizzes have been elevated to lifeline status over the last 12 months and considered a key source in maintaining social connection. However, for those with a sexual conviction (regardless of offence type), licence restrictions can prevent (i) access to the internet; and/or (ii) ownership of a smartphone which can take or download photographs/video and have the ability to live stream. This has meant that throughout the pandemic there has been a proportion of individuals effectively cut off from the new virtual world we find ourselves in. Something that has received little to no attention or consideration by those who craft such restrictions and policies.

As such, initiatives such as the Corbett Centre have become even more valuable than ever before; a physical place where everyone is safe, respected and not judged. As someone who belongs to the LGBTQI+ community, the role and value of ‘safe spaces’, I appreciate all too well. Having allies is also important. This leads me to Ben’s March 19th blog post titled: ‘reflections on the challenges of “true” community integration post-conviction’, where put forward the following:

‘The solution is still to humanize sex offenders and tell their stories of trauma and childhood adversity, as often and as loudly as possible, so that they are no longer feared. As the fear goes away, so will the hatred and the othering. Creating empathy for sex offenders, in wider society, will not be easy. You will be accused of being soft on crime, but it must at least be attempted’.

As researchers and practitioners, this is something that we must be committed to doing to reintegrate those with sexual convictions back into their communities. The pandemic has meant that men with sexual convictions feel like outsiders, more so than they do usually, not just due to the pandemic, but due to structural barriers in place to prevent their reintegration. These barriers send messages of difference, fear and risk to society, creating a sense of hostility.

The vulnerable researcher

Conducting f2f research during the pandemic has been energising and de-energising in equal measure.

Hearing and promoting the voices of those who too often don’t get to tell their stories has been energising, and something which I’ll do until there is tangible and meaningful change for the better in how society and criminal justice agencies respond to those who have sexual convictions.

However, there has been emotional and psychological strain in conducting this research. Something which I’ve reflected on more so in recent months is the role that gender plays in conducting research with men who have sexual convictions. As a female researcher, I wonder about the extent to which there is parity with researchers of other genders in the nature and extent participants offload both general and specific wellbeing related issues, but more specifically in a COVID-era.

However, sensitivity and receptivity to issues of exclusion and isolation on my part is also likely to be impacted (and be perhaps elevated) as a result of the pandemic. My partial experiences (by comparison) of exclusion and isolation have made me more sensitive to my participants experiences of such. However, this begs the question, do we need to have experienced something in order to understand it? There are some parallels here to other realms of social life. For example, people now likely have a greater understanding of the difficulties associated with teaching since home-schooling children during the pandemic. One thing that transcends most issues, however, is that during challenging times, socio-economic status insofar as access to resources and support goes, can either perpetuate or protect against structural disadvantage.

On a related note, many discussions in the interview context related to social isolation, and the idea of becoming ‘socially inept’ – de-skilled from building social connection due to a lack of opportunities for relationship building. This often led to concern for the participants given the exacerbating nature I knew the pandemic was having on this issue. Reminded of the trust and hope placed in research to help make positive change, this was often a mitigating tool not just for me, but for the participants undoubtedly too.

Participant 11 diary entry: ‘April 30th: This started as recording something to be grateful for each day and I appear to have moved away from that.

So today I am grateful for the great people at the Corbett Centre. Helping with the research is so interesting, I always find out something about myself’’

Finally

Whilst social distancing, sterilising of surfaces, lateral flow testing and face masks mark a sign of the times, not least in research and educational contexts, they shouldn’t be seen as barriers to meaningful connection. Occupying the same physical space is more so important, especially in eliciting people’s life stories and lived experiences.

‘It hasn’t had much effect on me… social contact has been limited since arrest’: Reflections on conducting Face 2 Face research with men who have sexual convictions during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Kirsty Teague

Please note that Kirsty Teague, Lecturer in Criminology and Doctoral Candidate at Nottingham Trent University is supervised by Dr. Nicholas Blagden, Professor. Belinda Winder, and Dr. Paul Hamilton. This is part 1 of a 2 part blog. Kieran  

Participant 10 diary entry: ‘Sunday 27th December, just spent my worst Christmas on record and Covid did not help. Since last Thursday I have not spoken more than ten words to anyone, I am beginning to hate it here, and I think not being aloud to speak to my next-door neighbour is rather pathetic, and the persons who agree with it need to get a life. It must go against everything equality stands for. I very rarely get angry and I’m not angry now but I do get emotional and at the moment I feel emotionally drained, tired and for want of a better word unloved, not that I wish to be loved but it would be nice if someone actually cared’

In England, March 23rd, 2020, October 31st, 2020, and January 4th, 2021 will be remembered for marking three distinct national lockdown phases resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst for many, we were entering unchartered territory of social isolation and reduced autonomy, for some of the most vulnerable in society this was not new. For men with sexual convictions, life post-prison is too often marked by isolation and restrictions.

Whilst we were shielding the clinically vulnerable, those who were vulnerable as a result of their offence history were becoming more isolated than ever before. For many men with sexual convictions, relationships with family and friends are too often replaced by professional relationships, not least with probation services. However, in March 2020 even face-to-face (F2F) meetings were replaced by digital supervision, with only probationers deemed high-risk warranting a doorstep visit. Whilst of course this was deemed necessary to control the infection rate, the impact of a lack – and for some a total loss of – human contact has been evident, especially in a research setting.

My PhD research is exploring how men with sexual convictions construe and relate to ‘community’ by looking at social cure and social curse processes that help or indeed hinder, reintegration post-prison. This is done through a combination of methods including interviews, repertory grids and diaries. From November 2020 through to April 2021 I commenced face-to-face data collection. Below I outline my reflections and realisations throughout.

Participant recruitment

The new and innovative Corbett Centre provides the hub for this research, including participant recruitment. From the outset, many service-users of the centre were keen to participate. However, with the rapidly changing nature of the virus and responses to its control, I anticipated engagement would dip, no matter how well-intentioned service-users were, to begin with.

What followed, however, was an unbridled enthusiasm to engage with the research. Fourteen participants engaged with two interviews (one semi-structured; and one repertory grid), with the opportunity to maintain a diary as well. Throughout the pandemic, the centre has been COVID-secure and risk-assessed, making it a place of safety, in its widest interpretation. During the pandemic, ‘community’ and being ‘together apart’ have been critical for social connectedness. The necessity to understand the bearing of these concepts on men with sexual convictions provided plenty of discussion at a time when they felt somewhat disconnected. In practical terms, this led to lengthy discussions which often meant that it was sometimes difficult to round up discussions and prepare for subsequent interviews. There was often a conversational spillover that warranted a coffee and a chat after, or the need to switch off from an emotive discussion on lacking social belonging (which featured a lot) to then learn a card game before they left the centre. It was at these junctures I reflected on Prof. Belinda Winder’s, take on research ethics being an ‘iterative cycle of ethics and care’. 

Participant 3 diary entry: ‘Saturday 16th January – ‘… had my interview at CC and it made me realise how much I enjoy being there. With work and not living too close it isn’t somewhere I get as often as I would like but it is one place I feel truly relaxed as myself ‘warts and all’. Ok, Kirsty’s company, coffee and mini-egg chocolate do have a bearing on that but even so it’s nice to have a proper conversation without being guarded about my past…’ 

Participant 7 diary entry: ‘03/02/2021 – Wednesday – ‘I went over to the Corbett Centre today… I had a chat with Dave and Kirsty too. It was nice to have a bit of social time. I did some shopping on the way home too’

Vulnerable participants

Any researcher will be familiar with the banal and ritualistic (but, yes necessary) providing debriefing sheets to participants following a research encounter. However, conducting this kind of research, during these times, required humanistic and relational encounters. Many participants commented on how few people they’d had a meaningful interaction with, in the preceding days and weeks before engaging in research. Taking the time to have a chat about the mundanities of life, but also to discuss how they were coping was incredibly important.

Participant 10 diary entry: Friday 18th December, staying in and being sort of isolated for the last four days and not speaking or seeing anyone, a few thoughts came to mind, one being, if I never speak to or see anyone in my life, do I really exist. I sometimes feel like I’m in sort of a ground-hog day, not moving forward like I should be, sometimes it even feels like I’m moving backwards

The pandemic has provided fewer opportunities for us all to have meaningful encounters with people, and those with sexual convictions sometimes more so. It was also often during a research encounter that issues were presented that perhaps wouldn’t pre-COVID. One participant hadn’t slept the night before coming to the centre due to him finding out his mother was too scared to leave the house as a result of neighbours learning of her son’s offence history. For this reason, we spent much of the morning discussing the next steps and wellbeing-related issues. Whilst for many, the pandemic has provided an opportunity for reflection on what is important in life, violence (symbolic, structural and bodily) continues for those who have a sexual conviction, and those they are close with. Being there to listen and provide moral support (scaffolding appropriate practical support) throughout the pandemic has been essential.

Part 2 will discuss barriers to engagement with meaningful others experienced by men with sexual convictions during the pandemic and the impact conducting f2f research had during this time on the researcher.

Do not forget the middle person: Preventing abuse one stakeholder at a time.

 By Kieran McCartan, Ph.D., David Prescott, LICSW, & Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D.

One of the authors (Kieran) was giving a research seminar at another university in the UK last week; the talk was on his research relating to the prevention of sexual abuse and how community engagement and bystander intervention fit into it. In the discussion afterward, he was asked, “How do you get politicians on board to prevent sexual abuse?” In some ways this is a “stock” answer for many:  you talk about community and personal values, you have a story that humanizes, you think of re-election, and what will play well in the public arena. But in answering, Kieran realized not only was that the wrong answer, but it was also the wrong question. The real question is, “How do you get governments to buy into the prevention of sexual abuse?” The answer, which is frustratingly easy, and hard, is you communicate and work with the middle person (in the UK that is portfolio leads, policy leads, and civil servants).

The realities of politics are that that politicians can be transient, which is particularly important to remember if you are a minister with a portfolio and ambition. Generally, politicians are not given roles based on their knowledge and skills, they are often given roles based on their position in the party or their relationship to the leader. While it might make sense to the public that the Minister for Health should have a background in health care, for example, this is rarely the case. What this means in practice that new ministers must learn their portfolios on the move with little time to process material at any great depth. Therefore, they are relying on, some more than others (fortunately or unfortunately as the case may be in different circumstances), on existing staff’s knowledge, networks, and ability. In this instance, it is very apparent that while the minister is important, these middle people are also important, and might be even more important. Adding to the complexity is that politicians around the world also sometimes take their staff with them or let much go, with the result that the “institutional memory” in some sectors of government can change. 

The middle people in most instances are primarily policymakers, researchers, and civil servants. They have often been worked within the government for years, often outlasting ministers and some outlasting administrators. They understand how the system works, the types of information required by ministers and the timeframe, as well as the format needed to get it across the line. Therefore, the question should be about how to best work with the middle person so that you can make sure that your message is heard by the right minister at the right time. Not surprisingly these middle people have different wants and needs than the ministers that they work for. To them it’s about trust, reliability, being able to frame a complex story in a straightforward way, being quick to respond, and being able to frame the message within the policy and practice of the ministry at that time. Being on the side, or at least in conversation, with the middle person means that your message is more likely to be heard by the minister. It does not guarantee that you will get the outcome you want, but you are more likely to get heard.

How does this play out with respect to the prevention of sexual abuse and the safe community integration of people with a conviction for sexual abuse? We need to convince portfolio leads, policymakers, and civil servants that the prevention and responses to sexual abuse are variable, that they are cost and time effective, that they align with the administration’s policies, that they are fit for purpose (i.e., that they will reduce offending and victimization), that they are supported by the professional community and will not alienate victims. This is a challenge to do in one conversation, you need many. You need to build a relationship and be the go-to authority.

Politicians will make their own decisions, in line with party politics and manifestos, but the middle person is the person who will make the politicians (hopefully) listen and who will be there to balance the message and bring others on board. How we work with them will help determine their influence on the key decision-makers.

Rehabilitation in culture and practice or simply in ideology?

By Kieran McCartan, Ph.D., David Prescott, LICSW, Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D.

One of the authors (Kieran) was teaching about the politics of risk management in the criminal justice system this week. The class focused on the balance between punishment and rehabilitation/treatment. We know that the role of the criminal justice system is to provide punishment for offenses committed and also to provide the opportunity for rehabilitation so that the individuals in question can be integrated back into the community post-release. However, we also know that it’s not that simple, that there are different pressures on the criminal justice system that force it more towards punishment than rehabilitation, or (rarely) vice versa. Finally, we know that tools intended for rehabilitative purposes (e.g., risk assessment) are applied to provide punishment instead. Although the balance of punishment and rehabilitation is at the root of important debates, the broader debate has gone on for ages, with little really getting resolved. The results are commonly an agreement that things need to change, with an acknowledgment that they rarely do.

An interesting point in these debates is that we use terms like rehabilitative culture to explain what we do, but the question that we need to ask ourselves is that whether we are really building a culture or more of a hat tip to the idea of it. When we think about culture, we think about a system, a way of doing things that happens in unison with a common purpose. However, in criminal justice, this rarely happens; we often have a gap between ideology and practice, a gap between the way that we want to do things and the way that we are doing things. If we are honest, we also have a gap between how we portray our rehabilitative cultures and the less pleasant realities when we ask the service user’s experiences.

This “rehabilitation gap” often reflects economics, politics, public and professional attitudes, and the media (to name a few) that push policy and practice as well as ideology and implementation further apart. Ideal terms, such as “rehabilitative culture” should reflect values such as a commitment to all aspects of the service users’ journey towards successful rehabilitation and community reintegration. However, what we are often left with is a process-driven form of rehabilitation that strives for a cultural underpinning but does not really achieve it; as we’ve seen, many factors can intervene. It is important to note that true rehabilitative culture is a hard thing to achieve and is a practice and a discipline. A bit like a therapeutic community it needs buy-in from everyone and cannot work in a piecemeal fashion.

Is there a difference between a culture that works towards rehabilitation as opposed to a rehabilitative culture? We believe there is. The implications are that we must recognize that our current practices process and outcome-driven without necessarily being culturally embedded. If we want a rehabilitative criminal justice system, we need to be service user-informed, evidence-based, and practice-led. We need to untangle rehabilitation from punishment and look at them as two parallel, interrelated but distinct processes. We have started to do this, but in our review of programs, practices, and policies it often seems that we have a long way to go. In our view, punishment in the absence of opportunities for rehabilitation is cruel.

Questions for front-line professionals might include:

· Does your work setting have a clear mission statement that staff members take to heart?

· Do your clients have a clear understanding of how your treatment completion, rehabilitation, and community reintegration? In other words, do they know what the end of treatment looks like?

· Has your work setting explicitly defined what a rehabilitative culture looks like and how it operates?

· Has your work setting actively sought out the feedback of clients receiving care? Do they agree with your vision of a rehabilitative culture and how it exists in your program?

· Does your work setting have a track record of responding to client feedback? Many agencies collect feedback but do not circle back to tell their clients what changes they are making in response to that feedback.

Anyone who has read the news at all in the past several years will know that no form of culture can ever be taken for granted.

Sibling sexual abuse: A knowledge and practice overview

By Stuart Allardyce, Director Lucy Faithfull Foundation.

To find out that your child has sexually abused his or her sibling is one of the most disturbing experiences a parent can live through. As a social worker I once worked with a mother who described finding out that her 8 year old daughter had been sexually assaulted by her 13 year old step-brother as being ‘like a grenade going off in the heart of my family’. Over the last 20 years I’ve worked with countless families that have been torn apart by this form of intra-familial harm. Working with such cases never gets easier; it always involves having to connect with parents and with children who are going through immense pain, confusion, distress and shame.

And for those of us who work in child protection and safeguarding, these situations are – tragically – not uncommon. Although sibling sexual abuse is less likely to be disclosed in childhood than other forms of sexual abuse and exploitation, it is the most common form of intra-familial sexual harm, with victimisation studies suggesting it may be three times as common as sexual abuse by a parent. If you work in any aspect of child care, you are likely to work with a family that has been impacted by sibling sexual abuse at some stage. If you work with adult survivors of child sexual abuse, it’s also likely to be an issue you regularly encounter in your practice. Many only feel able to disclose in adulthood – if at all – as they reflect on childhood experiences from the perspective of adulthood.

Research also tells us that the response families get from professionals they work with after sexual abuse can sometimes be inconsistent, confused, and not sufficient. Key decisions need to be made at this stage in relation to whether siblings can continue to live together or need to be separated, as well as about what assessment and intervention approaches would be helpful for the child who has been harmed, the child who has harmed and the family as a whole. These decisions need to be grounded in evidence and an understanding of the best practice, as well as being responsive to the needs of the family and all of its individual members. Decisions made also demand practitioner reflectiveness, recognising your own values, feelings, and preconceptions, supported through knowledgeable and sensitive supervision.

These are the reasons why my colleague Peter Yates and I were asked to write a report by the Centre of Expertise on child sexual abuse (CSA Centre.) This was published last week and provides an overview of current research and practice knowledge on sibling sexual abuse in childhood. The report (https://www.csacentre.org.uk/knowledge-in-practice/practice-improvement/sibling-sexual-abuse/) is designed to be an accessible resource to help professionals think through the issues and challenges raised by this form of familial abuse.

Our starting point in the report is language. You might have noticed I referred to the ‘child who has been harmed’ and the ‘child who has harmed’ earlier in this blog. Clunky terminology, but to use the language of ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ brings an adult lens to this issue that instead needs to be considered in a developmental and familial context. That’s not to minimise the significant harm caused by this kind of abuse or to excuse abuse in any way. Studies that have compared young people who have displayed harmful sexual behaviours within family contexts and outside family contexts have found that the former group is more likely to abuse the child who has been harmed through penetrative acts, repeatedly and over extensive periods of time. Clinical studies suggest theaverage age difference between siblings is three to five years. This is a form of sexual violence that urgently needs to be tackled. But we also need to recognise that these are children first and foremost in these cases, and that needs to be the starting point of our work.

The report covers the identification of abusive sibling sexual abusive behaviours and how these contrast with sexual behaviours between siblings that are developmentally normative and exploratory, as well as understanding that some sexual behaviours between siblings may be inappropriate or problematic but not abusive per se. All front line safeguarding practitioners need this kind of information.

The report also looks at what research tells us about those who harm and those who are harmed, in such situations and the common issues for families. But the heart of the report is what evidence tells us about how we initially respond to such situations, what should inform key decisions about family safety, and what research tells us about defendable approaches to assessment and interventions.

This is a subject that is slowly emerging as a theme in safeguarding practice. Our hope is that the report contributes to better outcomes for children and their families and has a role to play in ensuring professionals feel supported in knowing what to do when responding to families when this issue is identified. But remember, prevention is always better than cure, and we hope that this report may also be a starting point for reflection on what we need to do as professionals to reduce risks and increase protective factors in families through primary and secondary prevention that might contribute to sibling sexual abuse never happening in the first place. We are currently working on a practical resource, as commissioned by the CSA Centre, to further accompany this evidence review and form the next step in this journey. To find out more about the work they do, read further resources and access the report, do visit: www.csacentre.org.uk

Perpetration, Victimization, and Gender.

By Kieran McCartan, David S. Prescott, LICSW, and Kasia Uzieblo, PhD

Past blogs and Bulletin board pieces have explored the direct and indirect effects of sexual abuse on those who experience it. However, it can be difficult to quantify this impact; everyone responds to abuse differently, and one size never fits all.  While the individual impact of sexual abuse, varies with every incident, regardless of the gender, race, culture, or identity of the person who commits it. What we have seen over the years, however, is that who the perpetrator is can profoundly impact the narrative of the victim. This week the BBC published a story talking about how sexual abuse by females is still a taboo subject and that their victims do not get the support and help that they need. Unfortunately, this is all too true. 

Cross-culturally and transnationally we tend to have static views of people convicted of sexual offenses:  typically that they are deviant, abnormal, and an “other”—in other words not one of us. However, we know from research and practice that this is not true, as demonstrated by the prevalence of sexual abuse and the array of people arrested and convicted of it. We also see a gender divide in the way that we talk about people who commit sexual abuse with men often being predatory, violent, and aggressive. Females may be perceived as mentally and emotionally unwell, often portrayed as radically abnormal or victims unable to control their behavior. All of this adds up to an often-unspoken perception that the gender of the perpetrator matters in determining how damaging the abuse is to the victim/survivor.

This false distinction is made worse when we realize that the gender of the people victimized is perceived as mattering as well, with boys and young men often being viewed differently from girls and young women.  The media often presents stories about girls being groomed and manipulated by men for sex, whereas the same story with a female perpetrator may suggest that the boy initiated it, wanted it, or just got lucky. Ultimately, this skews the public’s perception of the role of gender, grooming, abuse, and the consequences of these issues by implying that boys are less damaged by female abusers than girls are by male abusers. This suggests that in terms of the perpetrator/victim relationship the female victim of a male perpetrator is more deserving of sympathy than the male victim of a female perpetrator. A false perception of who the real victims are is problematic in the reporting and conviction of people who commit sexual abuse, and their eventual treatment, because it means that boys will be less likely to report sexual abuse by a female and ultimately less likely to get the support they need. 

How do we fix this? How do we level the playing field so that all victimization and perpetration is seen for what it is, regardless of the gender of either party? More research is one place to start: Empirical studies are highly needed to feed an evidence-based discussion on the topic of female sexual abusers. Interestingly, a recent study emphasizes the lack of differences regarding the motivations, characteristics of the abuse, and the modus operandi of male and female teachers who have sexually abused students. Such insights may start changing our perception. But this is a slow process that may not have a tangible effect on this conversation for long. This is proven by the fact that empirical insights on the effect of female sexual abuse of boys have been there for a while now but are still too often ignored or forgotten.

One of the most important and simplest things that we can do is recognize the abuse for what it is and its impact upon the victim, not how the demographics of who the victim and the perpetrator are. It’s not that these factors do not matter, but the focus should be on the abuse. As individuals and communities, we must stop inferring additional contexts, issues, and reasons for abuse. We need to stop implying there’s any difference in what victims and perpetrators are “worthy” of our sympathy, help, and support. How do we do this? We listen, understand, and speak up. We treat all victims the same and we talk with and to them in a way that they want and can hear. 

It’s not the cure, but the delivery system that matters: the importance of community

By Kieran McCartan, Ph.D., David Prescott, LICSW, & Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D.

This has been a frustrating week for writing. With respect to developments in our field, it seemed as though the goalposts kept moving; the blog could have been on anything and nothing. As the week started, we were looking at recent reports (The Sun; ComplexNew York Times) about the reality of Pornhub where, despite their protestations, all is not happiness, smiles, sanitized sex, and sexuality; instead, there is a dark side. It wasn’t long before Pornhub took remedial action; we will have to wait to see the results.

Next, the blog was going to examine the unintended impact of new encrypted messaging policies and practices that can put children at risk for grooming and abuse (The Guardian; The Children’s Commissioner for England). This promised much to discuss. However, that debate has been moved down the agenda, in the UK at least, with increased discussions around Brexit and COVID-19. important messages and conversations are getting overshadowed. Stimied again! However, this is a topic that we will return to in the new year, as it highlights the balancing act between risk and safety in child protection with an evolving frame of online protection.

The third and final, blog that we were going to write is about the balancing act between internet filters and prevention messaging after Kieran attended a meeting that discussed whether the cost of implementing such tools was an appropriate and relevant investment. Interestingly, this meeting went round in circles and it was decided that more research and evidence was needed. All this highlights and focuses the challenge of prevention: do we prevent and try to stop what might happen or do we respond to what is happening? This, in turn, feeds into larger debates and reflects previous blogs on this site, so it felt like retracing old ground.

Another day brought headlines reporting the first people in the UK–first in the world – outside of clinical trials to be vaccinated against COVID-19 with the Pfizer jab, which was great news! Interestingly, the news coverage throughout the day and ensuing discussions about evidence, effectiveness, patient safety, and rollout highlighted the lynchpin that brought all these potential blogs together. The real issue is not necessarily the vaccine itself, but the mechanism through which the vaccine is delivered. The biggest challenge is changing public minds, education, prevention, engagement, inclusion, and community building. All these same challenges confront us in the field of sexual abuse.

Like COVID-19, preventing sexual abuse means understanding and responding to it directly (and does not involve behaving as though it does not exist or will go away on its own). Also, like COVID-19, sexual abuse can be overwhelming, omnipresent, and presents challenges for individuals, communities, and society. This means (again like COVID-19) our response is often divided – even divisive – and results from a spectrum of belief and acceptance. Beneath this are considerations of people’s knowledge, understanding, trust in the system, belief in science, and hopes for the future. In many circumstances, we find ourselves at a stalemate: in recent years, the field of addressing sexual abuse has tried new approaches to tackle the issue, including prevention, reframing messages, groups of people reaching out to the public, and listening systematically to who people who have abused – and those who have been abused – have to say.

Each of these efforts has worked to a greater or lesser degree. We can see the same pattern, the same approaches, and the same frustration in these debates as we do in the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. The question then becomes, what now? Do we all need radical overhauls in our approaches? Is the answer to preventing sexual harm in doubling down on our current approaches and seeking out more evidence and opinion? Or is it a return to control and regulation? These are difficult questions with no obvious answers.

The one common element that arises in both the challenges around sexual abuse and COVID-19 – the element that ties together the threads of Pornhub, encryption, and filtering software is the community. Our communities. Sexual abuse is a community issue and therefore communities need to understand it better to respond to it more effectively and prevent its spread. Punishment and restriction do not stop sexual abuse. While such sanctions can help in some cases, awareness and support can do much more.

We are all members of our communities and society beyond, and together we shape the debates and actions that move us forward. Our greatest successes come when we work together, and our greatest failures happen when we resist new information and cooperative efforts. This is true across the board, from child protection to immunization. In many ways, especially in the political arena, our community is more fractured than ever before. While advances in accessing knowledge and resources have brought so much of the world together, they have also happened at the very times that many of us have become increasingly entrenched in our own echo chambers. If services to prevent abuse and rehabilitate those who have abused are the primary issues, then how do we respond? It seems safe to say that we need a new delivery mechanism and new ways to think about moving forward.

The challenge as we move in 2021 is how do we immunize ourselves against sexual abuse, the way that we are immunizing ourselves against COVID-19? And how do we immunize ourselves against both the panic and apathy that violence and the pandemic can bring? How do we get the “cure” out there (in COVID’s case, that means the Pfizer jab, and in sexual abuse, it is the education, knowledge, and understanding we need) in a more effective way? It is a challenge, but as a community, we can work together to solve it!

Let’s talk about emotions: An NL-ATSA webinar

By Minne De Boeck, Rosa Oranje, Cathy van Harten, Kasia Uzieblo

Emotion regulation in the treatment of people who committed sex offenses (PCSO) is a topic that has long been underexplored in practice and especially in research. Initially, the assumption was that sexual offending behavior originated mainly, if not only, from sexual deviant fantasies. In line with this assumption, the main aim of the early behavioral interventions was to recondition sexual offending behavior through for instance aversion therapy. Treatment programs of PCSO’s gradually started to focus more on cognitions and self-control. Hence, we started to abandon the mere stimulus-response principle by paying more attention to other psychosocial factors such as attitudes, beliefs, and interpersonal relationships, and the way these factors may underly the client’s offending behavior. Today, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most widely used therapy for PCSO’s and has to date received the strongest empirical support compared to other approaches (see for an overview of its history, Moster, Wnuk, & Jeglic, 2008). But CBT is not all about cognitions and behaviors. CBT techniques also help individuals to gain control of emotions. Although this component of CBT seems to have been a bit neglected over the years, there seems to be a recent uptick of interventions that focus on emotion regulation in these clients (e.g. emotion-focused therapy, mindfulness). Given the importance of emotion regulation as a risk factor for sexual recidivism, the Dutch-speaking association of ATSA, NL-ATSA, organized an online conference on emotion regulation. The aim of the conference was to share best practices in emotion regulation interventions. Three therapists were given the opportunity to present their interventions to 100 practitioners from the Netherlands and Flanders (Belgium). 

The first session was presented by Sabine Noom (Msc) and Marc Lexmond (Msc), who work in the Van der Hoeven Clinic, a Dutch inpatient treatment center for offenders with psychiatric problems, including PCSO’s. Their unit provides treatment to medium- and high-risk PCSO’s. The treatment duration usually ranges from 6 months to 2 years. The goal of the treatment is to reduce dynamic risk factors and increase protective factors. Their treatment program focuses on (1) behavior through role-play and psychomotor therapy; (2) the connection between patients and therapists on the one hand, and amongst patients on the other hand; (3) learning how to take care of each other and how to communicate with one another; (4) creating a positive life plan; (5) acknowledging the person behind the perpetrator; and (6) learning how to behave in a prosocial way by the process of trial and error. The therapists also develop a workbook ‘My Emotions’ with the patients. This methodology is based on schema therapy. They most often start with the so-called ‘side model’, by exploring the healthy side of the patient, his/her fighter and destroyer side, and his/her protector side among others. The client learns how to talk to his/her different sides after identifying which side is claiming a big role in specific situations. This way clients learn to understand their offending and present behavior.

In the second presentation, Ellen Gunst (PhD; FIDES) focused on Emotion-focused therapy (EFT), a therapeutic approach based on the premise that emotions are key to identity and which emphasizes the adaptive nature of emotions. The primary focus of EFT is to promote the client’s instantaneous experience. This framework postulates that controlling emotions cannot be learned consciously but can be acquired implicitly (e.g. by experiencing emotions and experiences). Hence, the aims of EFT are to create a genuine empathic valuing relationship and deepening the client’s experiencing in therapy. In order to facilitate intimacy and connectedness in their patients, various EFT techniques can be used. During her presentation, Ellen Gunst illustrated the so-called Two-Chair Task. This task aims to resolve the intra-psychic conflict within by evoking emotional responses in the client. This technique was illustrated with a case example. This patient was initially difficult to motivate for and engage in therapy, but after a year the therapists succeeded in forming a minimal form of connection with the patient. The two-chair technique was applied to help him gain insights into his anger, frustration, and sadness. With this case example, Ellen Gunst demonstrated that it is possible to teach these patients how to acknowledge their feelings and to facilitate their empathic abilities. 

In the final presentation, Martine Ruijter (Msc; Antes) explained how she applies visual techniques of visualization with PCSO’s. According to Martine Ruijter, PCSO’s are more open to discussing their behavior, thoughts and feelings by making them visible. The focus lies on the patient’s story, not the interpretation by the therapist. The advantage of this therapy is that in case a proper therapeutic relationship does not ensue, the client can still focus on the material, which in turn might help to (re)build therapeutic contact. There are four levels on the ‘expressive therapy continuum’, namely: (1) Kinetic to sensory, (2) Perception to affect, (3) Cognition to symbolic, and (4) Creativity. The goal is to get the client to the fourth level and to create balance in his emotional experiences. Martine Ruijter also observes some remarkable differences between different PCSO’s in their artwork: the artwork of patients who have committed rape seems to be more chaotic and often cracks are drawn, whereas patients who have abused minors seem to be more creative but difficult to reach throughout the conversation. According to Martine Ruijter visual therapy should be regarded as complementary to CBT.

Important take-home messages were that in therapy we sometimes need to pay more attention to non-verbal expressions of emotions. Clients need to learn how to regulate their emotions through practice (e.g. visual therapy, role play). Therapists should also dare to slow down, explore the emotional experiences in-depth, and pay attention to physical experiences and traumas. The interventions that focus on emotional expression can be considered as a valuable addition to CBT interventions that focus on cognition and behavior. However, all presenters also emphasized the need for empirical insights into the efficacy of emotion regulation interventions in terms of the well-being of PCSO’s and the risk of recidivism.

“But they must have known”: Am I getting this wrong?

This blog was written by an individual from the UK who wanted their story heard but wishes to remain anonymous.

This is a blog in a continuing series about the impact of the arrest & prosecution of individuals convicted of having Indecent Images of Children on their families (please see a previous blog by a professional and a family member). The author of this blog has wished to remain nameless, but please be aware that the individuals who contribute to these blogs, while anonymous, are different individuals. Kieran

The “But, they must have known!” blog presented the story of an ex-partner of an IIOC and her experience and emotions in the five years since ‘the knock’. My situation is almost identical, just five years on, and I wanted to highlight how the focus on the event and the immediate aftermath is not enough, and how the situation continues to evolve, and even heighten, as the years progress. I am an ex-partner of a man arrested for IIOC offences 10 years ago. He received a community sentence and 5 years on the SOR. My children do not know. 

On the night that my ex-husband was arrested, my 2 sons (3 and 6) were playing in the living room. We had a great family, the kids loved their dad, and contrary to what people may imagine, there were no signs, we were very happy, and for the children, that meant an unexpected decimation of the family. Ten years on they still don’t know about their Dad, but this is what I imagine THEY FEEL.

Confused

Every day after the knock my eldest asked me: “What did Dad do wrong?” Every day I distracted him with: “Look what your brother just did”. One day, about a year after the arrest, he asked me: “Did Dad kill someone?” and I vowed that the next time he asked I would tell him the truth. He never asked again! I struggle to imagine another situation where, what appears to be a happy and stable family unit would be terminated without the permission to grieve or to talk about the trauma. I told my children (and friends and family) that we decided to separate because we weren’t making each other happy. When people say: “The children will be better not hearing the arguments, or living with the tension”, I envy those families because my children were not better without the arguments or tension because there were no arguments and there was no tension. Is it akin to the death of a parent? I imagine in that situation there is permission to talk about Dad and how great he was. The children don’t have to see their Dad unemployed and broken, but silent as to why this has happened. It’s a world based on lies, deception and, ultimately, a disengagement, because the topic cannot be discussed. I hope that they are too young to dwell on the inaccuracies and the contradictions, but I fear that may be false hope.

Scared

I think my children feel scared. When your world falls apart in an instant, one of the outcomes is hyper-vigilance. Within a day their mum turned from a laid back, happy person to someone who panics at the sound of the phone or knock at the door, who over-reacts when school phone to tell her you have done something wrong, and who often breaks down at things she never did before – without explaining why. While mum used to have lots of friends, enjoy a glass of wine and relish the chance to mix with other adults, she makes excuses to avoid seeing people, she rarely goes out and she doesn’t talk much anymore. For the (ex)partners of IIOC offenders, the crime has a life sentence – the lies, the deceit, the fear,  it consumes you to a point where the safest option is to retreat, and for my children, that overnight transformation must be terrifying.

Do they know?

I think that one of the hardest parts of being the remaining safeguarding parent is projecting every emotion you feel onto how your children might feel. Are they scared or is that my emotion? Are they confused, or does this all wash over them? And feeling the intense and unrelenting desire to tell them why their life changed so dramatically, but all the time knowing that, once said, that cannot be unsaid. These are thoughts, emotions and behaviours that are not recognised or supported by agencies set up to deal with offenders, victims or children of prisoners (the overwhelming majority of IIOC offenders receive a community sentence). For my children, and for me trying to parent them, there is no guidance or support, and the overwhelming feeling I have is: “Am I getting this wrong”.