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”.

Prevent It – meeting and treating users of Child Sexual Abuse Material online

By Elin Söderquist, Allison Park, Charlotte Sparre, Katarina Görts Öberg, & Christoffer Rahm.

“There is definitely a way to stop viewing CSAM, and I wish this study will lead to a wider effort to help those stuck in the same pattern as I was a few months ago”

-Prevent It participant

The need for new preventative initiatives working to prevent child exploitation online are acute. With the rapidly increasing numbers of shared material, especially during Covid lockdowns, we need to take action in every way possible. What if some of the users of Child Sex Abuse Material (CSAM) actually want to stop viewing pictures/films of prepubertal children, and just need some qualified help to do so? This is what experiences from Stop it Now and other help lines suggest, and this is where the idea of Prevent It comes in.

Prevent It is an anonymous international online therapy for people who want to stop using CSAM and want personal professional support. It is being tested with the best available scientific method, a blinded randomized clinical trial, designed to evaluate its effects, the change in consumption of CSAM.

Online recruitment began in April 2019, first only on onion sites dedicated to the spread of CSAM, sometimes called the “darknet”, and later, in the beginning of the summer 2020 recruitment expanded to also include discussion-forums on the open parts of the internet, sometimes called the “clearnet”. Prevent It is unique in that we are able to reach out to all corners of the world.

Due to understandable reasons, individuals with ongoing CSAM use are very concerned with their privacy. Therefore, the Prevent It treatment platform is accessible both through traditional web browsers and TOR, specifically designed to protect the integrity and safety of the user and used to access onion sites. We never ask for identifiable information or personal contact details. Recently we also made the treatment program no longer require an e-mail address when signing up nor require the enabling of JavaScripts.

The anonymity gives individuals an opportunity to seek care and be more open and truthful than they might be with an in-person therapist. In this way, we also reach out to individuals that law enforcement often does not.

The treatment contains weekly module content, assignments between modules, as well as weekly individual therapist feedback over eight weeks. Repeatedly, the participants are also asked if they know about any at-risk children, and it is clearly stated that any such information is immediately reported to the Swedish Social Services.

Many participants that apply to Prevent It describe that they suffer from psychological ailments such as anxiety, depression, and sometimes even suicidal thoughts. They also explain what a release it is to speak openly about their sexuality to someone – sometimes for the first time in their lives outside of the CSAM- chat forums. This study is already giving us new unique knowledge about this group that the research community knows so little about. Or as one participant said:

“Going through this treatment helped me understand my own sexuality more and helped my anxiety in that I felt that I could just talk about what I felt and thought to SOMEONE at all who wouldn’t judge me in a way I fear others close to me would.”
-Prevent it, participant

For more details please visit the following links:

Prevent It homepage: https://www.iterapi.se/sites/preventit/ Study pre-registration ISRCT

Prevent it registration link:
https://www.iterapi.se/sites/preventit/register


Swedish Ethics Appeal (Reference No.: Dnr Ö 1-2019)

Deceit, Sex, and Sexual Assault: Where are the Lines?

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

Please note that this blog is also published on the SAJRT Blog website too – Kieran.

While working in a large residential treatment center for youth about twenty years ago, the first author (David) ended up with a note passed between two students. In it, a 16-year-old male client claimed to a female client from a different campus that he had a condo near the casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It was bittersweet at the time, reflecting the age-old attempts by young men to impress young women while displaying epic ineptitude. It would have been obvious to nearly anyone that he possessed few social skills, much less a condo that they could escape to. The author found reason for hope that the young man would someday be able to have the relationships he desired, while at the same time being concerned about the young man’s methods in the short term.

From here, however, things too often take a darker turn. Seemingly consensual activities in the context of getting a job or advancing within one. If the job or advancement doesn’t come through, how best to understand the results? Fraud, sexual assault? There is an entire style of pornography devoted to tricking women into being filmed having sex through the false promise that they are auditioning to become porn stars. What is the source of gratification beyond the sex in these situations? The gullibility of the woman being filmed? And of course, much of the #metoo movement resulted from the experience of being pressured into sex if one wanted to continue working in one’s chosen field.

A recent case in the UK adds to these important but thorny questions. Jason Lawrance was found guilty last summer of sexually assaulting a woman twice. Although the sex had at first been consensual, he had lied about having had a vasectomy. He subsequently texted her to say that he was “still fertile. Sorry.” She took emergency contraception and eventually had an abortion. Fraud? Sexual assault? Intrinsic gratification from the deception itself (sometimes known as “duping delight”)? The issues abound in a situation with a truly tragic ending.

The more immediate concern, however, is that Lawrance’s convictions were overturned. The Court of Appeals reportedly said that the “convictions were unsafe.” Meanwhile, Lawrance is currently serving time for other sexual assault convictions and remains in prison. Ultimately, the court said that “Lawrance’s “lie about his fertility was not capable in law of negating consent”.

This view of deceit is interesting and worrying because it drills to the very heart of the problem: the absence of “informed consent” is at the very core of sexual assault. However, of concern to the court was the nature of the actions that remove consent. The challenge here is a truly grey area. At what point does deliberate trickery become the coercion that is central to sexual assault? After all, gaining children’s compliance through trickery has long been recognized as a hallmark of child molestation.

The issue is almost not whether it is true that Lawrence had a vasectomy (as with David’s student and his fictitious condo), but rather that they said that they did and were believed. The woman in question made an informed decision based on false data that was created for the purpose to deceive. Further, by all appearances, Lawrance made an informed decision to create an illusion of informed consent.

It’s possible to discuss this situation from a number of perspectives, from the possible sexual and nonsexual motivations of an egregious behavior to questions about what specific crime categories this might fall under. What is clear, however, is that the idea of what constitutes consent is again back under discussion. In our opinion, this decision undermines decades of advancement in determining the importance of actual, meaningful consent. In some ways, it is similar to revenge porn posted in a technically legal fashion because the filmed partner simply consented and did not draw up a proper legal contract to define the parameters of the consent and the conditions under which the video could be distributed and viewed.

What is clear is that should the current decision be accepted as a legal precedent; it will take considerable public dialog to create new laws that are both sensible and meaningful. The overarching problem, in this case, is that it will likely dissuade victims of sexual offences from going forward because they feel that they won’t be believed, especially in situations where “consent” is difficult to establish or refute.

“But, they must have known!”: The perspective of a non-offending partner of a man convicted of downloading indecent images of children.

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

Please note: a few weeks ago, we had a blog from Anna Glinski, which prompted a conversation with the author of this blog about their experiences being the partner of a person convicted of possessing Indecent Images of Children. Kieran

What is it like being the non-offending partner of an IIOC perpetrator? Hard. Everything about it is hard.

In 2015 my ex-husband was given a 3-year Community Order and 5-year SHPO for downloading >1000 indecent images of children from 2011-15 across all three categories (majority B). No videos.

The knock on the door by the Police came as a complete shock as I had no inkling that he had a sexual predilection to underage girls. For the first couple of weeks after the arrest my sons, aged 3 and 6, had no contact with their Dad as per his bail conditions. I then signed a Supervised Access Only Contact Agreement with Children’s Services that I was advised would remain in place indefinitely. This, combined with the overwhelming fear of the predicted media exposure, prompted my decision to relocate.

Everything about my past, present, and future suddenly had a whole new perspective. I went from being a full-time mum who lived in a nice part of my hometown with children attending the local faith school and a husband with a very good job, to a divorcee with a vague backstory of why I needed a fresh start somewhere new.

As he remained part of society at every stage of the Judicial Process, we have had to find a new way of being with him as part of our world. The ramifications of this crime do not get less significant in time and the effect on children evolves as they grow up. I FEEL

Angry/restricted. None of this is fair. I have done nothing wrong, yet I need to make unending compromises to protect my family against negative community response because of our association with an abhorrent crime that we were innocent by-standers to every aspect of life is affected, from social interactions to employment options. I do not foresee this changing when his sentence is completed in winter 2020.

Judged/marginalized. From day 1 I felt as though I was being assessed whether I was a good enough Mum by anyone I had contact within a professional capacity, however as I ticked the right boxes, none proactively maintained any contact with us after 3 weeks post-arrest. To begin with, the lack of attention from authorities was akin to relief, but as time has progressed, I perceive this demonstrates that my boys are the unseen victims of this crime and the impact on their childhood seemingly acceptable collateral damage to achieving a conviction. I thought people would think I was stupid for not knowing about his online behaviour, or in denial, and would wonder whether I had the same interests too, plus would question any historical interaction their children had with mine. Now I know, through lived experience, I am invariably judged for allowing my children to still have supervised access with their Dad.

Unsupported Even though I hate the thought of my kids being considered vulnerable, this scenario triggers several Adverse Childhood Experiences, which means that they are. At the start, when I became aware of something I was blind to before, I desperately needed help to protect them from this significant threat to their well-being. Unfortunately, as we were(are) not classified as Victims, I could not find any support for us from any source. I struggle to find professionals who fully empathise with our situation, therefore am simply left alone to make up appropriate safeguarding measures for my boys as I go along. The impact on my mental health has been significant: after being repeatedly declined anti-depressants, with a long waiting list for NHS therapy, I have had no other option than to self-fund counseling.

Resentful. From the start, he had a network around him to help him live life forward. Police made it clear that any break in confidentiality about the nature of the investigation could increase his suicide risk. I took on the responsibility of keeping secret the reason behind my sudden change in circumstances which consequentially created distance within pre-existing friendships. Until the charges were made public in Magistrates Court I lived in limbo for 5 months not knowing the full scope of the investigation to protect his Right to Privacy. Probation monitored him regularly and supported getting him back into employment. He managed to meet and move in with a local woman who accepted his conviction. I have had nothing as I moved to a place that gave us anonymity.

Sad. I feel heartbroken that my boys have been robbed of a traditional father figure. I can only protect them from this for so long before they will learn preciously early in life that people are not always what they seem. They are going to have to face a huge emotional and psychological challenge as teenagers when they grow to understand what their Dad did.

Strong/proud. I had to forgive myself that I could not have seen what he took such great care to hide. As someone who has had a relationship with a man convicted of this crime I have felt: confused; naïve; misunderstood; full of self-doubt; disappointed in myself for missing it; burdened with a family secret; scared; isolated; lonely; ashamed; torn; irrelevant; guilty; fearful for the future; bereaved; like a victim. Yet I have got back up each time this situation has brought me to my knees and that makes me resilient.

How the pandemic challenges and questions our perspectives on and work with people who have sexually abused


Please note this is a joint blog with ATSA/SAJRT blog site, Kieran.

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

Over the last couple of months, we have focused on what the challenges and realities of living in lockdown with COVID-19 are, but this is starting to change as lockdown is ending. What is the new “normal” and how will this impact the prevention, management, and integration back into the community of men convicted of a sexual offence? Now it feels like there are more questions than answers, which can present a daunting challenge! Sometimes we cannot see beyond what we know, but we also know that need that drives change. In the months and years ahead, we will not return to the way things were before, 2021 will bear little resemblance to 2019. The nature of the game and its rules has changed. So, what does this mean in reality?

Here are some points that occur to us as of this week (and who knows what tomorrow may bring?)

Changing perspectives on causes and responses to sexual offences: What COVID-19 has taught the world is that health and wellbeing are connected to everything that we do. A healthy population is an engaged, productive population. Therefore, we need to continue to integrate health and wellbeing into the work that we do in preventing as well as responding to sexual offences. This involves maintaining the public health approach, thinking about the impact of adverse experiences and trauma as well as considering the impact of these in framing desistence and integration. 

Risk management vs management: We talk so much about “risk” and what that means for people with a conviction, not to mention criminal justice agencies, therapists, victims, and the public; but the reality is that the terms risk and risk management mean different things to different people, each of whom has different roles. Ultimately, what we are all saying is that we are helping and supporting people to manage their own behaviour. This reframing is important because the individuals themselves are not always the sole source of risk (an internal locus of risk) but often the circumstances of the outside world are also the source of risk (an external locus of risk). The pandemic has shown once again that circumstances do matter and that they should be incorporated more often in our risk assessment and management. Therefore, how they manage themselves in various and sometimes extreme circumstances as during the pandemic matters.

Changing regimes: We have seen that because of COVID-19 our ways of working have changed, sometimes for the better and other times for the worse. We need to evaluate these changes and learn from them. Does remote working improve prevention, treatment, management, and integration? Or does it make it worse? In what ways? How does it impact relationships with clients? How does it impact staff working, resilience and confidence?

Changing processes and conditions: COVID-19 has taught us that prison may not be the answer with lower risk and people on shorter sentences getting released under supervision. This begs the question whether they needed to go to prison in the first place? Was community management a better approach? And was it adequately considered? Further, what does community management look like in a computer-enabled age? Especially with individuals who may not have access to the internet or technology, because of their conditions of release or the fact that they live in socio-economic areas that suffer from poor internet access. 

Improving Partnership & collaboration: It has become obvious through lockdown that working together, in a collective evidence-informed way is possible. Therefore, we need to up the stakes in terms of partnership working, communication and collaboration between the public and the system, across all levels of prevention and forms of (risk) management; we need -more than ever- to be on the same page to take on all these old and new challenges. 

“But they must have known!” Effectively working with non-abusing parents.

By Anna Glinski (Deputy Director for Knowledge and Practice Development at the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse).

This blog was first published by the CSA Centre on the 18th March 2020 – Kieran.

Imagine for a minute how it would feel to receive a knock on the door from a police officer and social worker, who proceed to inform you that an allegation of sexual abuse has been made against someone close to you, a family member, your partner, a friend – someone you trust – would you believe it?  What if the allegation was made by your son or daughter?  Would you be able to think clearly enough to make some speedy decisions about what needed to happen next?  I suspect not.  More likely, you would be overwhelmed with feelings of shock, anger, confusion and disbelief. 

Effective multi-agency working with non-abusing parents is absolutely key to the future welfare and safety of the child. Research indicates that feeling believed by your main caregiver is one of the strongest mediators of the long term mental health issues caused by sexual abuse. This parent/caregiver will need to play a central role in protecting their children from the person of concern, implementing safety plans and managing risks; and, they will need to support their child with the immediate and longer-term impacts of their abuse. These are hefty responsibilities for someone who is also coming to terms with the fact their child has been abused by someone they may have loved and trusted and is also likely to be experiencing other pressures as a result.

After the shock

The consequences of believing someone in your family has abused a child (either on or offline) can be enormous: shame, guilt, feelings of responsibility, an end of a relationship, the loss of a home or an income and loss of support. And fear – fear of losing your child or your partner, of a hostile response from friends and family, of what people will think of you, of loss of autonomy, of retribution from your partner. For many, it is not surprising that denial kicks in: a normal and functional defence that allows us to protect ourselves against something that is painful and distressing. As Still observes in her useful book on assessing and intervening with non-abusing parents“It is not uncommon to see the mother in a state of confusion and ambivalence, swinging on a pendulum between believing the child completely one minute and not the next, or believing some but not all of it: ‘I can believe this, but I cannot believe that’.”

For those from Black, Asian and minority communities, or with English as a second language, or whose residence in this country is threatened, there may be additional and significant consequences for what has happened. Additionally, for those who have experienced sexual abuse themselves this process is likely to be even more complex, confusing and painful. And what if one of your children has abused the other/s?

Working effectively with non-abusing parents

For professionals to give the best opportunity to non-abusing parents to be able to fulfil the tasks of support and protection, every interaction should be in the context of building their strength and resilience, offering support and understanding through an empowering approach. The limited research that does exist indicates that non-abusing parents and carers often do not receive the necessary empathy, time, support or information to help. They can feel judged by professionals, ‘they must have known’ (while battling with their own guilt about what has happened).

We know that there are parents who sexually abuse their children, or who do not act protectively when they become aware of the abuse of their child, and this needs to be properly investigated. However, non-abusing parents are too often perceived to have been actively involved in the abuse. As Chaffin states “From a trauma processing perspective, features such as denial, unfocused anger, minimisation of the problem and ambivalence toward both the alleged victim and abuser would be considered part of the course, rather than evidence of toxic parenting or deep-seated psychopathology.”

Professionals have an important role in understanding non-abusing parents’ reactions, providing support to enable them to process what has happened and ensuring that children are safeguarded. Effective assessment is an important part of this. The safety of children is imperative and so even though denial is understandable, children still need to be safeguarded as soon as possible.

The CSA Centre’s work on effectiveness in services for children and young people who have been sexually abused identified that suitable services to non-abusing parents are essential to children’s safety and recovery. This built on earlier findings by the NSPCC  which highlighted the importance of keeping children safe and well by working with non-abusing parents. When a child is sexually abused, we must first ask ourselves what that child needs, including their needs in the context of their family.

Facilitating necessary discussion

Sexual abuse can be hard to talk about even for professionals and so the likelihood of family members being able to talk about what has happened without being supported to do so, is low. As helping professionals we have the skills to talk about difficult matters and to help others do the same.

Professionals need to facilitate discussion, and therefore healing and recovery, between non-abusing parents and family members of a child who has been sexually abused. Sexual abuse thrives in secrecy, and in not doing so we risk colluding with this silence, and miss the opportunity to repair family relationships, and to address feelings of guilt, responsibility, anger, distress, jealousy, blame and torn loyalties which so often exist when a child is abused within the family. Just think how much useful intervention we could provide by giving the opportunity, for example, to a non-abusing parent to say they feel sorry to their child for what happened to them; to tell them that they didn’t know it was happening and if they did they would have intervened; to tell their child that what has happened as a result of their disclosure is not their fault but the fault of their abuser?

In my practice experience, so many survivors have spoken about the harm the abuse caused not just to them individually, but to every relationship within their family. As such, I believe we have a duty to use our skills and roles with families to attend to this integral part of their lives.

Resources

Educating families about the signs, indicators and impact of sexual abuse is equally as vital for prevention and effective response, and there are already some excellent online resources available for them, and the professionals supporting them. 

  • Parents protect has a wealth of guidance and resources for professionals and families, including a sexual abuse learning programme
  • Stop it now support adults to play their part in prevention through providing sound information and educating members of the public. People who are worried about their own or someone else’s sexual behaviour can call their helpline too. 
  • The upstream project is a Scottish resource (though available and relevant to other areas) which offers tools and support on identifying, preventing and acting upon child sexual abuse. In terms of keeping children safe from harm on the internet.
  • In terms of keeping children safe from harm on the internet Think u know offers advice to children, young people, parents/carers and professionals.
  • Mosac provides supportive services for non-abusing parents and carers whose children have been sexually abused.

Working with non-abusing parents will be a key consideration in the CSA Centre’s future work to develop useful resources and guidance to support professionals in working with children, young people and their families, whether or not their allegations of sexual abuse are proceeding through the criminal justice route.

Blog posts give the views of the author and are not necessarily those of the Centre of Expertise on child sexual abuse.  For other blogs published by the CSA Centre see http://www.csacentre.org.uk/resources/blog/