26th Annual Conference of the Directors of Prison and Probation: The Importance of critical discussion!

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


Over the last 18 months, many in our field have been homebound, working online. This is something that we have mostly gotten used to, even if we haven’t liked it. As we start to emerge from COVID-19, we look forward to being in a room together having conversations and learning together. While we are not at a place where live, in-person conferences are the norm we are starting the long path back to that place. It is important to note that while online or hybrid conferences are still taking place, and will quite likely remain post-pandemic, there is also the place, where possible, for in-person conferences. But what are the implications for critical conversations, being heard and respected, while also generating new ideas? Do we simply refine our processes or is it about starting over again to create a new dialogue?

This week, Kieran and Kasia were in Madeira at the 26th Annual Conference of the Directors of Prison and Probation. The conference is typically an in-person annual event where the heads of Prison and Probation come together to discuss the major topics of the day. In the past, this has included electronic monitoring, incarnation data, and release programmes. This time, it included people within the criminal justice system with issues related to their mental health, people convicted of sexual offences, the impact of covid on prison and probation, as well as the implications of artificial intelligence for the criminal justice system. The conference had over 80 attendees, including experts, partner organisations (for example, EuroPris, the Confederation of European Probation), Council of Europe members and committee representatives, and the directors of prison and probation from 29 countries (including, Spain, Portugal, UK, Ireland, France, Sweden, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Moldova, and Belgium). Although the conference was interesting, with topics directly and indirectly to those featured in this blog, we have decided to focus our attention on the session around people convicted of a sexual offence.

The reason for Kieran and Kasia’s attendance at the conference was to talk about and analyse the forthcoming Recommendations on the assessment, treatment and management of people convicted or accused of sexual offences” by the Council of Europe. The development of these recommendations where lead by Kieran (UK) along with Marianne Fuglestved  (Norway) and Harvey Slade (UK). In the coming months, we will write a more detailed blog on the recommendations, which ATSA as well as NOTA, IATSO, and NL-ATSA to name a few, were also involved as critical friends. The role of the recommendations is to create common and good practices across the Council of Europe (CoE) area. The CoE is 46 countries from across the boarder European landscape – it is important to note that the CoE, European Union, and European Commission are all separate organisations with different memberships. So, while the UK left the European Union, it has not left the Council of Europe or the European Commission.

The Council of Europe (CoE) started working on the recommendations in early 2018. Initial conversations at the PC-CP (the committee for penological co-operation), the committee handling the development of the recommendations for the CoE, revolved around what should recommendations focus on. It was discussed whether the recommendations should address definitions of sexual abuse, laws surrounding sexual abuse or the system that has developed to respond to sexual abuse. It was decided to focus on the process that people convicted or accused of a sexual offence would go through upon arrest, conviction, imprisonment, and release into the community. The recommendations would focus on risk assessment, treatment/rehabilitation, community integration, research, media engagement and data sharing. Previously to the conference the recommendations had been drafted and redrafted, this was their first public airing ahead of sign off and approval later in 2021. In their session, which took place twice, the three speakers touched on all these points.

  • Kieran McCartan (UK) outlined the recommendations, why they were important and their context. Kieran highlighted that sexual abuse was an international issue, that was as much about communities as individuals and that we needed to look to a more holistic, public health approach. He argued that risk assessment was important as individuals needed the treatment that addressed their needs.
  • Kasia Uzieblo (Belgium) built on Kieran’s presentation in arguing that while risk assessment is important, especially in terms of treatment, what was more important was that people understood and could communicate the risk assessment tools, and their outcomes, clearly. She argued that judges, as well as other experts who were not trained in risk assessment, did not always understand the results and this had challenges for treatment and management. Even apart from the communication issue, she stated professionals needed to tie their risk management strategies directly to the outcomes of risk assessments. She also argued that it is important to use established risk assessment tools, which not every country in the CoE does, and not simply use any Structured Professional Judgement tool just because it has a better feel to it, which some countries in the CoE do; a topic which was a debated topic in the development of the recommendations. Kasia used examples from the Netherlands and Belgium, who are at different points in their risk assessment and management journey, to highlight her points.
  • Oscar Herres Mejis (Spain) started by introducing us to some of the new developments, particularly new treatment programmes, in the treatment of people convicted of a sexual offence in Spain. Oscar stated that risk assessments are not commonly done in Spain, which he felt was unfortunate and needed to change as all people convicted of a sexual offence, regardless of risk level, take part in the same 18-month program, which is challenging. He asked the audience to recognise that a balance that needs to occur between the evidence base, which at times in the treatment of people convicted of a sexual offence can be contradictory, and professional judgement and insight. As a practitioner, Oscar talked about how the recommendations are a useful compass in allowing him, and Spain, to orientate their national practice and improve treatment outcomes for their clients while making communities safer.

Throughout the two session,s there was a great deal of audience participation and debate, which included conversations on,

  • The role and the need for the separation of individuals convicted of a sexual offence within the prison system.
  • The role of risk assessment in treatment and who should do the assessment (is the professional delivering the treatment and/or someone else?).
  • The role of denial in the treatment of people convicted of a sexual offence.
  • What provision, if any there should be, for people convicted of a sexual offence of different risk levels.
  • How we keep the human in treatment and rehabilitation and not simply make it’s a mechanised outcome.

The conference, and the sessions contained within, were a welcome return to “normal” with people being able to present and discuss freely, something that was rarely possible during online sessions. It was interesting as it was Kieran and Kasia’s first in-person conference since the pandemic started over 18 months and while it took us both a bit of time to find our feet it resulted in productive conversations and insights. So, while online training and conferences have their place, you cannot really take the human interaction out of the process.

Child Sexual Abuse in religious organisations: A moral juxtaposition that needs addressing!

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

Recently in the UK the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) published a report, as part of its mandate, on the extent and impact of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) within religious organizations. Unfortunately, the report indicated that child sexual abuse was often commonplace, underreported, and that the organizations defended (or at least did not condemn or remove) the person committing the abuse. Further, they found that these organisations did not support those who had been victimized. While this is very troubling, it is not uncommon either in terms of abuse within religious organizations or organisations per se; we have seen this internationally (with a similar story being published in Belgium this week and in the Netherlands last year). These revelations raise the question: why we have not moved further forward in responding to and preventing sexual abuse in organisations?

When thinking about writing this blog, the authors toyed with what was the most significant thing to focus on. As we’ve noted, religious organisations failing those have been sexually victimized is not news. This in turn leads to further questions about safeguarding, disclosures, prosecutions, treatment, and reintegration. Even then, it feels as though we are rewriting previous blogs!! Then, the authors came across a quote from Professor Alexis Jay, chair of the inquiry:

“Religious organisations are defined by their moral purpose of teaching right from wrong and protection of the innocent and the vulnerable. However, when we heard about shocking failures to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse across almost all major religions, it became clear many are operating in direct conflict with this mission. Blaming the victims, fears of reputational damage and discouraging external reporting are some of the barriers victims and survivors face, as well as clear indicators of religious organisations prioritising their own reputations above all else. For many, these barriers have been too difficult to overcome.”

Indeed, a recent Dutch study into child sexual abuse within the community of Jehovah’s witnesses emphasizes Prof. Jay’s statement. In 2019, 751 people reported to an anonymous hotline set up by Dutch researchers for (alleged) victims or people who have knowledge of abuse within this community. Three quarters of the victims find the handling of their report within the community by the Jehovah’s community inadequate. Many of these alleged victims stated that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are mainly guided by the biblical principle that they should not take a brother to court. And this is not only a dynamic that we observe in their community; despite all high-profile cases of child sexual abuse in the church of the past few years, it is still far too common to sweep these issues under the rug.

This is significant and important to unpack, as CSA (and any abuse for that matter) is anathema to the role, function, and mission of religious organizations. Without getting too philosophical about the role and function of religion in modern society, the mandate of all – especially mainstream religions – is to provide a sense of moral direction within a shared community where followers are respected, supported, and able to live their lives with a sense of common purpose and compassion.

All major religions have compassion at their centre. This includes understanding and working together to support the most vulnerable in society. The roots of community and religion are often intertwined. This makes sexual abuse within religious communities (especially within religious communities that work to downplay it or dismiss it) even more worrying, since in turning a blind eye to abuse they are going against these core values and shared ideals. Saying that religious organizations are flawed when it comes to child sexual abuse is significant: the message is that it’s not just the organisation and processes that are flawed, but that the underlying belief system is as well. Therefore, these organizations are on the horns of a dilemma: They wish to appear compassionate, and they wish to protect their reputation and often that of the accused. It seems that with each passing day, it becomes less tenable to try to do both, and those who have been harmed are not letting them off the hook.

The challenge for religious organisations is how to acknowledge and respond to claims of CSA, as the “blame it on a few bad apples” approach no longer holds water given the volume, nature, and scope of CSA within religious organizations and they’re at-best lacklustre response to it. The moral paradox of CSA for religion is that they should be supporting the least valued and vulnerable in society and not the people harming them. They should be welcoming and supportive of victims of CSA and not of the people committing CSA. While religious organizations should promote forgiveness and redemption this should only take place after acknowledgement, acceptance, and accountability have taken place. Restoration should be a cornerstone of responding to CSA but only after recognition. Until then, those who have been harmed can neither forgive nor forget.

Religious organizations need to consider their responses to CSA not only from process and policy perspectives, but also from a moral and philosophical level. How does CSA resonate with their spiritual and beliefs, and how does that translate into their social norms and behaviors? Although we’ve blogged about so many of these issues before, it behooves all of us to keep the discussion and information flowing if no fundamental changes are being observed.

Community, no unity? How do we build it!

By Kieran McCartan, PhD, Kasia Uzieblo, PhD, & David Prescott, LICSW

The last week has been a challenging week on the local (a shooting in Plymouth England by someone identified to have incel beliefs) and on the global stage (the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan) with sex and sexuality at the centre of both stories. You may wonder what links these two stories, both from opposite ends of research and practice in our field? The incel story is a conversation about mental health and risk management. It is a conversation about whether being an incel is a cognitive bias, a mental illness or simply a series of problematic attitudes and beliefs. It is a conversation about attitudes towards women and girls from a select subgroup of individuals in our society and what we can do to prevent violence and promote a proper understanding of and commitment to healthy and equal men-women relationships. But interestingly the Taliban story is the same story but from a meta perspective; it is a story of how a larger and more defined, and co-ordinated, group of people have problematic and antisocial attitudes to women and girls that promotes intolerance, bias, and violence. In both cases, the incel and Taliban story, the underlying current is that females are the problem and that violence and anti-social behaviour towards them is acceptable and justifiable. Both these stories remind us that the context in which we live matters, whether it’s the sub-group that we are part of, the country where we live, or our broader human values – the idea that violence towards women and girls is acceptable although? It is fundamentally wrong but seems to exist globally.

As a global community we have developed policies and laws that aim to reflect our attitudes and beliefs. Attitudes and beliefs that were developed in westernised, northern hemisphere countries and then challenged and adapted by the rest of the world. These laws, policies, and guidelines reflect the need for justice, equality, equity, and standards of living across the world. The recognition that all these shared values and beliefs are not balanced internationally with some countries adhering to some and not to others resulted in the creation of the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDG’s) by the UN. The expectation is that to be recognised by the UN, and to play an active role within it, you must adhere to these 17 development goals, The SDG’s impact countries and people directly as well as indirectly, through international sanctions and trade agreements through to altering national laws so that they reflect them. Some of the SDG’s talk directly to the field of sexual abuse than others, these are:

–              Good health and wellbeing

–              Equal access to quality education

–              Gender equality

–              Reduced inequalities

–              Peace, justice, and strong institutions

These SDG’s reinforce the need for access to health, wellbeing, and mental health services as preventive as well as responsive requirement in dealing with sexual abuse for both victims and people convicted of a sexual offence. These SDG’s also talk about the importance of balanced, informed, and evidence-based education for all regardless of geographic location or gender. Access to education can change attitudes and challenge anti-social and problematic behaviour. In addition, access to education can increase the prevention of sexual abuse by increased awareness and help in the integration of people impacted by sexual abuse through greater understanding of the aetiology as well as impact. Also, increased access to justice means that societies become more trusting of the state and that people are more likely to report sexual abuse, and ultimately more likely to get the help and support they need.

However, it would be naive to think that these changes will happen overnight. On the contrary, our (recent) history shows that it is more like a process of Echternach where you take two steps forward and then one step back. Take for instance the situation in Poland: Although Polish women have gained many rights over the past decades, the current ruling party has managed to trample women’s rights in the past few months without too much resistance from the UN or Europe, except for some critical tweets and threatening language from political leaders. This shows that the SDG’s cannot be taken for granted, even not in the westernized part of the world. The questions it also evokes is whether we are sufficiently prepared to fight for this? Are we prepared to take on this seemingly never-ending struggle? Do we remain vigilant, or do we let it take its course and turn our heads the other way? Will we only call out our concerns on social media and change our Facebook profiles in support of disadvantaged groups in our society or do we take actual and effective actions?

The two stories highlighted in this blog really reinforce that across the socio-ecological model (i.e., the incel story is particularly reflective of the individual and interrelationship stages and the Taliban story more reflective of the community and societal stages) more work needs to be done to strengthen our shared global values (the SDG’s) and that no part of society or corner of the world is immune from distorted attitudes and beliefs towards women. We need an individual and global assertive response and perseverance.

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.