Thursday, July 11, 2024

The challenges of employing people with convictions for a sexual offence: a new way forward or rebranded rhetoric.

By Porter, C., Ph.D., & McCartan, K. F., Ph.D.

Last week the UK elected a new government, a labour government. In the first couple of days they where in power the new prime minister, Sir Kier Starmer, talked about many things including health, education, social welfare, and justice. He said that they all needed an overhaul. As a former head of the Crown Prosecution Service, he understands all too well the pressures that the prison and probation service is under and stated that it needs to change, that their needs be a new approach to incarceration and community integration. In line with this, the new prime minster has appointed James Timpson, CEO of Timpson’s, as the new prisons minister. This is a clear declaration of intent to reconceptualise prisons and probation, as Timpson’s employs more people with a criminal conviction than any other organisation. James Timpson, like Kier Starmer, understands that meaningful employment matters in helping people desist from offending, building recovery capital, and pro-socially integrating into society. But what does this mean for people convicted of a sexual offence, a group normally shunned by employers and communities.

 

Across the UK we have reached a crisis point for prison capacity, with more people than ever being incarcerated with 87,453 people in prison across England and Wales as of the 5th of July and the cost per prisoner in the public estate being £33, 628 and in the private estate £51,108. This means that prison is not cheap and is not working (as a crime deterrence, anyway). In 2024 the English and Welsh prison service (approximately 700 individuals short of capcity) almost reached full capacity, and in Scotland it did, forcing the former conservative government to take drastic action. For more context, as of May 2024, there were only 557 spaces left across the entire England and Wales prison estate, with the number being even lower in male prisons. This overcrowding has triggered emergency measures such as, temporarily housing prisoners in police cells, early release, suspend prison sentences of less than 12 months, increased community sentences, Electronic Monitoring (such as GPS tags), removing and deporting foreign offenders, and ultimately building more prisons. These prisoner release schemes generally exclude individuals convicted of violent, sexual, or terrorism-related crimes.

 

Employment for people convicted of a sexual offence is complex and multidimensional, partly because individuals with a prior sexual conviction(s) are perceived negatively by professionals, employers, and members of the public. A series of online experiments have demonstrated that participant employers are typically unwilling to hire those with a prior offence, even when they are asked to make their hiring decisions before a disclosure and barring service ‘DBS’ check. Specifically, Porter and colleagues (2023) found that when they disclosed a prior sexual offence, employers were unwilling to keep the candidate they selected. Typically, they felt that the candidate was untrustworthy, a risk of harm, and a reputational risk to their organisation.

More thought needs to be given to people convicted of a sexual offence, as this population is growing within our prison and probation service with Justice lab data from July 2023 indicating that sexual offenses (13,788 individuals) are the second most common after violence against the person (21,919 individuals). In in the last annual report, 2022-23, there were 68,357 people with a sexual offence under the care of Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA) which shows a steady year on year increase which emphasises the importance of employment for this group and the centrality of it for His Majesties Prison & Probation Service (HMPPS). But there has been limited consideration regarding how to find employment for these newly released prisoners, some of which have not had sufficient support or planning with their probation team or other local charities due to the early release scheme.

Recently, we have conducted a series of workshops with practitioners who support individuals with a prior sexual offence to find and maintain employment, including, members of police, probation, the 3rd sector and NGOs, as well as policymakers and therapists. We have found an inconsistent approach in how different organisations are advising this group to disclose (or hide) their offence. This means that we need to develop a more consistent and forward-thinking approach, which means we should consider:

 There needs to be more work done by HMPPS on the breaking down the barriers to employing people convicted of a sexual offence by employer’s and the public.

- A review of the skills base and training needs for people convicted of a sexual offence to help them retrain or repurpose their skills to enable employment post release.

- Think creatively about how probation and MAPPA panels can support people convicted of a sexual offence upon their return to the community to gain meaningful employment.

 Work with the 3rd sector and charities that support community integration, to see how they can better support their clients as well as strengthening partnership working.

- There should be a consideration of the role and function of disclosure in applying for jobs and broader employability, considering the role of schemes like “ban the box” and the use of CV-based self-disclosure as they might improve employability and generally trustworthiness.

-       To effectively support this group, more work needs to be done to empirically examine employer decision making and disclosure interviews.

-       Think about what we can learn for other areas of criminal justice, social justice and public health, to see what e can learn from other populations. We need to recognise what is similar about challenges to employment for this population compared to others, and what is different.

 

Individuals who are released from prison need access to accommodation, employment, and support services. To successfully obtain access to accommodation, people need regular and secure employment. This is particularly difficult for those with a prior offence and has been made even more challenging for those who have committed a sexual offence. With the new UK government in post less than one week, we are still waiting to see how they tackle this pressing issue but given their history with Criminal Justice System and promising cabinet appointments the future looks promising.

 

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Pornography exposure and sibling sexual abuse and behaviour

By Adams, A., MEd, King-Hill, S., Ph.D., Russell, D., Pg Cert., & McCartan, K., Ph.D.

When exploring the influencing factors in relation to sibling sexual behaviour and abuse (SSB/A), it is useful to consider the influence of outside factors. One factor that has come to the fore in recent years is pornography. Pornography is sometimes seen as an aggravating factor of sexual abuse. Yet, the conversation about pornography, sex, sexuality and sexual abuse is more complex than simply viewing and then doing. There are other social, cultural, personality, psychological, and behavioural considerations that impact the way that pornography consumption impacts ideas and actions related to sex and sexuality; these are often ignored or overlooked. This conversation is still in its infancy, but it is pertinent to consider the role of pornography within the context of SSB/A. There appear to be two broad aspects to pornography in this context: the influence of all types of pornography on sexual behaviours between siblings and intra-familial specific pornography (i.e. stepsister/stepbrother themed pornography).

SSB/A has long been and continues to be a prominent issue in frontline practice. Pornography use by adults and adolescents are often very different matters, with the latter being potentially harmful in ways that adult exposure to pornography may not be. Within the field of practice many services supporting children and young people (CYP) displaying harmful sexual behaviour (HSB), including SSB/A, often reference the prevalence of pornography use and exposure. Pornography is a frequent area of focus within interventions – these interventions often seek to correct and address unhelpful and harmful messaging that has been gained via the use of pornography as a source of sexual information and knowledge.

The influence of pornography appears to be embedded within wider societal systems i.e. patriarchy/misogyny and relate to:

·       Men/boys more having power than women/girls (e.g., are they permitted responsibilities and authority that girls are not).

·       Modelling violent gendered interactions.

·       The excusing and minimisation of boys inappropriate and abusive behaviour because of their gender.

·       Lack of understanding of consent for boys.

·       Exposure to pornography from a young age is rising in line with increased internet usage in CYP and plays into these societal systems.

Pornography can skew the perspectives of consent, engagement, and participation in sex and sexual pleasure. When considering this in the context of SSB/A pornography may act as an influencing factor for PSB/HSB onset. Pornography has been shown to heighten CYP’s contact with unhealthy sexual scripts which endorse a lack of sexual consent and violence. Pornography can also influence sexual expectations and attitudes towards women and girls and can reinforce hetero-normative sexual relationships, as well as harmful formations of masculinity such as male entitlement and dismissiveness to the needs and wants of young women. While critical engagement with the harms (including gendered harms) associated with pornography have been discussed in relation to HSB enacted by non-related children there is much less discussion surrounding pornography and SSB/A. The specific role pornography might have on the onset of SSB/A is limited, but there is a small body of research evidence to suggest that exposure to pornography bares an association with SSB/A.  These studies (Latzman et al., 2011; McDonald and Martinez, 2017; King-Hill et al., 2023; Zaniewski et al., 2022) found that children who had sexually harmed a sibling (primarily males) had being exposed to pornography within the home, and pornography distorted their understanding of consent and exacerbated their senses of entitlement and power.

Of course, most CYP will witness pornographic material and not engage in HSB including SSB/A, and where SSB/A does occur pornography may not always be evident as a behaviour engaged with. In addition, there is evidence to suggest that CYP’s pornography use can have positive, not negative, implications such as providing education to CYP about their bodies and sex (Goldstein, 2020). Nevertheless, CYP who frequently engage with pornography may be more likely to internalise sexist messages and gendered power differentials such as male sexual domination and female objectification and submission (Massey et al., 2021; Vera-Gray et al., 2021). It is reasonable to propose that CYP’s exposure to highly sexualised imagery, coupled with their proximity and access to a sibling, could heighten the risk of SSB/A.  This is not to suggest that pornography exposure causes SSB/A, nor that sexual gratification is the sole reason for SSB/A. Instead, it is to emphasise that pornography can diminish bodily boundaries and perpetuates a normalisation of extreme, sexist, and intrusive sexual practices, and if CYP are regularly exposed to these sexual scripts, and this is combined with other issues such as parental absence and a sexualised home environment, problematic and abusive SSB may be more likely to occur.

A second consideration in relation to SSB/A and pornography consumption is that of ‘sibling-based’ pornographic material (i.e. pornographic material which depicts a familial relationship such as step brother/sister). Pornographic material depicting sex between step-siblings (while these actors are not actual siblings they act as if they are) is commonly available on the main porn streaming websites and explicitly apparent on some social media platforms. For example, one mainstream pornography site hosts ‘channels’ which are collections of pornographic videos produced by production companies or studios. There is a function whereby the user can search and select these channels based on their ranked popularity, (no.1) being the most popular (i.e. most subscribers and views). Examining this list of channels shows that ‘family-based’ pornographic material is featured regularly. Of the top 30 ranked channels 10 are dedicated to family-based pornographic content, three of which are dedicated to pornographic material which depicts a step-sibling relationship. While there is no research which demonstrates an association between ‘sibling-based’ pornography and SSB/A. There is a meaningful body of research that highlights that CYP can mimic and act out what they see in pornography. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest, that ‘sibling-based’ pornography could manifest a normalisation and acceptance of incestuous sibling relationships and be internalised into CYP’s sexual scripts.

The challenge of understanding the role of pornography in SSB/A, as with any form of sexual abuse, is disentangling it for the inter-related social, psychological, and behavioural factors. In terms of professional practice this highlights the importance of focusing on CYP’s wider sexual knowledge and interests that may have contributed to their HSB occurring, as well as supporting CYP to understand the content they may have been unintentionally exposed to while exploring their sexuality and sex; exploration that may have been influenced by a lack of developmentally required relationships, sex and health education. In addition, we have to be careful that we are not equating correlation with causation between SSB/A abuse and pornography viewing. What we need to understand better is how this material is viewed by CYP who engage and do not engage with HSB’s and what the different triggers are in the SSB/A experience. We also need to understand the role and impact of sibling related pornography in relation to the volume and scale of SSB/A. All of this means we need more research, more education, and more frank, but challenging conversations with the pornography industry, CYP, and adults.

Note to readers on terminology: Language in this area has has been part of an important discussion of late. In our work over the past four years focussing on this issue we have seen many instances and examples of the behaviour between siblings being clearly sexual abuse and sexually abusive. However, there are also key examples where this is not the case and that the issues present as sexually inappropriate and/or sexually problematic. This is an important distinction, and with this in mind, for this blog, we will use ‘sibling sexual behaviour and abuse’ (SSB/A). We would also like to acknowledge that terminology in this space always evolves and that SSB/A is not a static term and is likely to change as we begin to understand more about this issue.

If you are a young person worried about your own or others’ sexual behaviour you can anonymously contact Shore for support.

 

If you are an adult concerned about your own or others’ sexual behaviours you can contact the Stop it Now Helpline for confidential support.


If you are based in the USA and want support please contact - (1) What's OK https://www.whatsok.org(2) Stop it Now!  https://www.stopitnow.org/about-us/get-involved?gad_source=1&gclid=Cj0KCQjw7ZO0BhDYARIsAFttkCjbg75p5PN0hUEtF12zQ_ATtbPOVQjg4RSYDnE0_B4-xCQ792hp2UsaAg2OEALw_wcB

 

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Slow-Walking Sexual Abuse Prevention?

 By David S. Prescott, LISCW

With all the modern technological wonders, artificial intelligence, space tourism, and the like clearly, we live in a fast-paced world, but advances don’t all progress at the same rate, especially where human rights are concerned. For example, The United States became a "free" democracy in 1776, but women didn't get the right to vote until nearly 150 years later and weren't allowed financial independence until the 1970s. Even now their fight for bodily autonomy goes on. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery at the start of 1863, but it took another two years for many who were enslaved to find out about it, and more than 150 years for their emancipation to be celebrated with an official holiday. Still the struggle for equality goes on.  Examples of slow-walking abound.

Slow-walking is a common tactic in street protests, effective enough, apparently, that last year the UK passed legislation to allow police to restrict any protest that hinders or delays traffic. Merriam-Webster defines “slow-walk” as, “to delay or prevent the progress of (something) by acting in a deliberately slow manner.” Wherever active resistance to the unfolding of human rights wasn’t happening, slow-walking the end of these abuses was there in its stead. Setting aside the other horrors, it grimly reminds us of the power of passive-aggressive behavior and its exhausting toll on us all.

Fast forward to the present and our field, and we see that a simple Google Scholar search on “racial disparities in criminal justice” yields over 300,000 results. Likewise, a search on “racial disparities in child protective services” yields over 235,000 hits. While mainstream media often uses terms like “controversial” in addressing public debates on race, power, and privilege, there is really nothing controversial in the reminder that our society is slow-walking the amelioration of these injustices. They are right in front of us all.

What does this have to do with the prevention of abuse? For starters, a recent investigation claimed that 1,800 law enforcement officers may have sexually abused children and that high-ranking officials are “failing” at protecting minors. Further, prosecutors have given favorable plea deals to officers who have admitted their crimes. This is not even close to the first time that abuse by law enforcement officers has made headline news or even appeared in this blog (for example, see here and here). Over the years, I have worked with and trained many law enforcement officers for whom I have nothing but admiration and respect. The point that I and others have made is that the systems in which many of these officers operate appear to have slow-walked their efforts at preventing further abuses. As Phil Zimbardo observed, it’s often not just the few bad apples, but the bad apple barrels and the bad makers of apple barrels (which are the policies that allow systemic abuses to occur).

Other examples often appear in the news. In the past few days, the pastor of a “megachurch” resigned after it came to light that he had abused a 12-year-old girl in the 1980s. While this happened some 40 years ago, the media coverage quickly noted other recent scandals, such as an expanding probe last month into New Orleans Catholic church leaders. Decades after the first sexual abuse scandals in churches, Kansas is now considering requiring church leaders to report suspected child abuse in most cases. Utah has also only recently pursued a similar policy.

Sexual abuse does exist everywhere, and I am highlighting easily identified cases of abuse within law enforcement and religious institutions because they are in positions of trust in society. No profession is free from it, as one can see in reviewing the minutes of state professional licensing and regulatory boards for psychologists, social workers, and clinical counselors.

The question for all of us engaged in prevention efforts is whether we can see and stay focused on the systemic slow-walking of efforts to prevent sexual abuse.

In the end, contrary to what many in the public may believe, sexual abuse, like other forms of violence, is preventable. Professionals in our field have many reasons to be hopeful, take pride, and find joy in our work! However, it is not enough to limit our activities to assessing and treating individuals. We need to identify and call attention to slow-walking by institutions when it occurs.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Responsivity and Reading in Adolescents

By Norbert Ralph, PhD, MPH

Best practices for the treatment of youth with problematic sexual behavior (YPSB) include the use of the principles of risk, need, and responsivity. The last of these, the responsivity principle, is described by ATSA (2017) as interventions that take into account personal strengths, developmental stage, education, and motivation. As a neuropsychologist who assesses learning disabilities, I believe that an important part of assessment and also treatment planning is to understand the reading level of a youth. Written materials are routinely part of treatment including consents, worksheets, and workbooks. Some relevant information was provided by a survey of California adolescent treatment providers (Ralph, 2013) which identified that 41.9% used, for example, Pathways by Kahn (Kahn, 2011).

What are reading levels in YPSB? Lewis, Shanok, and Pincus (as cited in Ferrara and McDonald, 1996) compared juveniles who had sexually offended with another juvenile population with violent but nonsexual offenses. They found the two groups did not differ on IQ testing regarding full-scale, verbal, or performance measures. However, they found that juveniles with sexual offenses scored 5.59 years below grade level and the comparison group 3.95 years.

In my clinical experience reading levels can be readily assessed using reading tests in less than 10 minutes. As an administrator for psychological testing for the juvenile courts in San Francisco, I found few psychologists in court-ordered testing would choose to assess reading levels. They didn't view this as part of their role even though this information wasn't available readily in any records. I found many youth that I assessed as having a reading disorder that had not previously been identified through the school system. I was careful to make sure such youth were referred for an IEP assessment and possibly specialized services to help promote their educational and prosocial development.

Reading level has profound implications not only in a youth's ability to use written curriculum but their academic and life experiences. Many occupational and even social opportunities are limited due to reading levels and this also has an impact on the youth's self-image and view of future life possibilities. One study found that youth identified with a reading disorder at age 7 were 56% less likely to obtain a higher income than those with average or above reading skills (McLaughlin, Speirs, & Shenassa, 2014). Authoritative guidelines for youth specifically recommend an assessment that includes reading level (California Sex Offender Management Board, 2022).

Understanding the reading level of materials for youth is important in several respects. Reading levels can be estimated using such measures as the Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level (FKGL) which can be calculated using a computer. This measure gives an estimate of the grade reading level of documents and was used by the U.S. Army to rate the difficulty of technical manuals (Wikipedia, 2023).

The readability of written materials is relevant in several areas. Youths routinely sign consent to treatment or release of information forms. These forms should be comprehensible to most youth. For example, one California County's consent form had an FKGL of 11.0 and the authorization for the release of protected health information was 11.5. A private practice group's adolescent consent form had an FKGL of 12.7.

It's also important to consider the reading level of workbooks or materials for juveniles since this will be an indicator of how well they can be understood and used. For illustrative purposes, several workbooks were analyzed using this methodology. One well-designed workbook available as a PDF online had an FKGL of 7.5. A sample chapter on controlling impulses from a widely used workbook had an FKGL of 7.1. A workbook by the author, Being a Pro, (Ralph, 2016) had a FKGL of 5.5. For comparison, the reading level of this document is 12.7.

Let's use the upper and lower limits of this very modest sample, with a FKGL of 5.5 and 7.5 grade levels to consider comfortable reading levels for the average 14-year-old juvenile on probation whose approximate grade level would be 8.0. Using the data from Ferrara and McDonald (1996) and the estimate of juveniles on probation being four years below grade level in reading, then the average reading grade level of the 14-year-old on probation would be 4.0. According to broader educational research, such as Chall and Conard (1991), students who are proficient readers can read at a level one to one and a half grades above their current grade. So if treatment reading material had an FKGL of 5.5, the average probation youth in this hypothetical scenario could comprehend this material but not one with an FKGL of 7.5.

In summary, an important part of the responsivity principle is assessing the reading level of youth in treatment and also additionally the reading level required by consent and treatment methods. A mismatch in these areas would likely lead to less successful outcomes.

References

Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. (2017). ATSA practice guidelines for assessment, treatment, and intervention with adolescents who have engaged in sexually abusive behavior. Retrieved from ATSA.

California Sex Offender Management Board. (2022). Guidelines for treating and supervising youth who have committed a sexual offense. Retrieved from https://casomb.org/pdf/CASOMB_Guidelines_for_Youth_2022_v1.pdf.

Chall, J. S., Conard, S. S., & Harris-Sharples, S. (1991). Should textbooks challenge students? The case for easier or harder textbooks. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ferrara, M.L., and McDonald, S. 1996. Treatment of the Juvenile Sex Offender: Neurological and Psychiatric Impairments. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

Kahn, T. J. (2011). Pathways: A guided workbook for youth beginning treatment (4th ed.). Safer Society Press.

McLaughlin, M. J., Speirs, K. E., & Shenassa, E. D. (2014). Reading disability and adult attained education and income: Evidence from a 30-year longitudinal study of a population-based sample. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 47(4), 374-386.

National Center for Educational Statistics. (2024). Nation’s report card. https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/

Ralph, N. (2013). An online survey of JSO practice characteristics and methods. California Coalition on Sexual Offending. Retrieved from https://ccoso.org/sites/default/files/CCOSO%20JSO%20Survey%2010%208%2012.pdf

Ralph, N. (2016). Being a Pro: Promoting prosocial development in youths. Safer Society Press.

Wikipedia. (2023). Flesch–Kincaid readability tests. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flesch%E2%80%93Kincaid_readability_tests

Friday, June 7, 2024

Sex and Autism Spectrum Disorder: Deeper insights into complex relationships (NL-ATSA webinar)

By Minne De Boeck (Stop it Now! Flanders, University Forensic Centre, University Antwerp, Belgium) & Kasia Uzieblo (Helpline 1712, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium)

An essential goal of the Dutch-speaking affiliation of ATSA, NL-ATSA, is to bring science closer to local professionals, and thus, to strengthen the bridge between theory and practice. Therefore, NL-ATSA, hosts webinars and conferences on various topics relevant to our daily practice. Many professionals indicated that they increasingly encounter people with developmental disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder, who conduct sexually transgressive behavior. Autistic traits seem to have a substantial impact on the experience of sexuality, sexual identity and sexual behavior. In addition, developing a healthy and safe sexuality can be challenging for people with autism. In times of social media and easy access to online sexual content, things only seem to get more complex for them. These challenges call for an autism-sensitive approach. The question that arises, then, is how to bring about such an approach in our practice? To shape such an approach, we obviously need, first, to understand how these individuals experience sexuality and where the concrete challenges lie.

For these reasons, NL-ATSA aimed to gain -and share- insights about the impact of autism on. NL-ATSA invited several (inter)national experts for an online webinar to discuss autism and (deviant) sexuality.

The first lecture was given by Dr. Wenn Lawson and Maree Crabbe (Australia). Dr. Wenn Lawson is an autism expert and Maree Crabbe is a pornography-education expert. Their presentation focused on the role of pornography on people with autism. Before explaining the role of pornography and technology, the meaning of the term ‘autism’ was briefly touched upon. Different terms are used to describe autism; hence, it is always necessary to check which term is preferred by people with autism. Today, pornography is more readily available than ever before. Also, it increasingly depicts more aggressive forms of sexuality. Since pornography is normalized by many people, pornography is a sexual educator for many. This has serious implications for young people's ability to appreciate and give meaning to concepts such as ‘free consent’ and ‘mutual respect’. The impact of pornography can be even more challenging for young people with autism. Throughout the presentation, the term ‘monotropism’ was strongly emphasized. Monotropic minds tend to have their attention pulled more strongly towards a smaller number of interests at any given time. This characteristic can lead to young people with autism being particularly vulnerable to the effects of pornography. Moreover, there is a risk of forming unrealistic and unhealthy sexual attitudes and expectations. For example, themes such as strangulation, violence, incest, etc. are becoming prevalent in pornography. Even though these themes clearly do not reflect normal and safe sexual behavior, this can be very confusing for young people with autism. These can create doubts about sexual identity, sexuality experience and sexuality (within relationships). This is partly because of their difficulties in interpreting facial expressions and body language, and the fact that the sensory systems of people with autism can be more easily overwhelmed. These characteristics may increase the likelihood of young people with autism becoming victims or even perpetrators of sexual crime, partly because of their distorted perception of what normal sexuality entails. Dr. Wenn Lawson and Maree Crabbe also gave various tips on how to deal with individuals with autism and the impact of pornography. Think about engaging in dialogue, offering adequate sex education, offering healthy alternatives but also posing certain restrictions. 

The second expert was Robert de Hoog (the Netherlands), physical therapist specialized in sensory information processing. His presentation focused on autism and sensory information processing. As humans we are confronted with an almost innumerable number stimuli from the environment and from our own bodies, through our senses. People differ in what kind of stimuli they find pleasant or unpleasant, that certainly applies to persons with autism as well. Furthermore, some people become under- or overstimulated. Understimulation involves barely reacting to a touch and may involve obsessive behavior. Overstimulated people may experience anxiety upon physical arousal and may perceive stimuli (e.g., touch) as painful. Since persons with autism often face under- or over-stimulation in sexual experiences, it is important to understand these processes when working on healthy sexuality with this target audience.

The next speaker of the webinar was Manon Heyndrickx (Belgium), a forensic psychologist at the forensic inpatient treatment centre PC Sint-Jan Baptist. She discussed how sexuality is experienced by people with autistic spectrum disorder and this from a theoretical standpoint as well as from her clinical practice. She portrayed this by showing the video ‘Mind My Mind’. The functioning of the brain of people with autism and how this functioning affects their view on sexuality was explained. Among other things, problems with central coherence in individuals with autism were addressed. Central coherence refers to people’s tendency to process information globally and in context. However, people with autism tend to focus on local rather than on global processing. Consequently, their processing of information is too detailed, too specific, too context-dependent and/or too absolute. In addition, sexual contacts tend to involve unwritten (social) rules, there is a lot of nonverbal communication and limited predictability. This is precisely what makes it so difficult for people with autism, partly as the result of a lack of social insight and skills, limited empathy, and a lack of inhibitions and knowledge. Preoccupations, sensory preferences and persistent, repetitive, behavior are also mechanisms that could explain their (deviant) sexual behavior.

Hence, although autism per se may not be a risk factor for the development of sexually deviant behavior, it is clearly important for clinicians to gain insight into how certain autistic characteristics influence their (deviant) sexual behavior. The numerous attendance during the webinar and the numerous questions NL-ATSA receives about autism in clients who commit sexual offenses, illustrate how important it is not only to discuss scientific insights, but also to give adequate attention to sharing good practices and clinical experiences.

The last speaker was Professor Kieran McCartan (United Kingdom). This presentation provided an opportunity to learn about the Prevent Through Support Project (2PS), a European Commission-funded project that aims to map and understand secondary prevention programs in Europe for (potential) perpetrators of sexual abuse of minors. The session introduced the project, discussed how professionals in our field can get involved and debated some of the challenges and opportunities for secondary prevention right now. Even though this presentation was not about sexuality and autism, this was an excellent opportunity to make our field aware of the necessary prevention initiatives currently underway.

Friday, May 31, 2024

Relationships, Sex and Health Education: a critical tool in prevention of Child Sexual Abuse

By Sheona Goodyear, PhD student, University of Birmingham.

My Granny became ill with cancer and died when I was eight.

I resisted being left alone with my Grandfather before her death and have been perceived as ‘difficult’ ever since. On one occasion, I screamed “f**k off!” at my Dad, in desperation to be allowed to stay behind at a friend’s house. This was not typical behaviour in my family.

I tell you this because it happened when I was young: younger than year 4.

The government has issued a new Draft Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education: Statutory guidance for governing bodies, proprietors, head teachers, principals, senior leadership teams, teachers (DfE, 2024). In addition, the government has launched a consultation which ends 11th July 2024.

The guidance states its aim is to ‘keep children safe and informed about growing up and the challenges this may present’ (DfE, 2024, p.7). It emphasises a need for appropriate teaching which should be delivered by ‘a trusted adult’ and a wish to ‘help’ and ‘support’ ‘prevention of harm and early intervention’. At the outset this nonspecific language leaves the guidance open to interpretation which is at best a concern. The inclusion of age limits for when topics deemed sensitive should be taught in schools could compound the lack of clarity or be a dangerous backwards step in practice to safeguard young children.

The Secretary of State for Education insists parents hold the main responsibility for teaching Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE). In an ideal world, perhaps parents could deliver outstanding RSHE, but how many children live in an ideal world? Not all children even live with parents. And with experiences of home education fresh in parents’ minds, how many would wish to take on the complexity of the RSHE curriculum?

Another consideration would be whether parents are invested in preventing harm. While most parents undoubtedly nurture their children and promote their best interests, in some home environments this is not the case. While the guidance asserts it has been grounded in advice from an independent expert panel, it seems that evidence commissioned by the government has not been considered. In areas the guidance upholds inaccurate stereotypes, for example, that risks of sexual harm are likely to occur from strangers. The Home Office funded Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse repeatedly confirms child sexual abuse is most likely to be carried out by someone known to the child (Karsna and Kelly, 2021). Furthermore, 53% of victims and survivors of child sexual abuse who contributed testimony to the government’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) reported that the abuser was a member of their family, foster family or a residential carer (Jay, et al., 2022).

The guidance for the primary stage does direct schools to deliver relationships education to ‘equip pupils to recognise and report abuse’ (DfE, 2024, p.17). This is crucial: 79% of victims and survivors reporting to IICSA were aged 11 or younger when sexual abuse started (Jay, et al., 2022).  The Centre for Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse found 55% of victims and survivors were age 11 or younger when abuse began (Karsna and Kelly, 2021). Another consideration is the finding from DfE that more than half of children on child protection plans with significant risk of sexual harm were age 9 or younger (for the year ending 31 March 2021) (Jay, et al., 2022).

Meanwhile, IICSA and other sources agree the prevalence of child sexual abuse is impossible to determine. Only 33% of the IICSA Truth Project participants reported the abuse when it was happening. The Government’s Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy (2021) states:‘it is difficult to truly understand … how many victims and survivors remain unidentified because of under-reporting, under-identification of victims and survivors by agencies, and a lack of robust survey data’(p.138).

Appropriately delivered RSHE is an important tool giving children knowledge to identify harm, whether intra or extrafamilial, and in whatever form. It provides alternative opportunity for a child to consider telling someone if they have experienced sexual abuse. This is particularly significant if adults in the family environment cannot be trusted to act when a child discloses abuse. High quality RSHE might also give a child the vocabulary to be able to tell, so the significance of what the child is experiencing comes across clearly.

IICSA reported that ‘relationships and sex education in schools did not reflect the current challenges facing children and was mostly inconsistent and inadequate’ (Jay, et al., 2022, p.127). If interpreted openly, in the spirit of reducing stigma and enabling children to talk about the challenges their relationships may involve, this guidance could secure better advice for children and young people and support development of healthy, positive relationships in their futures. However, ambiguity in the guidance leaves opportunity for it to be misinterpreted and to undermine the sensitive approaches required which were encouraged in previous documentation. In addition to this, observing rigid age limitations for sharing of information may leave children unprepared for their own development, ill-equipped to identify dangers in their worlds and as unable as I was to explain if something harmful happens to them.

References:

Department for Education (DfE) (2024) Draft Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education: Statutory guidance for governing bodies, proprietors, head teachers, principals, senior leadership teams, teachers. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1090195/Relationships_Education_RSE_and_Health_Education.pdf (Accessed: 22 May 2024).

His Majesty’s Government (HMG) (2021) Tackling child sexual abuse strategy 2021. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/605c82328fa8f545dca2c643/Tackling_Child_Sexual_Abuse_Strategy_2021.pdf (Accessed: 22 May 2024).

Jay, A., Evans, M., Frank, I. and Sharpling, D. (2022) The report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Available at: https://www.iicsa.org.uk/reports-recommendations/publications/inquiry/final-report.html (Accessed: 22 May 2024).

Karsna, K. and Kelly, L. (2021) The scale and nature of child sexual abuse: Review of evidence. 2nd edn. Available at: https://www.csacentre.org.uk/documents/scale-nature-review-evidence-0621/ (Accessed: 22 May 2024).

Friday, May 24, 2024

The 2024 New York State ATSA and Alliance for the Prevention of Sexual Abuse Conference

By David S. Prescott, LICSW, ATSA-F

A Diverse and Engaging Experience

One of the joys of ATSA membership is being able to travel to different state ATSA conferences. Each one is different, and each reflects the landscape and culture of the area surrounding the event. Every conference is organized slightly different, and the New York State ATSA/Alliance conference is a prime example of what a conference can be under the right conditions.

The Perfect Setting: Saratoga Springs

New York is a large state with differing regions. Western New York, with Buffalo being the largest city is a different environment from Northern New York (Watertown, Plattsburgh, etc.), for example, and the New York City metropolitan area more different still. The conference has been held for several years now in Saratoga, a beautiful town best known for its natural springs and horse racing. In May, it presents the perfect combination of natural beauty and a thriving downtown. It is a perfect fit for people coming in from all corners of the state and beyond.

A Welcoming Atmosphere

The NYS ATSA Board of Directors maintain a welcoming presence throughout each event. The first things one notices on arrival are the various get-togethers where old friends re-connect and newcomers are welcome, including gatherings at a local pub and early-morning meditation sessions. And the pre-conference presentations, keynotes, and concurrent workshops all feature a great balance of local and (inter)national talent.

Insightful and Applicable Pre-Conference Workshops

The pre-conference workshops for this year included David Thornton on theoretical and empirical issues in the use of protective factors in assessment. Jenna Sachs and Lorraine DiFiglia presented on their work with trauma-informed crisis response teams, and Kim Spence presented on forensic assessment and best practices with clients on the Autism spectrum.

Timely Keynote Addresses

The keynote addresses covered many bases and reflected the various signs of the times: Alex Rodrigues spoke on the TEAMS (Triage, Education, Assessment, Monitoring, and Skills Building) approach for addressing adolescent online sexual behavior. Alex is, as always, a dynamic and resourceful presenter with good ideas that he organizes very well. The second keynote focused on New York State’s new targeted violence prevention strategy, formed in the wake of the 2022 racist attack on a supermarket in Buffalo. The presenters were Paula Granger, Sara Winegar Budge, and Sammie Wicks. It was clear that the presenters had studied and knew their audience. They represent a field much like ours in the 1990s – filled with very good ideas based on sound practices, while remaining in need of further research. What was clear in their approach was that they have put very considerable and balanced effort into their work; it was not a consciousness-raising effort nearly as much as a progress report based on the best available evidence.

Relevant Concurrent Workshops

The keynote address for the third day was Kim Spence. She has become a familiar name on the conference circuit, and for good reason. Her keynote combined the latest research and ample practical applications. She used case examples to illustrate what professionals need to know and emphasized the need for expertise and best practices. Most welcome to this writer was the sheer applicability of it all, from the basics of teaching social skills to areas of particular concern, such as the use of public bathrooms. She somehow combined all of this with a sense of humor that was edgy yet very compassionate towards her clientele and other professionals.

Finally, the concurrent workshops were all timely and presented well. Sarah Louer and Ashley Wilfore gave a talk on balancing least restrictive practices with less resources for the treatment of adult clients with intellectual disabilities. Angelique Caley presented on intervening with adolescents who are suicidal. Robert McGrath gave a workshop on the ROSAC (Risk of Sexual Abuse of Children). These and other topics do not get the attention they deserve in the usual mix of conferences.

Next year!

Once again, NYS ATSA and the NYS Alliance pulled off an excellent experience for all! And during the proceedings they announced that next year’s conference will again be in Saratoga.