Thursday, April 29, 2021

Where do we go from here?

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

The world watched last week as Derek Chauvin was convicted for the murder of George Floyd. Tragically, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was shot minutes before the ruling was announced. A few days later, Kenosha, Wisconsin police officials announced that the officer who shot Jacob Black in the back would not face any discipline.  While many felt relieved in the wake of the George Floyd ruling, we all know much more needs to be done to bring an end to the violence in our communities; violence that studies find disproportionately affects people of color. It is not an easy topic to address succinctly in a blog post, and yet it is a critical time in our field’s history as we work to prevent abuse. What makes this such a difficult area for open dialog?

At first glance, there may not appear to be an obvious connection between the experience of people of color in respect to violence and sexual abuse, but there is.  One of the biggest common denominators in the lives of people convicted of a violent offense (including sexual abuse, which is a form of violence) is their frequent dual status as both past victim and current perpetrator. International research on the risk factors related to offending indicates that people who commit violent crime have a greater likelihood of having experienced past trauma and/or adverse childhood experiences. These experiences have impacted their development and lifestyle.

Too often, we choose to ignore these individuals’ backgrounds and vulnerabilities, focusing instead on their behavior. This is approach fails because we are looking at the severity of the crime and not the nuance of the person. The challenge is how we talk about violence, including sexual abuse, across diverse communities where experiences and practices, and opinions about violence are vastly different. The important word here is “community,” because there are several communities with differing perceptions all grappling with their response to violence and sexual abuse. These include the geographical community, the victims’ community, the political and press community, and the professional community. This diversity highlights the importance of an intersectional approach to understanding and responding to violence and sexual abuse. There are many challenges: Kieran grew up in Northern Ireland during the peace process and saw firsthand how challenging it was to change social norms, ideals, and cultural beliefs. The important thing to remember is that violence and sexual abuse, in all their forms, are community issues and that we need an engaged and united community to tackle them.

From a professional perspective, changing social and cultural norms, as well as beliefs, can present additional challenges. Being on the front lines of social justice means recognizing flaws within the system while working steadily and proactively to reduce them. Our clients suffer, often in silence, understanding that they are measured on scales that may be biased against them, particularly with factors like a past criminal record and substance abuse.  Meanwhile, too many professionals of color have their own experiences with such biases, maybe even with violence, and may have reactions to these events that they can’t share openly with others. Far too often, we are blind not only to our clients’ everyday challenges but to those of our colleagues, too.

It is encouraging that so many conferences in recent years have had pre-conference workshops and keynote addresses that examine the backstories behind racial bias and violence. The apparent dearth of open dialog about these matters elsewhere is unfortunate, even as it is understandable. The intersection of sexual abuse, discrimination, racism, and prejudice creates a perfect storm that can cripple professional teamwork. If we as a global community don’t feel comfortable talking about these issues with our most trusted friends and colleagues, why would professionals in the field be any different? Individual professionals are members of many communities and may only discuss these issues within receptive communities, but that part is easy. We need to make the hard choice to talk about these issues across all of the communities we belong to so we can learn from each other’s experiences and perspectives in order to develop a better understanding of these different communities and their experiences. This presents its own challenges because

-     people often enter such dialogs with firmly entrenched opinions and beliefs;

-    people tend to make assumptions about what others have to say without asking for clarification;

-    many people listen to others primarily with the goal of responding and making their own points;

-    people often fail to listen to others with the goal of truly understanding; and

-     one of our colleagues expressed it well several years ago when he said that professionals should     assume ethical intent and practice among our colleagues until we see evidence to the contrary. Otherwise, it is too easy for discussions to go off the rails.

This places all of us in a quandary: On one hand, the expression that “silence equals violence” may never have been more true. On the other hand, it is not difficult to imagine being pilloried for speaking up and speaking out.

Too many of us were raised with conversational taboos on certain subjects (religion, spirituality, and politics come immediately to mind).  The unfortunate result is that many people have never learned how to have difficult discussions. The challenge in having difficult conversations is significant, but the payoff can be significant as well. Social change takes time.  While we should not expect it to happen overnight, it’s vital that we keep trying.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Another exposé: “Why Do We Let Corporations Profit from Rape Videos?’

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

The past several weeks have seen many events in America that have the potential to influence the work of professionals in our field, both nationally and internationally. Many have been horrific, such as the rising tide of gun violence and the grief, anger, the outrage felt around the world in response to the murder of George Floyd and, despite the trial of Derek Chauvin and its historic outcome, the ongoing killings by police officers. Each new headline is a reminder that the people we serve often experience the world very differently than many professionals do. We all find ourselves in a dilemma: If we are to heal in the wake of world events, we need to be able to talk about them on the one hand, and on the other hand, many people are either too anxious to dialog and/or too exhausted to try.

With this in mind, a New York Times exposé appeared this week focusing on the porn industry. Where erstwhile journalistic investigations once examined the conditions of professional production of sexually explicit materials, the Times’ focus is on how the so-called “tube sites” of the modern era are run. These include Pornhub and several other sites that followed the YouTube example (readers might recall that YouTube’s original slogan was “broadcast yourself”).

In this article, Nicholas Kristof describes many examples of what until recently was commonly referred to as “revenge porn” (that term does not appear in this article, presumably because of recognition that there are other motivations than revenge, including profit and the perceived thrill in causing harm to others). These are situations in which (mostly) women are coerced or cajoled into producing sexually explicit media which are then uploaded to the tube sites. In many (but by no means all) cases, the person who is victimized in this way is underage. As Kristof observes, the video may be brief, “but the attack on dignity becomes interminable.” He provides numerous examples of people who pleaded unsuccessfully to have their videos taken down.

We need to be clear – as other professionals have noted – that the actions of the people uploading these videos are acts of violence; referring to it as pornography diminishes the experience of those harmed. It's important to note that posting “revenge porn” is committing an offense, it is not necessarily linked to a paraphilia or mental illness. We need to be careful about not pathologizing people when it's not appropriate. In many cases “revenge porn” speaks more to society's attitudes and understandings of sex, consent, and sexual harassment.

Many questions about these tube sites follow, which have implications for the ethics of sex, relationships, and business. As on many other occasions, we have more questions than answers. For example:

·         When is consent truly consensual? How is consenting to sex being recorded different from consenting to sex?

·         Can this consent be withdrawn as it can be with research, mental health treatment, or medical interventions?

·         How should businesses account for the harm that they cause under these circumstances?

·         What can we learn about human relationships from all of this? How many sacrifices do people make, in the moment, for their relationships that they will later regret? How do we raise young men to be more than the video equivalent of trophy hunters? And how to we raise our girls to remain attentive all the time and to be assertive, also towards boys who are older and whom they admire?

·         How do we prevent violence while protecting free speech?

·         How do we enable freedoms more broadly while keeping vulnerable individuals safe?

Another issue raised by this article is the apparent lack of empathy and concern in our society. The businesses are in it for the money; that much is clear. Nevertheless, one wonders who is running these businesses. Are all of these people as callous they seem? Do they only have an eye for the money? How can they look the other way? And what about the viewers?

The video of the rape of Heather Legarde, described in the article, has been watched by 200,000 people. One in eight videos on three major tube sites depicts sexual violence or nonconsensual conduct; hence, there is an audience for these videos. These figures should give us all goosebumps. This is not just a small fraction of society that seeks out these videos for sexual pleasure. It appears there is a double standard here, one worthy of examination. We are all repulsed by people downloading and watching images of child sexual abuse.; isn’t this equally serious? Shouldn’t society invest in preventing this cruelty through education, sanctions, and other means to give a clear signal that this is not acceptable? And finally, what about us? Where do professionals fit into this? What can we do?

The first author posted a link to this article in a number of places around social media and received only two replies in total. The article has not gotten the attention that Kristof’s first article did. Are we witnessing a process of desensitization to the harm that people experience? Is it all becoming part of the much-discussed ‘new’ normal?




Friday, April 2, 2021

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

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

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. Which 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 that will (hopefully) make the politicians 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.


Thursday, March 25, 2021

Surface Net, Deep Net, & DarkNet: What are they, and when should I start to panic?

 By Alex Rodrigues, Psy.D.

The DarkNet has been gaining increasing attention lately.  Most of us have probably caught a short news segment alarming us of the dangers on the DarkNet.  The segments are nearly identical and use the same, ominous graphic of a hooded figure at a computer doing something nefarious.   Such clips have cast the DarkNet as a virtual lair of child pornographers, identity thieves, and terrorist extremists.  While those elements do exist, the DarkNet also offers more, some of which is positive.  The following blog provides some basic information about the DarkNet.  It is designed to educate those working at the intersection of the digital world and sexual offending.

1.       What is the DarkNet? Rather than start with the technical aspects and confuse readers with complex jargon, it is likely better to think about the DarkNet on a broader, conceptual level first.  From this perspective, it becomes clear the DarkNet is about anonymity.  DarkNet architects, as well as current users, value and prioritize anonymity.  This anonymity may involve hiding online drug deals or providing internal corporate documents as part of a whistleblower action. Users find anonymity by operating far below the Internet’s Surface and Deep Web levels

All Internet users are already familiar with the Surface Web, the part of the Internet composed of widely accessible websites and search engines like Google.  For reference, the Surface Web only makes up a fraction of the entire Internet.  In addition to the Surface Web, there are sites and Internet features that are harder to find and can not be accessed with search engines.  Often, access to Deep Web features require the use of a password or online credentials.  The Deep Web includes everything from one’s personal Amazon account to his or her company’s intranet.  Many readers who have worked in a modern hospital have used Deep Web services when accessing a patient's electronic medical file.  In comparison to the Surface and Deep Webs, specialized software is needed to access the DarkNet.      

2.       How does one find the DarkNet?  The information and specialized software needed to access the DarkNet can easily be found on the Surface web.  Sites such as Reddit offer places where one can learn about DarkNet mechanics and tools, like Tor.  Tor, short for The Onion Router, refers to both the software needed to browse the Internet anonymously and the network of computers that make up the system.  The average person can easily download Tor to his computer. 

The software allows one to remain hidden by using a series of other computers as relay stations.  Finklea (2017)[1] detailed how web traffic is routed through these various relays, obscuring one’s identity and Internet protocol (IP) address.  All Tor traffic goes through a minimum of three relay stations.  This practice helps to hide one’s identity because each relay station only has information about the two stations it is sandwiched between. 

To put it more simply, imagine you were tasked with spreading a secret message.  You were given a location and person to pass the message to.  However, you don't ever learn if that person is the intended recipient of the secret message or another messenger in a larger chain.  In this situation, you only know the person that provided you the message and the one you passed it to.  This is essentially how Tor works to hide one's Internet browsing.  Once on the DarkNet, one can turn to directories or search engines, organized according to content.

3.      What does someone do on the DarkNet?  As stated above, the DarkNet is used to maximize privacy.  For instance, one can purchase drugs or other illicit contraband anonymously. Arguably, the most well-known DarkNet drug bazaar was Silk Road, which law enforcement shut down in 2013.  Before its dissolution, Silk Road was a digital marketplace that generated close to 200 million in anonymous drug sales.  In addition to drugs, one can find child pornography, firearms, malware, and stolen credit card information on the DarkNet. Transactions are completed with the use of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

While the DarkNet is largely known for more nefarious reasons, most individuals accessing the platform are not engaged in illicit activity. Many are concerned with secret government surveillance and do not want to have their digital history cataloged.  Additionally, the DarkNet has been used to fight against tyranny and injustice. For instance, those living under authoritarian regimes use it as a means of safe communication.  Even the New York Times is present on the DarkNet, providing a secure submission portal to whistleblowers trying to get sensitive information to the public. 

Hopefully, this blog entry has provided those curious about the DarkNet with some basic information.  In the meantime, refrain from immediately downloading Tor and perusing the hidden areas of the Net. While accessing the DarkNet is not illegal per se, one risks encountering harmful material, or at minimum, being dropped by his Internet provider.




[1] Finklea, Kristin. Dark Web. Congressional Research Service, 10 Mar. 2017,


Friday, March 19, 2021

Reflections on the challenges of “true” community integration post-conviction.

Submitted by Ben

Bloggers’ Note: Readers may recall our blog post of February 19, 2021, titled, Looking for the Best and Preparing for the Worst. It focused on a recent article in Slate that questioned a poetic contribution to a magazine. The question was whether the submission from a person convicted of possessing child sexual abuse materials should be included in a magazine highlighting the work of those serving time in prison.

Ben, who describes himself as a MAP (an acronym standing for minor-attracted person), ex-offender, and former pornography addict, sent an email with a number of thoughts in response. With Ben’s permission, we are re-posting it here to provide the perspective of at least one person of a group whose voices often go unheard and unrecognized. It has been only lightly copy-edited.

I have some thoughts on your very thought-provoking article, about why sex offenders are always excluded, even to the extent of preventing them from expressing their feelings, in a poetic contribution to a magazine.

A lot of it is because acknowledging that these people have a sensitive, human side, makes it harder to 'other' them and treat them as monsters. For many people in the prison system, who are already feeling great levels of shame and stigma, because of their own (non-sexual) offending, it is probably very helpful to have someone they can feel morally superior to. Being able to look down on sex offenders, makes them feel less ashamed of their own crimes.

The general public has a slightly different reaction. Part of their hatred towards all criminals comes from a fear of being a victim of crime. They imagine how they would feel if someone hurt them. When it comes to children, the public asks themselves how they would feel, if someone hurt their child. The answer is scared, angry, and filled with a burning desire for revenge. They then take those feelings and project them onto any sex offender they read about in the news.

Feeding that natural desire, to punish those who may pose a threat to you or your children, are the myths of sex offender dangerousness and incurability. The frequent references to the dark triad and to sexual offender stereotypes are used as explanations. They must be narcissists, or sociopaths, who either do not care about their victims or are incapable of caring. The most common questions people ask themselves about sexual offending are why did they do it and how could they do it. It seems to go against all normal human ethical standards and to defy explanation. When confronted with something they cannot explain, people return to simple to understand concepts, like good and evil, or mental illness. Hence, most SO are categorised as either mad or bad or both. There is very little understanding of the role that childhood trauma plays, in an adult's sexual offending.

Then you have people's own understanding of human sexuality. There are two elements to this. The idea that a person's sexuality is fixed and unchanging, plus the notion that any thoughts, desires, or sexual interests must be acted upon because they are impossible to resist.

Most of the public, when they examine their own sexual thoughts and feelings, understand that have a Jekyll and Hyde quality to them. There is no divide between sexual offenders and the general public, in this respect, only a spectrum of sexual offending. Everyone knows that they have powerful sexual urges inside them. Everyone knows that they lose control of those feelings sometimes. The research shows that people take more risks when sexually aroused, for example. When that is combined with a disinhibitor, like alcohol, you often see offending behavior, like date rape, as a result. The feminist argument that all men are potential rapists, seems to be supported by this evidence. There is no 'other'. Any man, given the right disinhibitors, could potentially act on his sexual feelings, in an immoral and possibly illegal way.

But rather than face this uncomfortable truth, it's far easier for society to pretend that only monsters and others are capable of committing sexual offenses. Most of the public sees themselves as Dr Jekyll. Deep down, they know that Mr. (or Mrs.) Hyde exists inside them, but they tell themselves that Dr Jekyll has Hyde under control. Jekyll’s logic and reason can tame Hyde's wild and impulsive sexuality. However, whilst they might believe this about their own sexual desires, they don't extend that same analysis to other people. They worry that other people don't have the same control that they do. It's a bit like people's relationship with advertising. You tell yourself that other people can be persuaded by it because they are less intelligent and more gullible, but you are immune to it because you can see through the advertiser's lies.

This is why there is so much focus on sex offenders being impulsive. They are regarded like the others, who cannot see through the advertising.  Their Dr. Jekyll is absent, and their Hyde is much closer to the surface, ready to act on the slightest whim or sexual thought.

At the same time, there is another sexual offender stereotype, who confounds the notion of inherent impulsivity. This is the Machiavellian manipulator, who, rather than acting impulsively, plots silently. This manipulator grooms his victims carefully, for many years, before acting. He is the polar opposite of the impulsive, situational offender, who acts without thinking. Nevertheless, the public has successfully incorporated the two opposing typologies into their other, with an extraordinary act of doublethink.  Sex offenders are perceived as both uncontrollable and impulsive, whilst being fiendishly cunning manipulators, at the same time.

Then there is the idea of constant, unchanging, sexual orientations, interests, and preferences. As my [supervising agent] put it to me, once. "Do you prefer football or rugby? Some people just prefer men, some just prefer women."  The subtext of this conversation, which he didn't put into words, was that some people just prefer adults and some people just prefer children and that's just the way it is.

He was tapping into an idea that is very common, and widely held nowadays, which is that a person's sexual preferences, interests, and orientation are not their choices. It's just genetic. Something you are born with and have to live with forever. The reason this matters is that to [supervising agents] and the general public, a person who has a sexual preference for children, will have that preference forever. It will never go away. That means it is incurable. That means the best outcome a sexual offender can ever hope to achieve, is to control those feelings and not act on them. But even the ones who don't act, are still wanting to act and will do so, if they ever get the chance. So, it is a simple equation, in the public mind. Sexual orientation can never be cured, therefore sexual offending can never be cured.

What is the solution to this flawed perception?

Reactions from criminal justice professionals vary. I always try to humanize myself to them, by telling them about my childhood traumas. I explain that I lost all my trust in people, as a result of that trauma and this is why I struggle with intimacy as an adult. I suspect though, that most offenders do not do this. For most offenders, discussing these issues with a police officer, who has just invaded their home, is too stressful and shameful. A lot of sex offenders, whose trust in other people has been catastrophically harmed, by trauma and whose faith in humanity has been so terribly compromised, will see the police as just another person who doesn't care about them and wants to harm them. They may tell the police nothing about their life story or they may get defensive, which will just cause the police officer to regard them as hostile, and thus the police will see them as being a higher risk, as a result. 

Probation listen more and most now understand that offenders have been traumatized. They are slowly beginning to understand the effects of adverse childhood experiences on people's adult offending and they recognize that offenders use minimization and denial, as a defense against shame and not to avoid responsibility for their actions.

But the police listen less because they have been trained to see all SOs as devious and manipulative and because police culture perpetuates the urban myth that all sex offenders are liars. Therefore, police find it harder to listen, since they assume that the offender is only telling them these things, in order to manipulate them.

Nevertheless, 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.

Most often, when I read about sexual offending in the media, it tells me nothing about the offender. It only gives details of their crimes. Nobody can empathize with that. But occasionally, we do get glimpses into the offender’s life. I have seen tales of men who offended, after suffering unbearable trauma. A man, who had lost his wife and both children to illness, prior to his offending. Another who had an illness, which left him confined to his home 24 hours a day, and who then offended on the internet. These are not coincidences. Trauma and offending are inextricably linked together. That is the message that must be conveyed.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Getting Our Priorities Right.

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

A scan of the media recently has left much to be desired. There is a new documentary about the film director Woody Allen and allegations of sexual abuse made against him in the 1990s. From the article:

Back in 1992, Allen, then 57, admitted he was having an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, 21, the adopted daughter of his long-term partner, Farrow . . . Several months after that, at the height of their viciously acrimonious break-up, Farrow accused Allen of molesting Dylan, who was then seven, one afternoon while she was out of the house. Doctors examined Dylan and found no evidence of abuse. Allen was investigated by the Yale-New Haven Hospital’s sexual abuse clinic which concluded: ‘It is our opinion that Dylan was not sexually molested by Mr. Allen.’ He was also investigated by New York State’s Department of Social Services, which wrote: ‘No credible evidence was found that the child named in this report has been abused or maltreated.’

On the surface, the media coverage is an interesting look at what remains known about this case. From our perspective, it is sad that so many individuals have almost completely disregarded the professionals who conducted official examinations in favor of a trial-by-media approach to a decades-old scandal.

It was tempting to write the Allen case off as a slow news cycle, except that then the Looney Tunes skunk character, Pepe Le Pew, also came to grief when multiple media accounts covered his character’s retirement. Considerable discussion ensued, and in one social media context an expert complained that, as a species, skunks do not engage in rape; at least, not in the way that other animals do (mallard ducks frequently receive mention in this context). In some ways, the Le Pew verdict is timely; his advances towards Penelope Pussycat were never acceptable and were doubtless confusing to some who had experienced abuse. At the same time, we have never met anyone that understood the cartoons of that era as articles of faith.

More seriously, there is also the scandal involving New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is facing multiple allegations of sexual harassment. Adding to the seriousness of the allegations are damaging photos of unwanted advances made in public. The fact that it is happening at an inopportune time of other scandals is certainly not helping. Multiple leaders from both major parties have called on him to resign. As of this writing, he has refused. Clearly here, there are multiple and competing perspectives, from “he needs to step down now” to “many politicians, including recent presidents, have done worse and didn’t resign.”

Meanwhile, one news story basely attracted any attention at all. USA Today has described the rising tide of domestic violence during the pandemic. Their numbers, derived from a study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, are grim. From that study:

Data from US police departments provide some early insight into the effect COVID-19 has had on DV in some regions. For instance, in Portland, Oregon public schools closed March 16, 2020, and on March 23 came stay-at-home orders. Following these events, the Portland Police Bureau recorded a 22% increase in arrests related to DV compared to prior weeks. In San Antonio, Texas schools closed March 20, 2020 and stay-at-home orders came March 24. The San Antonio Police Department subsequently noted they received an 18% increase in calls pertaining to family violence in March 2020 compared to March 2019. In Jefferson County Alabama, the Sheriff's Office reported a 27% increase in DV calls during March 2020 compared to March 2019. In New York City schools closed March 16, 2020 and stay-at-home orders started on March 22, 2020. During the month of March, the New York City Police Department responded to a 10% increase in DV reports compared to March 2019.

The stark relief between media attention to the behaviors of celebrities and cartoon figures and the genuine human suffering, experienced disproportionately by our society’s most vulnerable members, could not be clearer. The amount of violence in our communities was already unacceptable pre-pandemic, has gotten worse, and yet goes almost unnoticed. A search of Google’s news site on each of these items makes clear that finding out many of the true costs of the pandemic remains a real challenge. Perhaps it is because actress Mia Farrow and Pepe Le Pew make for better visual content in media accounts. Maybe it’s because we would prefer to see our leaders taken down than to see our most desperate neighbors given a hand up. Maybe it is because we can’t look at what’s really happening anymore?

Perhaps a broader perspective is called for. Maybe we are not seeing and/or are denying a societal cognitive schema whereby it is easier to target individuals and individual actions rather than examine societal causes and consequences. The #MeToo movement has demonstrated that sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and domestic violence is as much about community and societal issues as individual and interpersonal ones. Once again, we need to step back from simply pathologizing those who perpetrate and are victimized by sexual aggression and understand each within a context. Yes, Woody Allen, Andrew Cuomo, and even Pepe le Pew have all acted badly, caused harm, and should be held accountable for their behavior; but where is the larger societal reflection, critical thinking, and change?

Simply saying publicly that these individuals are to blame, while privately acknowledging that they are a product of the system and reprimanding them but ignoring the wider systemic problems is no longer acceptable. A recent World Health Organization report has shown that violence against women and children is its own pandemic and, like with COVID-19, we need wholesale societal change to eradicate it. That that starts with individuals, communities, and the media.


Thursday, March 4, 2021

Civil commitment in the US: A federal lawsuit returns

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

A large-scale challenge to civil commitment laws has re-emerged in the past few weeks, to the surprise of many, involving the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (although the suit could have involved virtually any of the 20 states’ and federal government’s programs). Minnesota’s program had been declared unconstitutional in a federal court in 2015. A federal appeals court reversed that decision, ruling that the judge had applied the wrong standard in his determination. The US Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Now, an appeals court in Missouri has cleared the way for a reconsideration of this case. Readers are referred to the recent media coverage for a more comprehensive discussion.

For those who may not be aware, civil commitment, as applied to people who have committed sex crimes, involves legal proceedings that examine whether a person meets the criteria for a pre-disposing diagnosis (such as Pedophilic Disorder, with the application of many such diagnoses hotly contested across jurisdictions) and an appraisal of the person’s risk to commit further acts of sexual violence.  Many readers will be aware that virtually every aspect of civil commitment law in the US has been challenged in the courts and that the research behind the methods used in diagnosis and risk assessment has also been challenged at every turn. 

Civil Commitment has a complicated history internationally. Other countries have either no equivalent or very different versions of it. For instance, England and Wales had IPP (Imprisonment for Public Protection) sentences which were introduced in 2005 and abolished in 2012. They were determined to be unlawful by the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court in 2007 and a joint report by the chief inspectors of prisons and probation in 2020 concluded that IPP sentences were unsustainable with UK prison overcrowding. Although they are no longer handed down as of 30 June 2020, there were 8,954 (8,618 male: 336 female) determinate sentenced prisoners (those serving Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences and life sentences).

The Sexual Abuse blog has focused on this and related cases in the past, most recently in 2015 (in which the first author asked a number of questions related to ethics and human rights). What’s changed since then? Obviously, the laws do not appear to have changed. Readers of this blog will correctly infer our opinion that the societal context in which these programs operate has changed very little. By all appearances, though, the Minnesota program itself has worked to develop an infrastructure for releasing clients into conditional-release situations in the community, even if the decisions can be controversial within the hierarchies of state government.

Obviously, any lawsuit can be problematic for those directly involved. Why would this lawsuit be good news? Here are some ideas:

-          The clarity of a ruling is an opportunity to improve programming. As one prominent observer noted, it is the state’s job to ensure that the legal processes for release are in place and functioning. It’s each program’s responsibility to line clients up at the door and be ready for release as efficiently as possible. The importance of clarity in programming cannot be understated. Earlier this year, clients at the Minnesota program initiated a hunger strike with the intention of calling attention to what they felt was the absence of a clear pathway to release.

-          Lawsuits present an opportunity for state legislatures to get their acts together. To be blunt, by the time states are losing federal lawsuits, they’ve probably been in the wrong for quite some time. While no politician wants to risk being on the wrong side of public perceptions involving sex crimes, a review of the decade that this case has been active illustrates the dramatic need for change at the state legislature level.

-          Along these lines, the current lawsuit is an opportunity to reconsider the implementation and administration of these laws and perhaps devote more energy to preventing sexual violence in the first place.  With a budget in excess of $90 million in 2020, and the fact that MSOP treats only a small fraction of those convicted for sex crimes in Minnesota,  one wonders what kinds of prevention efforts might be possible were civil commitment laws to be used more responsibly.

-          The lawsuit is a reminder that we can also invest more in our prison-based treatment programs. Does it make society really safer if we lock them up for years and subsequently mandate them to follow a treatment program? Can we still expect sufficient positive outcomes from such delayed treatment programs? Although some prison-based treatment programs have led to controversy, we also know that both short and long prison sentences have little to no effect on recidivism rates. Investing in preventive interventions sooner in the process might lead to more positive treatment outcomes and is also expected to be more cost-effective.

-          The lawsuit further reminds us of the importance of research! Related to the other points, we should also invest more money and time into proper research programs into the mental disorders that these individuals are usually diagnosed with, which includes paraphilias and sometimes personality disorders. Taking the bulk of research on sexual violence into regard, it is striking to note that still relatively little is known about the development and manageability of abuse-related paraphilias, and how they relate to sexual violent behavior in some individuals, but not in others. These insights are however highly needed if we want to offer well-founded reasons for hope to both these individuals as well as society.

-          The lawsuit reminds the community of the reality of punishment and rehabilitation. Quite often communities dismiss and collectively forget about the lives of people incarcerated in prisons unless it directly involves them or the families. The current lawsuit puts conversations about the role, structure, and function or incarceration, treatment, and risk reduction back into the community frame. It reminds people about the reality of punishment and why it should matter to them. This and other lawsuits can remind us all of the realities of indeterminate incarceration and begs questions about the most effective and efficient ways to rehabilitate people. It’s never as simple as locking them away.