I have been spending sometime recently at Griffith University as a visiting scholar at the Griffith Criminology Institute as part of an international network; this trip has provided me with some great insights into Australian sexual harm management practices. On Wednesday we had a conference on community engagement and sex offender management where a number of issues where discussed including Circles of Support and Accountability (myself), sex offender registration (Professor Andrew Day, Deakin University), working with Aboriginal Communities (Professor Stephen Smallbone, Griffith University), desistence from sexual offending (Dr Danielle Harris, San Jose State University) and how to engage with the community on issues of sexual abuse (myself). What really stuck me was that the issues that we all face are the same regardless of geographic location (whether it is North America, Canada, Australia, UK or Ireland to name a few locations) only the context is slightly different. I am not sure whether this is a good or a bad thing? On one hand it’s reassuring to know that our issues are the same and that the majority of problems that we face in the sexual harm field are not that different, while on the other hand it’s depressing to know that all the problems are the same and therefore we start to question whether we are making any head way.
What are some of these issues,
- There is a separation between research, evidence and policy with much sexual harm policy being reactionary and based on ideology not research. So more “policy based evidence” (“Quick we have made a policy quick find some evidence to justify it”) rather than “evidence based policy” (“listen we need to develop a new policy let’s do some research and get some evidence first”).
- There is often a disagreement between professionals about whether treatment with sexual offenders works, whether it should be supported or whether it is simply a tick box exercise to indicate that something is being done with this difficult and challenging population.
- There is often a gap between the state and government’s perception of how perpetrators of sexual harm should be responded to in comparison to researchers and/or treatment providers. The state/governments response is usually harsher, more restrictive and less engaged.
- There are similar laws and a desire to good down similar policy paths. Registration and disclosure is a good example with Australia having a sex offenders register, similar to the UK, USA as well as other international countries, and now based on a high profile case (Daniel Morcombe) some areas of Australia have community notification with other areas looking into it.
- That some tools for working with sexual offenders are becoming more and more global including Circles of Support and Accountability, which is being trialed.
- Reaching and doing community and public engagement can be difficult and challenging because of the way that perpetrators of sexual harm are viewed by the community. With community members (recognizing that there are multiple publics and that all members of the community are not the same and do not think alike) believing that all “sex offenders” are the same, won’t change and should go to prison for extended periods.
- Different cultures within the same country can be more difficult and challenging to reach than others. I felt that there was real resonance with some of the issues facing professionals trying to work with Black and Ethnic Minority groups in the UK (especially in the light of Rotherham) and the challenges presented by working with aboriginal and/or remote communities in Australia on these issues. The difficult line between education, safeguarding, management and cultural sensitivity.
- The issue of historical cases of child sexual abuse and sexual harm committed within state institutions; Australia, like the UK, also has a commission investigating these cases.
- The understanding, especially among professionals, that not all perpetrators of sexual harm are specialists, that the majority of them are generalists and that we need to look at their anti-social, dysfunction lifestyles as much as we look at their offending.
- That the state and criminal justice system is interested in people who commit sexual in as much as they are interested in preventing recidivism and risk managing them; but, that they may not be as interested in helping them to develop pro-social, positive lifestyles and to fully integrate into society.
- That we need to go a lot further in the way that we think about sexual harm prevention, that we need to get the message out there more and that it needs to be ingrained in schools, clubs, societies more. There is a recognition that the messages need to be process and not outcome driven, as well as that the need to be more societally focused (less individualized) and more proactive (rather than reactive “how to avoid being a victim…”).
These issues are common, international and recurring. Although, it may seem disheartening at first, which it is because we have got a long way to go, it does offer some hope because are all dealing with the same issues and therefore in sharing good practice, good research and good policy we can overcome this issues together.
Kieran McCartan, Ph.D.