For years I have heard the term “cultural competency,” but I have finally seen this in action when I met with Joy Te Wiata and Russell Smith in Auckland New Zealand. I also saw and felt for the first time, the connection between cultural competency and prevention. Let me explain.
On a trip to New Zealand I had the good fortune to meet with Joy and Russell and learn from them about their clinical practice focusing on Maori who have sexually abused. They both are Maori and they explained that while they integrate evidence-based approaches to treatment (e.g., CBT, MST, Good Lives, and narrative therapy) the core of their practice is spiritual.
We began our journey with a visit to a Marae, a spiritual gathering place where Russell and Joy will often hold their weekend retreats. They explained the traditional welcoming ceremony where no one may enter the Marae until the female elder invites them in. The invitation is sung and it is sung to the individual, his (or her) family and to all of their ancestors. If sexual violence thrives in isolation, the process of invitation immediately provides a protective factor, joining the offenders to all of the people around him/her who care about him/her and to all of the previous generations. No one enters the Marae alone. These traditions and specifically, the invitation begin the process of setting clear boundaries and expectations for each person entering into treatment. Over the course of the weekend, as the traditions and treatment weave together, Joy mentioned that when the weekend is over, it is hard to tell which men have been in treatment for a few days or for the complete cycle – each has learned the most important lessons about respect, boundaries, consent, and responsibility. When I asked how they do this, Russell told me, “This is difficult work but we sing, we laugh, and we hold each other accountable.” ‘Waiata’ or singing is a way of calibrating and synchronizing the clients to each other and others, while at the same time lifts their countenance to a place where the challenges and treatment can be heard and retained. Gentle ‘laughter’ is a place where learning and awareness becomes enjoyable and like waiata (singing) reinforced.
Throughout my conversation with Joy and Russell, I was struck with how their deep investment in their traditions only enhances the treatment practice. For example, on college campuses today in the USA, we are talking a lot about consent. A great video, popular in the UK talks about consent -- consent is like offering someone a cup of tea. Consent seems so straightforward when it is placed within a tradition we can all understand. And yet, Joy and Russell are offering even more by also offering a spiritual connection. When the men are invited into the Marae, they are not only taking on the responsibility for their safety and the safety of the community, they are also offered a gift, right at the beginning of treatment, the promise that they can become whole again in their family and their community. It is no surprise then that the programs that Russell and Joy run have the highest retention rates in the country. It is also no surprise that they had to add in aftercare groups because many of the men wanted to continue with groups even after they had completed the treatment group. The contrast to the enforced participation within the prison setting was palpable.
Each man who enters into treatment with Joy and Russell must also have a support person so that the closing ceremonies may involve up to 50 people for a small group as their families and support people join with them in their responsibility to safety and healing. Joy and Russell support the voices of each of the family members, including the victims of sexual abuse. They incorporate the wishes of the victim, and when a victim wrote how she loved her stepfather but was not ready for him to come home, they worked with that family and that decision.
Connection to Prevention
I grew up in a tradition which highly valued learning. And I had always heard, more often than not, that knowledge is power. So I was struck by Russell’s and the Maori’s belief that knowledge is responsibility. When Joy and Russell educate their clients as well as their families, they are also inviting each of them to take responsibility for each other’s safety. Like the concept of circles of support and safety, the responsibility of the treatment within the Marae encourages people to watch out for each other, to confront behaviors, and to ensure that everyone in the extended family is safe. In prevention, we all talk about the importance of educating each other about sexual violence. More recently, I have heard that expanded to educating people about preventing the perpetration of sexual abuse. However, we know that the one-time only education programs offered in many schools or communities is not enough to change behaviors. Imagine if each of these education sessions also meant that people were accepting responsible for changing their behaviors, confronting the behaviors of others, and seeking help when that was needed. This invitation to the treatment within the Marae and to responsibility is one pathway to safety and, ultimately, to prevention.