Friday, November 25, 2016

Abuse is Abuse

This might be a good time to simply “rip the bandage off” and get back to the basics: Abuse is abuse. Part of what makes it abuse is that one can never know the outcome. As co-blogger Jon Brandt recently noted, research has shown a particularly challenging truth; that those who are abused don’t necessarily view their experience as abuse. He states:
One insidious characteristic of non-violent sexual abuse is that it may be unrecognized.  When people are asked why they didn’t report the abuse, they sometimes say they felt duped, perhaps complicit, but mostly confused.  And when victims otherwise liked their offender, they often didn’t report because they were afraid of the uncertainty of the aftermath – for themselves and for the offender.
This leads us to question where violence begins and ends. Does it need to be overtly and blatantly violent to be abuse? Australian psychologist James Ogloff and his colleagues examined survivors of child sexual abuse after 45 years and found:
Overcoming many limitations of previous studies, this study revealed that, in general, CSA victims were 1.4 times more likelyto have some form of contact with the police for any matter compared with other members of the general community. Although most (77%) CSA victims did not have an official criminal record, CSA victims were almost five times more likely than others to be charged with any offence, with the strongest associations yielded for sexual and violent offences and breach of orders.
These findings call to mind what many professionals have said in treatment across many decades. To paraphrase Stanton Samenow, you don’t need to shoot someone or leave them lying in a pool of blood to have committed an act of violence; “no one was hurt” is a common post facto rationalization made by people who have committed serious acts of violence. We hear this minimizing from perpetrators, victims, family members and society through the myths that surround abuse; especially historic child sexual abuse ("why complain now years later?"), rape ("why didn't they fight back?") and inappropriate/under wanted touching ("it wasn't that bad, it wasn't rape!"). Which begs the questions, how we understand, discussion and recognize abuse as a society as well as an individual? We all know the terminology, language, labels and (for the most part) where to seek help and/or justice; but do we really recognize and process abuse? So we say - "sexual abuse is a broad constellation of acts that is everything and anything"; "sexual abuse happens to other more vulnerable people, not to me and people I know"; "sexual abuse is a caused by other more deviant not by people I know"; and "well, the system isn't fit for purpose so why bother reporting". We hear so much, see so much that we become desensitized and need the extreme case to come along to enact a conversation, so not the daughter sexually harmed by her father but the football coach that abuses multiple children in their care.
Taken together, these findings remind us that:
1)      The effects of violence, including sexual violence, can be brief or last a lifetime.
2)      The effects of violence can occur beyond the awareness of the person who has been abused.
3)      Abuse poses an unacceptable risk of harm, even if it does not cause acknowledged harm in every case.
Of course, there are other implications:
·         Abuse exists at every level of society; it is in our communities and all too often in our own families.
·         Only a small minority of those who are known to have sexually abused are at high risk to be re-arrested for sexual abuse.
·         People who abuse often do so until they are caught and cautioned by an authority; Being sanctioned in some way for abuse can have dramatic effects on one’s behavior.
Why are these points so important to mention?
First, the world has watched as many of our favorite people have recently come to light as having sexually abused others (e.g., a parade of entertainers, athletes, politicians). Perhaps, more importantly, ATSA members, other professionals, and the lay public are once again challenged to re-visit not only what abuse is, but what it means in our lives. ATSA’s Executive Board of Directors recently issued a statement that caused some controversy among ATSA members; some members felt it singled out one side of the political aisle, while other members noted that sexual misconduct seems equally distributed over time across parties. Even beyond our organization, many have expressed concern about the actions of political leaders, while others have appeared to use the actions of others for their own political gain. It often seems that no one is blameless in recent world events.
2016 has been an unforgettable year in world politics, and many of us – the authors included – experience grief that there is not more we can do to influence events around the planet. Just the same, it is vital that we not take our eyes of at least one prize: the elimination of sexual abuse.
David Prescott and Kieran McCartan


Monday, November 21, 2016

The families of perpetrators of sexual harm: The silent minority

Often times we forget about a silent but impacted group of individuals related to sexual abuse, the families of the perpetrators. I spent some time on Friday talking about this with prison staff in the context of the men in their establishment and the regularity as well as reality of visitation time; but I think that it engagement between perpetrators and their families goes much further than this one issue as it impacts their rehabilitation as well as reintegration through having a support structure on the outside. We as researchers, professionals and treatment providers spend our time discussing perpetrators, victims and the criminal justice system but we can give little (or sometimes no thought) to the family members sitting on the side-lines impacted by the abuse and how it affects their lives. It is important to recognise that not all family members want to maintain contact with perpetrators, but some do and others change their mind over the course of time and reopen potentially sealed doors. However, do we really support, aid and help the families of perpetrators? The reality of the situation is, compared to other offending populations and risky populations, probably not, no. The families of perpetrators face a range of ongoing issues and live out the experiences of perpetrators simultaneously, because:

-         Dealing with the label of having a family member who is in prison, or in the community, as a “Sex offender”. Whether this be children of the perpetrator, the wire/partner of the perpetrator having to live in the community [or the house] where the abuse happened. While not everywhere has public disclosure of sex offender information the court case is often printed in local papers and the local “gossip” machine will spread knowledge. However, no one tells family members how to respond, cope and manage with this, epically if it is coupled with the idea that they were aware of the abuse and kept quiet or that they “might be sex offenders too”?

-        Tying in with the label of sexual abuse familiarise are also stigmatised by association, epically if they decide to stick by the perpetrator and work with them. Walking away in some instances garners social support and acceptability; but staying suggests that families are sympathetic and supportive. The stigma that families can face does not recognise the complexity of relationships or abuse, it reiterates a simplistic societal judgement that does not exist for other risky groups (addicts, alcoholics, etc).

-        Quite often families, like victims, blame themselves for what the perpetrator has done regardless of whether the sexual harm was in the home, community or completely unknown. Families will carry this guilt, self-blaming and annoyance (at themselves and the perpetrator) with them while the perpetrator is in prison and post release.

-        They often receive little or no support, financial or emotional, while their family member is imprison. Quiet often these families have lost a means of finical support, either because the main breadwinner has lost their job but also maybe the remaining family member has to give up work [or reduce their hours] to care for the family in the perpetrators absence.

-        Family members are dealing with their own trauma in respect to the perpetrators sexual abuse, in that someone they thought they knew well had done this. How do they process this trauma, where do they go for help and how do they vocalise. In addition, there may be other forms of abuse, trauma and dysfunction that they may have been exposed to at the same time that the sexual harm was happening elsewhere. Who can they turn to for help, support, counselling and/or advice? Some areas have resources and support but this is by no means universal or free.

-        Given the secretive nature of sexual harm and the impact that it has, this means that families carry an additional burden of not being able to discuss the abuse or its consequences; which places them under more internal and external pressure.

-        Visitation, as already mentioned, becomes an issue as the perpetrator may be sent to a prison too hard to access and/or that because you cannot bring children, or minors, with you to a sex offender establishment means that families may not be able to visit (if they wanted to). This means that often time families are divided via practicality rather than choice. Which means that perpetrators and their families are artificially, but meaningfully, separated in a way that does not happen for other types of offenders.

-        The fact that the perpetrator, whether they want them to be or not, is omnipresent in their lives; by default, by actions and by association.  The family may want to help and support the perpetrator, but they may not. If they don’t want to support the perpetrator they may share the same surname, circle of friends and may have to see/hear/discuss them through conversations that they have with family members that still contact them (parents, siblings or children).

The families of perpetrators of sexual harm are placed in a difficult and often invisible situation. We as the providers of research, treatment and support for victims and perpetrators need to think about how we can best assist and support all of those impacted by sexual harm.

Kieran McCartan, PhD

Friday, November 11, 2016

ATSA 2016 Conference Highlights

ATSA’s 2016 conference flowed seamlessly, no audible complaints beyond the usual disagreements over the best use of air conditioning. As always, old friends gathered and caught up on their work and lives, and newcomers had the opportunity to see the largest conference of its kind in the world. Many participants joked about the odd juxtaposition of our work with certain Disney characters, but once at the venue there was nothing unusual, except perhaps the utter enormity of the Swan and Dolphin resort itself. The author’s favorite memory of the facility was a seasoned professional from Northern England trying to come to terms with the loud music, warm air, and the magenta lights on the palm trees in the walkway between buildings at night.

The balance of plenaries was current and on point, ranging from campus sexual assault research to advances in risk classification. The concurrent workshops for juveniles featured recent innovations and areas of inquiry. One program reported on their use of the adverse childhood experiences questionnaire in residential treatments (in brief, the amount of adversity in the backgrounds of these youth is unacceptable). Another program reported on low-dose, high-impact mindfulness exercises to build responsivity with adolescents and their families in treatment. 

Importantly, the conference offered an opportunity to honor three professionals involved in the prevention of sexual violence: Joan Tabachnick, Keith Kaufman, and Leo Cotter. While many people are aware of Joan’s fantastic work with bystander prevention (She won this year’s Gail Burns Smith Award) and Keith’s work as a Past President and leader of ATSA’s Prevention Task Force (He won this year’s Significant Achievement Award), fewer are aware of Leo Cotter’s incredible work educating judges and lawmakers in Florida (He won ATSA’s Distinguished Contribution Award). All three have done far more work outside the limelight than within it.  (DP)

We also heard from Dr. Sarah McMahon about an issue that is gaining societal and political significance inside and outside of the United States: campus sexual assault and bystander intervention. Sarah’s plenary was a timely reminder that we need to confront sexually harmful behavior in all its guises, regardless of who the perpetrator is or where it happens, and that this is the responsibility of us all – it’s a societal and individual issue. This tied-in well with a workshop from Maree Crabbe on sex education in schools and how we can respond to youthful engagement with pornography. 

This year we held another public engagement event prior to the start of the conference.  It was hosted by the University of Central Florida and supported by Florida ATSA and Innovative Modular Technologies. We had approximately 40 members of the public, practitioners and campus police attend to hear speakers discuss sex offender registration (Jill Levenson, Nicole Pittman), human trafficking (Sara Lynn Ard, Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force) and bystander intervention/campus sexual assault (Sarah McMahon). After the presentations there was a great question & answer session that reinforced the importance of the event and the topics discussed.  (KM)

This year’s ATSA conference offered the usual rich diversity of topics, and invaluable networking.  There were great plenary sessions, and with dozens of workshops to choose from, it has always been a challenge to pick only six workshops to attend.  But this year conference organizers provided some relief to annual agonizing over registration - attendees were allowed to go to workshops other than those for which they originally registered (space permitting).  While changes in workshop attendance requires on-the-fly logistical challenges for conference organizers, it recognizes that attendees often discover, either after registering, or at the conference, that some adjustments to their registration would make their conference experience much more beneficial.  Brilliant accommodation!

It’s always difficult to choose only a few highlights from a great conference, but I’d like to give a shout-out to some of Elizabeth Letourneau’s thoughtful plenary comments.   Elizabeth discussed some of the very challenging concerns for sexual offender management.  Elizabeth explained that sexual violations between children need to be understood as typically very different from adult sexual offending, and that, “it is appropriate and just to treat kids differently” at every stage of intervention.  Another topic was the emerging understanding of pedophilia.  Beyond the need for colleagues to support successful recovery for those who have sexually violated children, Elizabeth discussed the extraordinary challenges of supporting hope and prevention for non-offending pedophilic teens and adults.  She went on to explain how the Registry and other misguided public policies undermine recovery for offenders and their families - particularly for juveniles. 

To learn more about the challenges of civil regulations on offenders and their families, two powerful documentaries ran continuously on Thursday and Friday, in the ATSA Screening Room: “Pervert Park” and “Untouchable.”  Both featured former offenders and their families, as they bravely acknowledged their sexual offending and candidly told their stories.  Both documentaries were well produced and edited, and provided compelling perspectives on how the registry and residence restrictions interfere with recovery.  A Saturday morning plenary featured “Untouchable” producer David Feige, who discussed how he went from attorney and public defender to filmmaker. 

Michael Caldwell’s compelling 2016 research, on the low rate of juvenile recidivism, found its way into many workshops.  When fewer than three out of every 100 juvenile offenders are destined to reoffend, there are profound implications for the assessment, treatment, and management of adolescents who have sexually offended.  Changes in protocol are indicated in all areas.

There were so many great workshops, plenaries, and posters that it’s impossible to highlight all the outstanding contributions by presenters and conference organizers.  I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference in Kansas City.  And finally, let’s bring back the ATSA List breakfast!  (JB)

In the end, ATSA members continue to make differences in ways that are extremely challenging to measure. While there is much work to do in improving our assessment and treatment methods, this year’s conference was a reminder of the passion and purpose that ATSA members and their colleagues bring to our work.

David S. Prescott, Kieran McCartan, and Jon Brandt