Tuesday, October 24, 2017

"Safer Communities & Better Lives" - Realizing the Narrative

Note: Since 2010, Chief Bloggers, Robin Wilson and I, along with Associate Bloggers, David Prescott and Jon Brandt, and dozens of guest bloggers, have turned out 239 blogs with over 300,000 total page views.  As a clinician and writer, Jon Brandt has been contributing to the Sexual Abuse Blog and The Forum newsletter since 2012.  With today’s blog, Jon is stepping down as an ATSA blogger, but readers will see occasional guest blogs and other writing from Jon in the future.  - Kieran

While it’s not an official moto of ATSA, the first time I heard someone describe the quest for, “safer communities and better lives,” I remember thinking isn’t that the essence of what we should all be striving for?  Regardless of our role in the prevention and treatment of sexual abuse, it seems the catchphrase of Safer Communities & Better Lives could help to realize more successful outcomes – for every victim, for and every offender, for their families and friends, and for communities.  When we underreact or overreact to sexual misconduct, the result might be neither safer communities nor better lives.  What’s being missed is not just equitable balance, but the fact that safer communities and better lives are not mutually exclusive.  We can realize BOTH Safer Communities AND Better Lives.  “Creating Balance” is the theme of ATSA’s 36th Annual Conference.

“When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Current social rules and laws around interpersonal sexual behavior have roots in 20th Century sexual mores, widespread myths about sexual offending, and the co-occurring faulty narratives.  Hardly a day goes by without a media story about egregious sexual misconduct.  But it’s encouraging that, in the 21st Century, such reports frequently result in a social media firestorm, like “#MeToo.”  Consider how we can create more productive dialogue for more effective interventions and prevention with these…

Ten Narratives for Achieving Safer Communities & Better Lives

1.  Victim advocates, treatment providers, and other stakeholders are becoming unified for the same common goal: the prevention of sexual abuse.

2.   Sexual violations occur on a continuum, requiring different responses and interventions.

3.   Sexual violations flourish in darkness and secrecy; it’s difficult for sexual abuse to exist when everyone is talking about the meaning of respectful interpersonal sexual conduct, even kids.

4.   We can’t expect young people to know all the rules and laws for interpersonal sex.  As a public health concern, education and dialogue must be integrated into our educational systems.

5.   When sexual violations occur between children, they typically occur through different pathways than adults, and require different responses.  We need to get the message right.

6.   In the interests of sexual safety, we are better at separating people from their families than we are at putting families back together again.  All parties to sexual abuse need help for personal recovery, and to restore healthy relationships.

7.   The public widely believes that: “sex offenders” are intrinsically evil, recidivism is “frightening and high,” and the answer is incarceration.  Evil is not a diagnosis, and punishment is not a cure.  Overwhelmingly, offenders want help for recovery.  We know how to do that.

8.   Public policies and civil regulations for “sex offenders” resemble the Dark Ages practices of public scorn and banishment.  “They” come from “us” - they are our sons, brothers, fathers, neighbors…  and they come from all walks of society.

9.   Effective Interventions can be found in the empirical guidance of Risk, Need, and Responsivity, and in strength-based principles of recovery, such as Good Lives.

10.  Misguided policies and practices come from misinformation.  When people are educated about sexual abuse we can realize Safer Communities & Better LivesIt takes a village.

Several years ago, knowing that half of all sexual assaults are infused with alcohol, and that men are responsible for the majority of sexual violations, I wrote, “Is it possible that every guy is a six-pack of beer and one bad judgement away from being a sex offender?”  A lot of men told me they cringed when they read that.  As long as boys become men, “male” is a robust risk factor associated with sexual violations. 

The “Rule of 90” is a handy way to change the narrative about sexual abuse: 
  • About 95% of sexual abuse is committed by males.  We need to better understand social, cultural, and biological etiologies of sexual abuse.   There are many stakeholders, but men need to own this, and mentor boys.
  • About 95% of sexual offenses are committed by previously unknown offenders.  Resources committed to known offenders could be better spent on primary prevention. 

Perhaps it could be called the rule of 95, but the “Rule of 90” allows some wiggle room for errors in data and reporting.  Even if we can’t achieve accuracy on the rate of sexual reoffending, we know that the prevalence of sexual misconduct, around the world, is indeed, frightening and high.  Myths about recidivism being “frightening and high,” continues to drive misguided policies and practices.
“For every complicated social problem there is an easy solution, which won’t work.” -  H. L. Mencken

Laws rooted in fear and anger propagate anger and fear.  Civil regulations (i.e. sex offender registries, residence restrictions, and sexual offender civil commitment) are rooted in erroneous rates of recidivism, strain the true cost-benefit ratio of effectiveness, and contribute to false narratives about community safety.  There is strong evidence that civil regulations are unwarranted, and growing concerns in US courts that some regulations of “sex offenders” violate the US Constitution.
The US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has endorsed the false narrative of “frightening and high” rates of sexual recidivism, but recently issued a surprising, unanimous ruling to limit government overreach in the management of “sex offenders.”  Packingham v. North Carolina has nationwide implications for the right to Internet access.  In another compelling ruling, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Does v. Snyder, issued a scathing rebuke of Michigan’s civil regulations.  In unanimously finding Michigan’s SORA laws unconstitutional, Circuit Judge Alice Batchelder wrote, “Tellingly, nothing the parties have pointed to in the record suggests that the residential restrictions have any beneficial effect on recidivism rates…  [It] brands registrants as moral lepers solely on the basis of a prior conviction.  It consigns them to years, if not a lifetime, of existence on the margins.”  In 2017, SCOTUS let Snyder stand.  The Boston College Law Review writes, “Snyder is a shining example of a court actually engaging with scientific evidence that refutes moralized judgments about a particularly disfavored group.”  Judicial courage can change the narrative, but the courts alone cannot fix systemic problems.

Judges, prosecutors, probation officers and corrections agents may have little leeway with imposing mandated civil regulations, but they typically have great discretion over prosecution, sentencing, release, and conditions of probation or parole.  False narratives of “frightening and high,” that drive policies and practices, can be overcome with empirical evidence.  ATSA members who know the research can inform our allied professionals, and help to ensure that empirically-based practices are applied to every client.

“Do the best you can until you know better, then, when you know better, do better.”   -  Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou’s famous quote doesn’t suggest that when we know better we “can” do better, but implies that when we know better we “should” do better.  ATSA is in a unique position to change the narrativeSafer Communities & Better Lives will come from researchers who are providing the empirical evidence that we need to establish best practices, from clinicians, who are on the frontlines of treatment, and from many allied professions who are working to ensure justice and equitable outcomes for victims, offenders, and their families.  People who work in this field are not apologists for “sex offenders.”  Treatment for those who have sexually offended does not come at the expense of victims; it honors them.

Treatment is effective.  Evidence indicates that a strong therapeutic alliance, sensitivity to trauma-informed care, principles of positive psychology (e.g. motivational Interviewing, Good Lives), and individualized supervision, contribute vastly more to successful recovery than confinement, onerous conditions of probation, or ineffective civil regulations.  Civil regulations are especially harmful to kids.  Too often, it seems, perceptions of “safer communities” come at the expense of “better lives.”   Isn’t it likely that Better Lives and Safer Communities could be mutually beneficial, if not synergistic?

“Everything will be okay in the end; if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”   -  John Lennon

A colleague on the ATSA listserv recently observed, about the evolving state of our field, “If we are not appalled at what we did 20 years ago, we have not worked hard enough to be better.”  Perhaps we should tweak that sentiment a bit…  if we suspect that current policies and practices are contradicted by existing research, let’s not wait 20 years to be appalled.  Now would be a good time to bring policies and practices in line with empirical evidence.  If challenging status quo feels professionally risky, perhaps too far ahead of colleagues where one practices, ATSA’s got your back.  We need only to know the research, step into our fears, and follow the lead of ATSA experts.  There’s a whole bunch of them in Kansas City this week.  By working together, and Creating Balance, we can truly realize Safer Communities & Better Lives.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”  -  Margaret Mead
I am very grateful to Robin Wilson and ATSA for the privilege and opportunity to be an ATSA blogger.  And much appreciation to current co-bloggers, Kieran McCartan and David Prescott, for the team effort to bring (hopefully) thought-provoking blogs to ATSA members.  It’s been a great run, but “it’s not the end.”
All the best,

Jon Brandt, MSW, LICSW


  1. Great blog Jon. Great quotes and I love the perspective. And I wanted to say thank you for all of the work you have done over the years -- and of course, especially for keeping a prevention message in the forefront of our work! Good luck with whatever you are doing with this extra time now! Warmly, Joan

  2. Really well stated, Jon. Covers a a tremendous amount of ground. Lots to do to impact policy and public perception so that the system works as it should to prevent revictimization without uselessly and wantonly damaging those who have caused sexual harm and without wasting resources on things which don't help anyone. Thanks for all you contribute. Tom Tobin