Thursday, December 21, 2017

International conference on innovations in sexual abuse research & practice

By Kieran McCartan, PhD, & Danielle A. Harris, PhD.

A few weeks ago, Griffith University (Brisbane, Australia) hosted a two day research conference on innovative international approaches to understanding and responding to sexual offending. The symposium was a collaboration between the Griffith Criminology Institute and the Griffith Youth Forensic Service with the objective of bringing contemporary international debates [from the ATSA, NOTA and ANZATSA conferences] on sexual abuse to Brisbane. In this blog we discuss the main points of discussion and outcomes of the event.

The two day conference was held straight off the back of the 2017 ANZATSA meeting to capitalize on the fact that so many international speakers were in our neck of the woods. Several presenters made the trip from Auckland (New Zealand) to Brisbane (Australia) to share the knowledge of sexual abuse research and practice internationally, and to highlight and discuss new and best practices. The first day of the conference saw presentations from a host of international speakers from the USA (Jill Levenson; Alissa Ackerman), New Zealand (Gwenda Willis) and the UK (Andrea Darling; Carlene Firmin MBE; Kieran McCartan). The speakers addressed: the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences; the importance and promise of Trauma Informed Care; understanding the life histories of people who sexually abuse; the importance of the labels that we attach to individuals; the interaction between the survivor voice and service user voice; the experience and potential of vicarious restorative justice; female perpetration of sexual abuse in institutional settings; and how we can develop a rounded case management approach to understanding the contextualized risk of sexual offending among peers.

All presenters emphasized the individual nature of sexual abuse and, therefore, why we need to take this into account in responding to, managing, and preventing sexual abuse in the broader community. The speakers called on all attendees to break down our professional barriers and break out of our silos so that we can work together more comprehensively. The feeling in the room was very much in line with the theme of ATSA’s forthcoming conference in 2018 #bettertogether!

The second day of the symposium was more a practical research roundtable. The roundtable was attended by the presenters from day one, plus an invited group of local researchers, clinicians, and stakeholders. After a quick round of introductions, we shared the common themes that had emerged from the international meetings in our field, with a focus on key debates and emerging trends. Most had attended some combination of ATSA, NOTA, ANZATSA, ANZSOC, ASC and/or BSC. We then broke out into thematic groups based on our previously identified research interests. Folks spent the afternoon with the opportunity and space to plan and discuss ongoing and nascent research questions; brainstorm possibilities for collaboration and data sharing; and agenda setting that prioritizes the most important issues in our field today.

Bringing this second day to fruition was a long-term goal of Danielle’s. She often found herself excited and overwhelmed at the end of a conference, but then lacked the time to have any detailed, follow up conversations. She says she would often spend the flight home furiously consolidating notes scribbled on cocktail napkins or business cards. So this was a chance for a meeting of the minds between established researchers, emerging scholars and PhD candidates, as well as practitioners and policy makers all in one room. The feedback was very positive and folks were grateful for the slower pace and opportunity to have longer and deeper conversations and, as one delegate called it, “thinking time.”

The two day event reinforced the need for us all to work together and to recognise that sexual abuse is an international issue. It was also interesting to observe that there are many more things that unite us than divide us – for example, as the US grapples with the “Weinstein effect,” and as those Hollywood revelations make ripples in international news, it was clear to see that each of our countries, cities, neighbourhoods, and fields of expertise have their own such examples. Indeed, we are all in this together. Perhaps most inspiring was the feeling that while attendees had come and were eager to learn about the approaches from abroad, each of our international guests was in turn inspired by the many inventive, innovative, and creative methods that we have developed down under. As the world gets smaller and better connected, and we acknowledge that we are more similar than different, it behoves us to explore how we can all learn from each other. This two day conference reminded us that much can be gleaned from the success of unique initiatives that have been able to flourish under legislative landscapes quite dissimilar to those in the US. Similarly, there is much to be gained by understanding how different approaches have been able to develop in communities with healthcare systems or social circumstances that are distinct from those experienced by our American cousins. 

As we move into 2018, watch this space for more information on ways we can engage in an international knowledge exchange with the goal of making society safer. 

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