Thursday, February 22, 2018

Author Q & A with Harris, Pedneault & Willis discussing "The Pursuit of Primary Human Goods in Men Desisting From Sexual Offending"

Harris, D. A., Pedneault, A., and Willis, G. (2017) The Pursuit of Primary Human Goods in Men Desisting From Sexual Offending. Sexual Abuse. iFirst.
The good lives model proposes at least 10 primary human goods that are thought to be common to all individuals which, when secured, contribute to enhanced well-being and life satisfaction. Prosocial attainment of primary human goods is thought to promote desistance from crime. However, individuals convicted of sexual offenses face significant obstacles upon their reentry into the community that likely undermine their ability to obtain such goods. The current study explored the pursuit and attainment of primary human goods in a U.S. sample of men convicted of sexual offenses. We interviewed 42 men released into the community to examine the extent to which they desired and pursued primary human goods. Results highlighted that participants valued many of the human goods outlined in the good lives model, but their means to achieve them were restricted considerably by their correctional status. “Interpersonal relationships” and “life/survival” emerged most frequently during the interviews and were identified as the two most important goods. We discuss the negative impact of recent policies on participants’ ability to pursue and attain human goods as well as the value of attending regular treatment in obtaining the goods of “knowledge” and “community.” Implications for policy and directions for future research are provided.
Could you talk us through where the idea for the research came from?
The idea for this article came from a series of conversations that I (DH) had with colleagues at a time when I was trying to make sense of the themes that had emerged from my desistance interviews. I was familiar with the main tenets of the Good Lives Model (GLM), and I observed a natural congruence between the optimism of that approach and what I had seen in the emerging literature on desistance from crime.
We (DH & AP) used the Life History Interview Protocol to interview men who had been convicted of sexual crimes, served time in custody, and then been released into the community. The interview questions included specific items about some of the PHGs (such as pursuit of mastery, spirituality, and relationships) but we noted during our analysis that many men also spoke of the severe limitations and challenges that they experienced in pursuing and achieving other PHGs. We decided to revisit the transcripts and look for mentions of the PHGs that emerged spontaneously to explore the extent to which the men wanted to pursue, had tried to attain, had successfully achieved, or had been restricted from pursuing them. The guiding hypothesis was that the pursuit and successful attainment of PHGs would facilitate what criminologists call “desistance from crime.”
What kinds of challenges did you face throughout the process?
One of the biggest hurdles was the need to legitimize qualitative methodologies in an area where quantitative approaches are far more typical. There are many reasons why desistance research lends itself to qualitative research and in-depth interviewing, but there is a clear bias against those findings (and approaches) by a field that has largely been built upon the meta-analyses of much larger samples. Desistance is best defined as a process, and is therefore not well understood using cross-sectional data or quantitative approaches at discrete points in time (e.g., risk assessment scores). Understanding desistance means understanding one’s life story; the details and nuances of which cannot be dichotomized without losing data quality. Exploring a life story means asking in-depth questions that sometimes yield meandering answers. It means asking for clarification on temporal variables, ensuring you’ve got the story straight, and honouring the longitudinal nature of how someone’s story has unfolded and continues to unfold. We felt the richness of those stories could only be authentically represented through qualitative methods. Above all else, the fact that we know so little about the life histories, offending trajectories, and transitions of these men (on an individual level) necessitates that we use a qualitative approach. For us, this early work on understanding the important phenomenon of desistance must occur within the “context of discovery.”
“Relationship status” is a good example of a variable that is better captured by a long quotation than by a spreadsheet. Marriage is usually a dichotomous variable - a simple yes/no. It might be operationalized as “legally married at the time of the index offense,” or “ever lived with a lover for two years.” But these simplistic distinctions offered only inadequate ways of describing our sample: Roy was married for 23 years but admits to cheating on his wife (and fathering children with other women) repeatedly; Jacob has had a few long-term, committed relationships with men, Rodney was married four times: twice happily, and twice dysfunctionally; Clay was married for a long time but frequently abused his wife. Quite frankly, after the interviews, there was too much detail to put in a table!
 What do you believe to be the main things that you have learnt about desistance?
One of the most compelling findings to come from desistance research so far, is that for many or most of the samples we work with, desistance from sexual crime is as natural and widespread as it is from nonsexual crime. Most people who have engaged in these acts come to no longer do so. Understanding how and why that transition occurs (with, without, or in spite of the various interventions that we prescribe and enforce) is a research question that deserves more attention. Thinking about the positive elements of a person’s life, seeing them as more than the worst thing they have ever done (or more accurately—been caught for) is also an important lesson from this work. The realization that someone can do bad things and not be a bad person forever, or can do bad things and then not do them anymore challenges a lot of approaches (and assumptions) that are well-entrenched in this space. Finally, as we continue to examine the extent to which our participants are “successful” upon release, it is increasingly necessary and meaningful to look beyond “recidivism” and “risk factors” as the only variables of interest.
Now that you’ve published the article, what are some implications for practitioners?
Although the men in our study experienced profound difficulties in pursuing and attaining PHGs, a key finding that emerged was that attending a treatment program provided a source of several PHGs, including a sense of belonging (“community”) and knowledge.  In the context of increasingly restrictive policies and legislation it is easy to focus on challenges that our clients face and lose hope that they will ever live a better life. But if we lose hope, so will our clients. It is important that we frame treatment as an activity designed to assist clients to find meaning and purpose in their lives, rather than something they must do. By creating safe and supportive treatment environments where PHGs can be realised, practitioners can help facilitate and support the natural desistance process. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Beware of the Buzzwords! Our field’s Tower of Babel

By David Prescott, LICSW, & Kieran McCartan, PhD

A conference presenter, who really should remain anonymous, once adopted a faux Biblical tone in commenting on the history of attempts to treat people who have sexually abused: “In the beginning, there was relapse prevention.” This was inaccurate, of course; many people, including Nicholas Groth and Albert Ellis had been developing treatment methods prior to the adoption of relapse prevention (RP) from the addictions world. However, many a truth is told in jest, and in this instance, the presenter was completely accurate in recalling how the phrase relapse prevention took hold of treatment programs as much as the model and methods themselves. The lead author has vivid memories of a colleague in the 1980s exclaiming, “If you’re not doing RP, you’re not doing treatment.”

Setting aside the competitive jealousy and premature and incorrect assumption that there is a single right way to do treatment, one has to have some sympathy for the professionals operating at that time. There were no methods for classifying dangerousness and little research to guide these efforts. There was talk of a “forensic sound barrier” in risk assessment that might never be broken (set as a correlation of .40). It was perfectly natural that at a time in which professionals knew less about what they were doing than today, the field would focus, obsess even, on risk and risk reduction.

Fast forward to just a few years ago, and much had changed. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, professionals involved in assessing and treating youth who had sexually abused were starting to empirically examine “protective factors”, those elements in a youth’s life that mitigate risk or assist him or her from growing beyond their past harmful actions. In around 2002, when the second edition of the influential book, Motivational Interviewing, came out, professionals began to adopt this approach as a part of their treatment protocols. In each case, some professionals became early adopters while others dismissed these methods as fads. Similar responses happened with the emergence of the Good Lives Model and trauma-informed care.

An area that is rarely discussed, however, is how adherents to one core idea or set of ideas seem to view other sets of ideas as more different than they actually are. Although much discussion is never published, it has not been uncommon to hear one claim that motivational interviewing is nice but not strengths-based; one might just as well criticize strengths-based approaches as being nice, but not addressing the ambivalence that people often have about change, especially when addressing sexual violence. The simple fact is that both approaches have very similar features in common. Indeed, sometimes the greatest difference is in the language used to describe them. Likewise, many have mistakenly described the principles of effective correctional treatment (risk, need, and responsivity) and the Good Lives Model as if they were irreconcilably different (in truth, one can deliver treatment in a way that is adherent to both). The same goes for resilience-based approaches and trauma-informed care. Each approach can be implemented poorly, and each share (when properly implemented) a great deal of their conceptual underpinnings.

It often seems we are describing the same basic elements of treatment with different words. How can professionals rise above this Tower of Babel? Perhaps the most important place to start is by understanding the limitations of language itself. In recent articles and presentations, Tony Ward has warned against reifying “factors”, whether risk or protective, and focusing on the processes that underlie them. In other words, if we only think in terms of factors, we may neglect the processes that make up those factors. For example, if we think primarily of relationship stability as it is defined within risk assessment measures, we may take needed focus away from how that stability has manifested elsewhere in a person’s life.

These problems extend beyond how we talk about “treatment” and “factors” by treatment providers; it reflects a big Tower of Babel issue across the field as a whole. Different parts of the sexual abuse field including, but not limited to police, probation, parole, treatment providers, and third-party organizations not only use the term “treatment” to explain their processes but also  “rehabilitation”, “Risk Management” and “Public Protection”. This too is problematic as the non-common language and definitions lead to one single, problematic outcome measure – risk of recidivism. While “risk management” and “public protection” maybe neatly lead to a reduction in reoffending, this is not the main outcome of treatment and the main driver of factors involved with it. The Tower of Babel issue in defining what happens with perpetrators by default shapes the outcomes, success rates, and successful (re)integration of people who have abused. Maybe we should try to stop calling everything apples and recognize that we have a variety of fruit at our disposal. Those pieces of fruit look and feel different but ultimately contribute to the same goal: our health! They don’t all do it in the same way and that’s fine!

In the end, as we continue to move from a nothing works agenda towards a what works one (all the while fighting a backslide) all professionals will benefit from attention to both the continuing evolution of our field as well as the subtleties of the language within it.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

A “Survivor Scholar” perspective on #metoo

By Alexa D. Sardina, PhD, and Alissa R. Ackerman, PhD

We are exhausted. As “survivor scholars” - sex crimes scholars who are also public rape survivors - we have dedicated our lives and careers to understanding sexual victimization, why it happens, how to prevent it, and how to best live in the aftermath of rape.

We get it. We have lived it. And we’re exhausted.

The #metoo movement offered the promise of elevating the voices of individuals who had experienced sexual harassment and victimization. At first, we were inspired and excited that people were sharing their experiences and would be silenced no more. However, very quickly we both became disillusioned and concerned about the potential conflation of terms and the backlash the movement would face. Simultaneously, we were troubled by apparent blinders still worn by so many in the movement who continue to isolate and exclude the voices of marginalized people, including men, trans and gender non-conforming people, indigenous, and racial and ethnic minorities.  

However, our biggest cause for alarm continues to be the conflation of all forms of sexual misconduct, where no distinction is made. Some activists have argued that we should never have to differentiate between rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment.
In our professional opinions, guided by years of accumulated knowledge, and our personal experiences with both rape and sexual harassment, we wholeheartedly believe that making these distinctions is necessary if we are to have critical and meaningful dialogue moving forward.

We acknowledge that the grouping of all forms of sexual misconduct is not meant to intentionally minimize the trauma of individuals who have experienced rape. However, the unintentional consequences of this grouping does exactly that.  This is not to discount the trauma of sexual assault or harassment. In fact, the distinction we are making is to honor the trauma caused by all forms of sexual misconduct, while acknowledging that they are fundamentally different. We do not see our beliefs as mutually exclusive.

Creating a cultural shift where sexual misconduct of all forms disappears requires nuance. Broad sweeping generalizations cause more harm than good.
Though the impact of the #metoo movement has yet to be revealed, we question what the overarching goal is. What do we want to achieve? Based on our own personal experiences, our professional read of the research, and our interactions with fellow survivors and activists, we believe that the ultimate goal is to eradicate sexual violence. The question becomes how do we realize this goal.

Ending sexual violence in all its forms  is only possible when there is space for individuals who have experienced it to be heard and supported and space for individuals who perpetrated these actions to take responsibility. When we shame a person for what some see as an insufficient apology, we further silence those who would consider publicly acknowledging their part in perpetrating any or all forms of sexual violence.

Trying people in the court of public opinion and calling for them to disappear will never lead to healing and will never prevent these types of offenses from occurring. Shaming is ineffective at best and at its worst can lead to an increase in the very behaviors we are trying to prevent. In The Gifts of Imperfection, shame and vulnerability researcher Dr. Brene Brown states that, “shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”

We are at a crossroads. We have the power and the capacity to make real and lasting changes. This requires that we be willing to lean into uncomfortable conversations and realities about how and why sexual victimization occurs. We cannot expect change if we do not honor the importance of voices and lived experiences both of people who have experienced sexual harassment, assault, and rape, and people who have perpetrated these offenses.

We fully recognize and expect that many people will fundamentally disagree with our stance. We acknowledge and respect those opinions and welcome the uncomfortable dialogues that will inevitably ensue. We formulated this path forward based on our lived experiences as survivors and criminal justice professors who believe that our current approach to sexual violence does not reduce harm, bring closure, or prevent future offenses.