By Kieran McCartan, PhD, David Prescott, LICSW, & Alissa Ackerman, PhD
The annual ATSA conference took place from the 17th – 20th October in Vancouver. The conference was a real mix of research, practice and engagement with international colleagues from 16 different countries including the USA, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Germany, Hong Kong, Netherlands, Belgium and Israel to name a few. In this blog we are going to take you on a whistle stop tour of the event.
For Kieran, the highlight of the conference was Ruth Mann’s opening plenary in which she discussed the challenges of developing an evidence base. Ruth’s presentation focused on what the risk, consequences and impact of being evidence based are in the real world, and more specifically in a public arena; especially if the evidence base negates your current working practices. Ruth discussed the recent changes to sex offender treatment in the UK and the government evaluation which initiated these changes (i.e., it indicated that previous programs had no impact or made people slightly worse, rather than better); reflecting upon the personal, political and policy fallouts. Ruth discussed the content of the report, her reflections of the impact of the report on systems as well as institutions, and report’s consequences for the management/treatment of people who have committed sexual abuse. In closing, she reminded us that if we are to be truly evidenced based we have to be open to all forms and outcomes of evidence, even the evidence that indicates that what we are doing may not be best practice or achieving what we want it to achieve. To Kieran, this set the tone of the conference as ATSA has always been about sharing good practice and reflecting upon problematic practice.
The engagement event at the 2018 ATSA conference was based around bystander intervention and had colleagues from Simon Frasier University (Ashley Bentley) and community action groups (Katheren Szabo) talking about the work that they were doing to prevent sexual abuse. The fact that the speakers were coming from different parts of the community, used different approaches and engaged in different activities (from campus sit in’s, to poetry readings and gardening clubs) really indicated the range of activities and novel ways that we can engage different “communities” around sexual abuse prevention in ways that are meaningful to them. The engagement event this year was targeted at people involved in professions at the frontline of safeguarding and community participant (i.e., teachers, volunteers, community workers, etc) and this resulted in some interesting and practical debates.
The international roundtable this year had a series of 8 minute talks from 9 different speakers, each from a different country, on public/media attitudes to sexual abuse in their country and how professionals are engaging in the debate. This was interesting as there were a lot of common themes across countries (i.e., “not in my backyard”, negative media stories and good/bad examples of professional and policy maker engagement) as well as some distinctive good practices in certain countries that we could all learn from internationally. The roundtable really cements ATSA as an international conference!
The entire conference was a high point of the year for David. Although pinpointing specific moments is next to impossible, three come immediately to mind:
First, I had the privilege of moderating a symposium with Tony Ward, Gwen Willis, and Roxie Heffernan. Tony and Roxie discussed many of their recent projects which involve looking at the processes underlying risk and protective factors. A down side to having so much research available to us regarding these factors is the temptation to reify them as discrete factors rather than viewing them as proxies for underlying processes which will be different for each person. Although on its own this is not a new idea, Ward and Heffernan have explored this in very great detail in their risk-causality method. For Tony and Roxie, this method provides a new level of explanatory depth to our knowledge of risk and protective factors. For Gwen and David, it provides rich areas of clinical understanding.
Second, Laurie Rose Kepros delivered a fascinating workshop describing the effects of experiences within the legal system on people convicted of sex crimes. Titled the process is the punishment, she explored how elements of these experiences can actually have a detrimental effect on engagement in rehabilitation efforts (e.g., engagement in treatment and with supervising agents). This is clearly a situation involving multiple perspectives. On one hand, the US Supreme Court has been clear that law enforcement officials can use deception as a part of the investigative process. On the other hand, this same deception can be devastating to others’ attempts to engage meaningfully with these people after their conviction, particularly when they view professionals as agents of the police power of the state. As one might imagine, the subsequent discussion was lively, with advocates of each perspective describing points for consideration.
Finally, Michael Seto delivered a moving speech as he accepted this year’s Lifetime Significant Achievement award. With his father and brother on stage, he described the important contributions of immigrants to the cultures who receive them. Originally from Hong Kong, Seto is a clear example of why this is so.
For Alissa, the Vancouver ATSA conference was among the best she has ever attended.
Along with Joan Tabachnick and Cordelia Anderson, Alissa co-led a pre-conference seminar titled Accountability and Responsibility in the Era of #MeToo. We quickly learned that this is an important issue that many clinicians are currently grappling with. The presenters lead participants in pseudo-restorative justice circles, which provided opportunities to experience the power of authentic human connection. By embracing and honoring a common humanity, clinicians and restorative justice practitioners can create safe spaces for those who have sexually violated others and those who have experienced sexual abuse to find common ground and healing.
Perhaps the best example of this was articulated by our Friday morning plenary speaker, Gerry Oleman, a First Nations man who has been involved in creating change for First Nations communities since the 1970s. Gerry spoke about the importance of connecting to language, to nature, and to each other. He spoke about the atrocities committed by colonizers, including the rape of First Nations people, the forced enrollment of indigenous children in residential schools, and the violent removal of indigenous people from their land onto reservations. Gerry spoke about the importance of healing, not allowing the pain, anger, and violence, stay on his heart. It was a lesson that everyone in attendance was privileged to hear.
One of the primary benefits of being an ATSA member and attending the annual conference is the opportunity to connect with friends, colleagues, and collaborators from around the world. This was true for Kieran, David, and Alissa who had the chance to present on a panel with Danielle Harris, Jill Levenson, and Gwenda Willis. On Friday afternoon, we presented a panel titled Are We Listening: Valuing All Individuals Impacted by Sexual Victimization.
We were each given ten minutes to present on one of the specific voices impacted by sexual victimization. None of us knew what to expect with this unique format, but the feedback we received from audience members reminded each of us about the passion inherent in our individual work that we then bring to the table when we work as a team. After all, we are all better together.
The primary take-away from these conference experiences for all three of us was the importance of working together towards common goals… “Better Together”, the conference theme, appropriately described it. In the end, we are all at our best when we can discuss the issues of the day, acknowledge differences, come together to establish new ideas and goals, and make them happen; next year it’s Atlanta, Georgia!!