By Kieran McCartan, PhD, & David Prescott, LICSW
With this post, we have hit a milestone. This is our 300th posting, and the blog has had 375,000 individual “hits” since the blog’s inception eight years ago in February 2010. Over the past eight years, the blog has had several contributors outside of the main blogging team (which has included Alissa Ackerman, Jon Brandt and original blogger/founder Robin Wilson) some infrequent and others more sustained (like the ATSA Prevention committee). All of this has happened with the support of ATSA and its Journal, Sexual Abuse. We are grateful to everyone who has been involved as well as to all of you who read the blog and keep coming back each week!
This blog has addressed diverse issues throughout its existence, so with this post, we focus on the idea of “collateral consequences” in the area of sexual abuse. Primarily an American term, collateral consequences are the unintended outcomes – generally negative – of certain policies and practices. The field of sexual abuse is littered with policies and practices that have negative unintended outcomes. Either separately or in combination, these collateral consequences include barriers to community reintegration of people who have committed sexual offences, horrific experiences for those who have been abused, and the capability of professionals to provide a meaningful service.
For example, in the time that this blog has existed, we question whether there has been any improvement in the collateral consequences, particularly in the USA, in four over-arching areas:
• People who have committed sexual offences: Despite strong evidence that measures such as public registries and residency restrictions don’t work to reduce risk or prevent re-offence and can easily make matters worse, they remain in effect. There is little indication that these measures will be re-examined at any time in the future, except for the registration and notification policies linked to juveniles which are being examined. Interestingly, other countries have learnt from the USA’S experience and not replicated the registration and/or community notification policies in the same way; the American version has acted as a cautionary tale in other contexts. Sadly, it seems that in society’s rush to punish, the extant research into what works has gone largely ignored.
• Those who have been victimized: For all of the recent media attention on survivors of sexual abuse, including in the #metoo movement, it is difficult to discern whether any lasting changes are being made that will actually improve the lives of those who have survived abuse. On one hand, the international dialogue is welcome and timely. Indeed, rates of reported sexual abuse have gone down across the past few decades. On the other hand, we can find no broad evidence that the experience of survivors has improved across the board in recent years and in some instances, there has been a greater societal backlash as a consequence of the increased societal awareness of sexual abuse.
• Friends, families and colleagues: The silent anguish of the family, friends, and colleagues of those who have abused remains an under-acknowledged area of harm. These people have few places to turn for support, particularly when the person who has abused returns to the community. We generally think about the collateral consequences of criminal justice sanctions on families and networks, but we are starting to see and hear of the collateral consequences of supporting non-offending or at-risk individuals too.
• Professionals who work in the field of sexual abuse: Finally, although anecdotal, the stories of those who research and treat people who have abused often illustrate that there can be little gratitude for the work they do in building healthier lives and safer communities. Indeed, the work itself can have cumulative effects and can often result in secondary traumatization, which reinforces the need for effective and ongoing staff development. This is particularly important in developing resilience and preventing burn out.
One of the main ways that we can combat the collateral consequences linked to sexual abuse is through better joined up, multiagency and long-term policy and practice. It’s important to recognise all the potential outcomes from sentencing, treatment, management, integration and support services related to sexual abuse to make sure that problems are not compounded or result in adverse (problematic) outcomes.
In the end, we continue to know what does and doesn’t work to reduce the harm of sexual abuse. The question remains as to whether society and its policymakers are willing to examine our practices and their many consequences.