By Kieran McCartan, PhD & David Prescott, LICSW
We have been spending a lot of time over recent years discussing with professionals, practitioners, and policymakers the importance – as well as impact – of adverse experiences and trauma in the lives of people who go on to commit offences. These discussions have often returned the importance of the life course on offending behaviour. People who commit sexual abuse have often been exposed to adverse experiences, trauma, and problematic life course issues are not that different from the rest of the general offending population. It calls to mind the saying, “What unites us is greater than what divides us.” The implications of these findings include that we need to start thinking, across the board, about the role of trauma and adversity in people’s lives (see Levenson, Willis, & Prescott  for example). Just as importantly, we have an opportunity to focus on how a trauma-informed approach can help us prevent, as well as respond, to sexual abuse.
One of the most significant criminological research in the last 40 years has been Professor David Farrington’s “Cambridge study”, a longitudinal study which looked at the impact of environment and development on criminogenic behaviour. In a nutshell, Farrington found that life course, environment, adverse experiences had an impact on an individual’s behaviour; especially in terms of anti-social or illegal activities. Farrington was talking about prevention, multi-agency collaboration, adverse childhood experiences, and trauma before any of these became buzzwords. Research into human development across the lifespan highlights the importance of understanding what happened to people to get them to the point where they have committed an offence. Commonly, professionals in our field often think about preventing re-offending rather than preventing first time offending. If we are to change our prevention paradigm, we need to re-conceptualise the way that we frame these dialogues. The reality of using life course approaches in the prevention of sexual abuse means that we must use more individual, institutional, and community-based multi-agency approaches; we must move our focus to the front end. One way to change our outlook and practice is to frame it within the model of trauma-informed practice.
Trauma-informed practices emphasise the need for practitioners, institutions, and organisations to be aware of the traumatic events, or experiences, that the people that they work with have gone through. Being trauma-informed means asking, “what happened to you?” as well as “what motivated you to do that?” It also involves exploring what’s right with someone and not simply what’s wrong with them; What strengths, positive goals, and protective factors (or “promotive” factors, as Farrington has called them) do this client have that can help them to prevent offending?
Having a trauma-informed approach further involves looking at the life course of the individual and how it has shaped them so that professionals can identify how to help them in moving forward with their lives, building an overarching sense of wellbeing and developing a lifestyle in which offending would be unwanted and unnecessary. It might also involve helping others in similar situations to prevent offending. As trauma and adversity are central to the lives of people who commit offences, particularly sexual offences, being trauma-informed is a critical part of the foundation to our work with these populations; the correlation between victimization and perpetration is closer than we recognize or, sometimes, that like to consider. Therefore, we need to consider where trauma-informed practice fits in the training of professionals, in media coverage of, and the way that we engage with the public around sexual abuse.