Thursday, July 30, 2020

Deceit, Sex, and Sexual Assault: Where are the Lines?

By David S. Prescott, LICSW, & Kieran McCartan, Ph.D.

Please note that this blog is also published on the NOTA prevention website too – Kieran.

While working in a large residential treatment center for youth about twenty years ago, the first author (David) ended up with a note passed between two students. In it, a 16-year-old male client claimed to a female client from a different campus that he had a condo near the casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It was bittersweet at the time, reflecting the age-old attempts by young men to impress young women while displaying epic ineptitude. It would have been obvious to nearly anyone that he possessed few social skills, much less a condo that they could escape to. The author found the reason for hope that the young man would someday be able to have the relationships he desired, while at the same time being concerned about the young man’s methods in the short term.

From here, however, things too often take a darker turn. Seemingly consensual activities in the context of getting a job or advancing within one. If the job or advancement doesn’t come through, how best to understand the results? Fraud, sexual assault? There is an entire style of pornography devoted to tricking women into being filmed having sex through the false promise that they are auditioning to become porn stars. What is the source of gratification beyond the sex in these situations? The gullibility of the woman being filmed? And of course, much of the #metoo movement resulted from the experience of being pressured into sex if one wanted to continue working in one’s chosen field.

A recent case in the UK adds to these important but thorny questions. Jason Lawrance was found guilty last summer of sexually assaulting a woman twice. Although the sex had at first been consensual, he had lied about having had a vasectomy. He subsequently texted her to say that he was “still fertile. Sorry.” She took emergency contraception and eventually had an abortion. Fraud? Sexual assault? Intrinsic gratification from the deception itself (sometimes known as “duping delight”)? The issues abound in a situation with a truly tragic ending.

The more immediate concern, however, is that Lawrance’s convictions were overturned. The Court of Appeals reportedly said that the “convictions were unsafe.” Meanwhile, Lawrance is currently serving time for other sexual assault convictions and remains in prison. Ultimately, the court said that “Lawrance's "lie about his fertility was not capable in law of negating consent".

This view of deceit is interesting and worrying because it drills to the very heart of the problem: the absence of “informed consent” is at the very core of sexual assault. However, of concern to the court was the nature of the actions that remove consent. The challenge here is a truly grey area. At what point does deliberate trickery become the coercion that is central to sexual assault? After all, gaining children’s compliance through trickery has long been recognized as a hallmark of child molestation.

The issue is almost not whether it is true that Lawrence had a vasectomy (as with David’s student and his fictitious condo), but rather that they said that they did and were believed. The woman in question made an informed decision based on false data that was created for the purpose to deceive. Further, by all appearances, Lawrance made an informed decision to create an illusion of informed consent.

It’s possible to discuss this situation from a number of perspectives, from the possible sexual and nonsexual motivations of an egregious behavior to questions about what specific crime categories this might fall under. What is clear, however, is that the idea of what constitutes consent is again back under discussion. In our opinion, this decision undermines decades of advancement in determining the importance of actual, meaningful consent. In some ways, it is similar to revenge porn posted in a technically legal fashion because the filmed partner simply consented and did not draw up a proper legal contract to define the parameters of the consent and the conditions under which the video could be distributed and viewed.

What is clear is that should the current decision be accepted as a legal precedent; it will take considerable public dialog to create new laws that are both sensible and meaningful. The overarching problem, in this case, is that it will likely dissuade victims of sexual offences from going forward because they feel that they won’t be believed, especially in situations where “consent” is difficult to establish or refute.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Constructing victims as offenders: Challenges in responding to the dysfunctionality in sexual abuse.

By Kieran McCartan, Ph.D, David S. Prescott, LISCW,  & Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D.

All too often, professionals and the public alike can view abuse as involving those who cause harm, and those who have harmed. This dichotomous view, in which people become labeled and understood as either “offenders” or “victims” overlooks the often-horrific circumstances that the people involved have endured. For example, it can be a common experience that children who grow up in adverse environments become an easier target for those seeking to exploit their vulnerabilities. Often, those same children may be implicitly or explicitly coerced into illegal behaviors. This is one example of the pernicious nature of sexual abuse; one never knows how young people will respond to circumstances that are by definition difficult to survive.

This is clearly evidenced in a recent story about young people who had been victimized in the Rochdale sexual abuse grooming scandal in the UK. In recent years in England and Wales, there have been a series of gang-related grooming scandals coming to light. Quite often, these scandals involved victims who had not been listened to, respected, treated properly of believed. Sometimes they were prosecuted for crimes directly linked to their own abuse (for example, a girl becoming agitated and arrested for disorderly conduct when the police wouldn’t believe that she was being abused), or at least seen as being as complicit in their own abuse. The girls in question were often arrested for other illegal behaviors as well. These unacceptable responses often derailed cases, made the crown prosecution service wary, and caused serious harm to these children in later life (i.e., mental health, social and employment issues). This kind of double victimization by the system who neglected their abuse and punished its symptoms is manifestly inhumane. The public is witness to the impact of trauma and adverse experiences on the development and life course of these girls.

Research shows us that those who have been victimized by sexual abuse and other crimes often have multiple interrelated vulnerabilities. Therefore, it should not be a surprise that victims of crime are dysfunctional in other ways that could lead them into contact with the system. Our hope is that this case leads more adults to see these multiple vulnerabilities and to understand problematic behaviours holistically so that we can provide the correct tailored support to the individual. Seeing multiple vulnerabilities as causal factors, in a rational choice sense, that lead people to be “willing” victims only does more harm.

Ultimately, we hope that more professionals can understand developmental and life-course challenges appear to normalize abuse in the lives of young people. It is simply not the case that adversity causes young people to seek out abusive situations. When society can change our perspective on the people that come into our services to be more prevention-focused and trauma-informed, we can understand that we need to change our language and ways of working to better support them.

One clear example of this need to shift our understanding is the language used around sexual abuse as opposed to sexual exploitation. In sexual exploitation, we talk about gifts, compliance, and aspects of choice, whereas in sexual abuse we often do not. This is problematic because sexual exploitation is itself a form of sexual abuse involving very similar victim-access behaviors. The use of terms such as “gifts” gives the impression that the victim is a willing accomplice and, therefore also guilty. This draws attention away from the fact that they have been victimized and labels them as “problematic”, which can impact them personally, legally, and socially. Another example is the still widely held belief in a “just world”. People, including professionals like police officers (Sleath &Bull, 2012) still far too often tend to perceive the victim’s misfortune as deserved, also in sexual abuse cases. As we know, this belief in a just world is related to victim-blaming and might explain why we tend to have that blind spot for these adverse life events.

Fortunately, we are starting to see some changes around this. One of the authors’ (Kieran) neighboring police force in Gloucestershire have made a commitment not to arrest young people for low-level anti-sociality linked to their victimization (and stands in contrast to the case in Michigan in which a girl was jailed for not doing her homework). This means that they can focus on supporting the young people by addressing the causes of their victimization and making sure that the individuals responsible are held to account.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Is This Logical? Applying Therapeutic Logic in Mental Health Law Proceedings

By David S. Prescott, LICSW, Kieran McCartan, Ph.D., and Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D.

A new study in the International Journal of Forensic Mental Health deserves our field’s attention. Sven Pedersen, Thomas Nilsson, and Lena Eriksson examined the experiences of people who are patients in forensic psychiatric services and recurring mental health law proceedings. Readers are likely already aware that all work at the intersection of mental health and the law can become challenging on even the best days. As challenging as it might be for professionals, however, it is apparently even more frustrating for the patients themselves.

The themes that emerged from the interviews were:

1.  A manifest hierarchy with the patient at the bottom
2. Patient contributions as irrational and unwelcome
3. The patient as evidence, not a person
4. The devaluating effect of not being heard or being treated as something bad
5. Lack of useful allies willing to challenge the status quo
6. The need for compliance and loyalty

In analyzing the themes within the patients’ narratives, the authors stated that “Taken together, these themes illustrate a process whereby the patient is kept from influence through a manifest hierarchy based on authority more than on evidence or argumentation; through the objectification and devaluation of the patient; through the lack of potent professional support; and through the need to abstain from challenging the authorities in order not to disrupt their benevolence. The six themes are structured linearly, in accordance with the process described above.” (P. 4)

It may be that the best news in these findings is the fact that anyone tried to seek out the experiences of these people and that there was a structure in place to do so. It is doubtful whether either would have occurred a century ago except in an informal or haphazard fashion. The bad news is that these circumstances send contradictory messages to the very people who need open and straightforward dialog the most: people with diagnoses of major mental disorder.

These contradictions include: On the one hand, you should have input into your treatment and legal proceedings. On the other hand, we will not value what you say about your experience. On the one hand, we want you to talk with us about that which is meaningful to you, and on the other hand, we may dismiss what you say outright. On the one hand, we want you to have a better life and on the other hand, we continue to view you as dangerous, irrational, and a probable liar, and not more than the sum of your diagnoses and your offenses. While it is no surprise that these clients wouldn’t find the experience to be helpful, the paradoxical nature of these contradictory messages brings forth the possibility of making matters worse in treatment and the legal proceedings.

Sadly, our field does not lack information on how to work with these individuals. Jaakko Seikkula and his group in Finland have demonstrated that early intervention using an open dialog approach can address each of the concerns expressed above. Motivational Interviewing can also be helpful. Ultimately, what these findings show is the importance not only of the structures of interventions but the spirit in which these interventions is offered. This (again) reinforces the need to hear, and recognize, the voices of our service users in the treatments and interventions that we deliver with them.

The fields of health, medicine, psychology, and psychiatry have attended to the service user’s voice for a long time at an abstract level. Yet in our work with people who have caused harm to others, these ideas and findings rarely appear to be applied at the individual level. We question whether this doesn’t leave treatment clients with a two-tiered client-engagement program based on their offense and not criminogenic needs. Our clients’ aspirations are not so different from ours. For example, they also strive for a feeling of connectedness and a sense of self (Clarke, Lumbard, Sambrook, & Kerr, 2015).

Perhaps the biggest take-home message from Pedersen et al.’s work is that even with the most challenging population, in the more challenging arena, there is a need for proactive engagement between professionals and their clients to better understand the impact of the criminal justice process on those who experience it. This is starting to happen with the consideration and implementation of trauma-based approaches at a policy and practice level. Therefore, we in the sexual abuse field need to ask ourselves how can we further develop this work in our own practice?

Finally, researchers also have a responsibility within this regard; we have already gathered uncountable data on the characteristics of forensic patients and on their offenses, but we tend to overlook that these participants are individuals who may actually themselves suffer from the offenses they have committed, who may have been traumatized by the judicial process they went through, or who feel more like a guinea pig that has to be studied because of his/her criminal behavior rather than for who he/she really is.    

Monday, July 13, 2020

Welcoming out new blogger: Kasia Uzieblo

Dear all,

It gives me and David great pleasure to introduce a new member of the blogging team, Kasia Uzieblo.

Kasia Uzieblo is a senior researcher at the Forensic Care Specialists (Van der Hoeven Clinic, the Netherlands) and visiting professor at Ghent University and Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium). In the past, she has developed a research program on forensic psychology (University College Thomas More, Belgium), a nationally renowned educational program for forensic practitioners, and a professional network for Flemish forensic psychologists. Her research focuses on the underlying mechanisms (e.g., psychopathy, relational dynamics) of violent behavior, including sexual violence, forensic psychological assessment (e.g., risk assessment), the impact of (sexual) violence and help-seeking behavior in both victims and perpetrators. She has published more than 60 manuscripts/book chapters/essays and has organized numerous conferences/training/symposia on the aforementioned topics. Kasia Uzieblo also serves as a board member of multiple scientific and professional committees and societies, including ATSA. She is the past-past president of the Dutch chapter of ATSA (NL-ATSA) and is a member of the international ATSA committee. She is currently following training to become an official Static-Stable-Acute trainer. In addition, she conducts forensic psychological assessments for the court and in the forensic psychiatric clinic, the Van der Hoeven clinic.

I hope you will join us in welcoming Kasia. We will have a blog, as normal, later in the week.


Kieran & David.

Friday, July 10, 2020

“But, they must have known!”: The perspective of a non-offending partner of a man convicted of downloading indecent images of children.

This blog was written by an individual from the UK who wanted their story heard but wishes to remain anonymous.

Please note: a few weeks ago, we had a blog from Anna Glinski, which prompted a conversation with the author of this blog about their experiences being the partner of a person convicted of possessing Indecent Images of Children. Kieran

What is it like being the non-offending partner of an IIOC perpetrator? Hard. Everything about it is hard.

In 2015 my ex-husband was given a 3-year Community Order and 5-year SHPO for downloading >1000 indecent images of children from 2011-15 across all three categories (majority B). No videos.

The knock-on the door by the Police came as a complete shock as I had no inkling that he had a sexual predilection to underage girls. For the first couple of weeks after the arrest my sons, aged 3 and 6, had no contact with their Dad as per his bail conditions. I then signed a Supervised Access Only Contact Agreement with Children’s Services that I was advised would remain in place indefinitely. This, combined with the overwhelming fear of the predicted media exposure, prompted my decision to relocate.

Everything about my past, present, and future suddenly had a whole new perspective. I went from being a full-time mum who lived in a nice part of my hometown with children attending the local faith school and a husband with a very good job, to a divorcee with a vague backstory of why I needed a fresh start somewhere new.

As he remained part of society at every stage of the Judicial Process, we have had to find a new way of being with him as part of our world. The ramifications of this crime do not get less significant in time and the effect on children evolves as they grow up. I FEEL

Angry/restricted. None of this is fair. I have done nothing wrong, yet I need to make unending compromises to protect my family against negative community response because of our association with an abhorrent crime that we were innocent bystanders to every aspect of life is affected, from social interactions to employment options. I do not foresee this changing when his sentence is completed in winter 2020.

Judged/marginalized. From day 1 I felt as though I was being assessed whether I was a good enough Mum by anyone I had contact within a professional capacity, however as I ticked the right boxes, none proactively maintained any contact with us after 3 weeks post-arrest. To begin with the lack of attention from authorities was akin to relief, but as time has progressed, I perceive this demonstrates that my boys are the unseen victims of this crime and the impact on their childhood seemingly acceptable collateral damage to achieving a conviction. I thought people would think I was stupid for not knowing about his online behavior, or in denial, and would wonder whether I had the same interests too, plus would question any historical interaction their children had with mine. Now I know, through lived experience, I am invariably judged for allowing my children to still have supervised access with their Dad.

Unsupported Even though I hate the thought of my kids being considered vulnerable, this scenario triggers several Adverse Childhood Experiences, which means that they are. At the start, when I became aware of something I was blind to before, I desperately needed help to protect them from this significant threat to their well-being. Unfortunately, as we were(are) not classified as Victims, I could not find any support for us from any source. I struggle to find professionals who fully empathize with our situation, therefore am simply left alone to make up appropriate safeguarding measures for my boys as I go along. The impact on my mental health has been significant: after being repeatedly declined anti-depressants, with a long waiting list for NHS therapy, I have had no other option than to self-fund counseling.

Resentful. From the start, he had a network around him to help him live life forward. Police made it clear that any break in confidentiality about the nature of the investigation could increase his suicide risk. I took on the responsibility of keeping secret the reason behind my sudden change in circumstances which consequentially created distance within pre-existing friendships. Until the charges were made public in Magistrates Court I lived in limbo for 5 months not knowing the full scope of the investigation to protect his Right to Privacy. Probation monitored him regularly and supported getting him back into employment. He managed to meet and move in with a local woman who accepted his conviction. I have had nothing as I moved to a place that gave us anonymity.

Sad. I feel heartbroken that my boys have been robbed of a traditional father figure. I can only protect them from this for so long before they will learn preciously early in life that people are not always what they seem. They are going to have to face a huge emotional and psychological challenge as teenagers when they grow to understand what their Dad did.

Strong/proud. I had to forgive myself that I could not have seen what he took such great care to hide. As someone who has had a relationship with a man convicted of this crime I have felt: confused; naïve; misunderstood; full of self-doubt; disappointed in myself for missing it; burdened with a family secret; scared; isolated; lonely; ashamed; torn; irrelevant; guilty; fearful for the future; bereaved; like a victim. Yet I have got back up each time this situation has brought me to my knees and that makes me resilient.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Returning to the Basics: A UK Case Goes Terribly Wrong

By David S. Prescott, LICSW, & Kieran McCartan, Ph.D.

A BBC News report from earlier this week tells a disturbing story: a man released from prison despite a number of warning signs abducts and sexually assaults women whose ages range from 11 to 71. He has now been given 33 life sentences. In a style telling of how people often respond in these situations, the third sentence of the article notes that “so far only one person has since been demoted.” It seems clear from the article that much more is at play than the question of how many heads should roll.

What happened? A broader inquiry has just been published by HMI Probation has highlighted challenges within the local probation services, issues within the system, the impact of transforming rehabilitation, and funding. From the BBC report, it seems that Joseph McCann, 34 years old, had been convicted of burglaries. While in prison, there was considerable staff turnover, which people managing his case changing every year or so. Risk assessments examined his likelihood for further burglaries, while at the same time he sent letters containing threats of sexual violence to family members and his case manager. Reportedly, many of the professionals involved, already beset with high caseloads and other difficult workplace expectations, did not communicate all of the potential risks that McCann posed. Perhaps most telling is that although he had been seen by probation ten times in the two months after his release, he had been assigned three different probation officers during that time.

Obviously, we (the authors) are in no position to point fingers or place blame. In fact, we wish to underscore that what happened in this series of events is a tragedy that will likely forever alter the lives of all involved. It is not difficult to imagine some of the recommendations that will appear in the final report on this incident. Doubtless, caseloads, staff turnover, and other resourcing issues will receive a mention and may result in action. The authors believe that this case crystallizes the problems of and the fallout from the failed Transforming Rehabilitation agenda in the UK, the fracturing of probation service had a massive, problematic impact on the management of people with a criminal conviction. As we move towards the building of a new probation service this case highlights several concerns that we hope will be addressed:

The first is that when it comes to community supervision, supervision, and (risk) management, communication is vital. No amount of training, policy, or protocol is entirely helpful when the expectations of one’s job preclude one’s ability or proclivity to communicate. Our hope is that whatever measures are taken, they enable supervising agents and agencies to communicate meaningfully with one another.

It also seems that this tragedy poses an excellent opportunity to create training models that emphasize sharing information in general and communication skills specifically. Although we have no way of knowing, in our experience, training budgets are often among the first resources to be cut when political situations demand belt-tightening. The opportunity to re-create, or re-establish, a service enables us to put training, staff support, and political engagement at the top of the agenda.

The other challenge raised by the report was that McCann’s perspective was taken at face value, that staff overemphasized his perspectives on this own rehabilitation and underplayed their critical edge. This presents a challenge and an opportunity. In the UK we are moving towards a trauma-informed way of working, hearing the service user voice, and engaging the person with a conviction in their reintegration. But, how do we do this in a way that facilitates proactive risk management, staff security, service user engagement, and community safety?  

Perhaps most importantly, though, is that when considering risk, it is essential that professionals ask, “risk for what?” Often, we label people who break the law in accordance with the laws broken, as if they were all specialists in one area of crime or another. In this instance, it seems that any discussions of risk were focused on crimes of record instead of the warning signs that were apparent to many involved in the case. Compounded with what appears to have been intensive staff turnover, much of this tragedy appears to have occurred not because people didn’t have the right answers but because they weren’t in a position to ask the right questions.