Friday, April 2, 2021

Do not forget the middleperson: Preventing abuse one stakeholder at a time.

 By Kieran McCartan, PhD, David Prescott, LICSW, & Kasia Uzieblo, PhD

One of the authors (Kieran) was giving a research seminar at another university in the UK last week; the talk was on his research relating to the prevention of sexual abuse and how community engagement and bystander intervention fit into it. In the discussion afterward, he was asked, “How do you get politicians on board to prevent sexual abuse?” In some ways this is a “stock” answer for many:  you talk about community and personal values, you have a story that humanizes, you think of re-election, and what will play well in the public arena. But in answering, Kieran realized not only was that the wrong answer, but it was also the wrong question. The real question is, “How do you get governments to buy into the prevention of sexual abuse?” The answer, which is frustratingly easy, and hard, is you communicate and work with the middle person (in the UK that is portfolio leads, policy leads, and civil servants).

The realities of politics are that that politicians can be transient, which is particularly important to remember if you are a minister with a portfolio and ambition. Generally, politicians are not given roles based on their knowledge and skills, they are often given roles based on their position in the party or their relationship to the leader. While it might make sense to the public that the Minister for Health should have a background in health care, for example, this is rarely the case. What this means in practice that new ministers must learn their portfolios on the move with little time to process material at any great depth. Therefore, they are relying on, some more than others (fortunately or unfortunately as the case may be in different circumstances), on existing staff’s knowledge, networks, and ability. In this instance, it is very apparent that while the minister is important, these middle people are also important, and might be even more important. Adding to the complexity is that politicians around the world also sometimes take their staff with them or let much go, with the result that the “institutional memory” in some sectors of government can change. 

The middle people in most instances are primarily policymakers, researchers, and civil servants. They have often been worked within the government for years, often outlasting ministers and some outlasting administrators. They understand how the system works, the types of information required by ministers and the timeframe, as well as the format needed to get it across the line. Therefore, the question should be about how to best work with the middle person so that you can make sure that your message is heard by the right minister at the right time. Not surprisingly these middle people have different wants and needs than the ministers that they work for. To them it’s about trust, reliability, being able to frame a complex story in a straightforward way, being quick to respond, and being able to frame the message within the policy and practice of the ministry at that time. Being on the side, or at least in conversation, with the middle person means that your message is more likely to be heard by the minister. It does not guarantee that you will get the outcome you want, but you are more likely to get heard.

How does this play out with respect to the prevention of sexual abuse and the safe community integration of people with a conviction for sexual abuse? We need to convince portfolio leads, policymakers, and civil servants that the prevention and responses to sexual abuse are variable, that they are cost and time effective, that they align with the administration’s policies, that they are fit for purpose (i.e., that they will reduce offending and victimization), that they are supported by the professional community and will not alienate victims. Which is a challenge to do in one conversation, you need many. You need to build a relationship and be the go-to authority.

Politicians will make their own decisions, in line with party politics and manifestos, but the middle person is the person that will (hopefully) make the politicians listen and who will be there to balance the message and bring others on board. How we work with them will help determine their influence on the key decision-makers.


Thursday, March 25, 2021

Surface Net, Deep Net, & DarkNet: What are they, and when should I start to panic?

 By Alex Rodrigues, Psy.D.

The DarkNet has been gaining increasing attention lately.  Most of us have probably caught a short news segment alarming us of the dangers on the DarkNet.  The segments are nearly identical and use the same, ominous graphic of a hooded figure at a computer doing something nefarious.   Such clips have cast the DarkNet as a virtual lair of child pornographers, identity thieves, and terrorist extremists.  While those elements do exist, the DarkNet also offers more, some of which is positive.  The following blog provides some basic information about the DarkNet.  It is designed to educate those working at the intersection of the digital world and sexual offending.

1.       What is the DarkNet? Rather than start with the technical aspects and confuse readers with complex jargon, it is likely better to think about the DarkNet on a broader, conceptual level first.  From this perspective, it becomes clear the DarkNet is about anonymity.  DarkNet architects, as well as current users, value and prioritize anonymity.  This anonymity may involve hiding online drug deals or providing internal corporate documents as part of a whistleblower action. Users find anonymity by operating far below the Internet’s Surface and Deep Web levels

All Internet users are already familiar with the Surface Web, the part of the Internet composed of widely accessible websites and search engines like Google.  For reference, the Surface Web only makes up a fraction of the entire Internet.  In addition to the Surface Web, there are sites and Internet features that are harder to find and can not be accessed with search engines.  Often, access to Deep Web features require the use of a password or online credentials.  The Deep Web includes everything from one’s personal Amazon account to his or her company’s intranet.  Many readers who have worked in a modern hospital have used Deep Web services when accessing a patient's electronic medical file.  In comparison to the Surface and Deep Webs, specialized software is needed to access the DarkNet.      

2.       How does one find the DarkNet?  The information and specialized software needed to access the DarkNet can easily be found on the Surface web.  Sites such as Reddit offer places where one can learn about DarkNet mechanics and tools, like Tor.  Tor, short for The Onion Router, refers to both the software needed to browse the Internet anonymously and the network of computers that make up the system.  The average person can easily download Tor to his computer. 

The software allows one to remain hidden by using a series of other computers as relay stations.  Finklea (2017)[1] detailed how web traffic is routed through these various relays, obscuring one’s identity and Internet protocol (IP) address.  All Tor traffic goes through a minimum of three relay stations.  This practice helps to hide one’s identity because each relay station only has information about the two stations it is sandwiched between. 

To put it more simply, imagine you were tasked with spreading a secret message.  You were given a location and person to pass the message to.  However, you don't ever learn if that person is the intended recipient of the secret message or another messenger in a larger chain.  In this situation, you only know the person that provided you the message and the one you passed it to.  This is essentially how Tor works to hide one's Internet browsing.  Once on the DarkNet, one can turn to directories or search engines, organized according to content.

3.      What does someone do on the DarkNet?  As stated above, the DarkNet is used to maximize privacy.  For instance, one can purchase drugs or other illicit contraband anonymously. Arguably, the most well-known DarkNet drug bazaar was Silk Road, which law enforcement shut down in 2013.  Before its dissolution, Silk Road was a digital marketplace that generated close to 200 million in anonymous drug sales.  In addition to drugs, one can find child pornography, firearms, malware, and stolen credit card information on the DarkNet. Transactions are completed with the use of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

While the DarkNet is largely known for more nefarious reasons, most individuals accessing the platform are not engaged in illicit activity. Many are concerned with secret government surveillance and do not want to have their digital history cataloged.  Additionally, the DarkNet has been used to fight against tyranny and injustice. For instance, those living under authoritarian regimes use it as a means of safe communication.  Even the New York Times is present on the DarkNet, providing a secure submission portal to whistleblowers trying to get sensitive information to the public. 

Hopefully, this blog entry has provided those curious about the DarkNet with some basic information.  In the meantime, refrain from immediately downloading Tor and perusing the hidden areas of the Net. While accessing the DarkNet is not illegal per se, one risks encountering harmful material, or at minimum, being dropped by his Internet provider.




[1] Finklea, Kristin. Dark Web. Congressional Research Service, 10 Mar. 2017,


Friday, March 19, 2021

Reflections on the challenges of “true” community integration post-conviction.

Submitted by Ben

Bloggers’ Note: Readers may recall our blog post of February 19, 2021, titled, Looking for the Best and Preparing for the Worst. It focused on a recent article in Slate that questioned a poetic contribution to a magazine. The question was whether the submission from a person convicted of possessing child sexual abuse materials should be included in a magazine highlighting the work of those serving time in prison.

Ben, who describes himself as a MAP (an acronym standing for minor-attracted person), ex-offender, and former pornography addict, sent an email with a number of thoughts in response. With Ben’s permission, we are re-posting it here to provide the perspective of at least one person of a group whose voices often go unheard and unrecognized. It has been only lightly copy-edited.

I have some thoughts on your very thought-provoking article, about why sex offenders are always excluded, even to the extent of preventing them from expressing their feelings, in a poetic contribution to a magazine.

A lot of it is because acknowledging that these people have a sensitive, human side, makes it harder to 'other' them and treat them as monsters. For many people in the prison system, who are already feeling great levels of shame and stigma, because of their own (non-sexual) offending, it is probably very helpful to have someone they can feel morally superior to. Being able to look down on sex offenders, makes them feel less ashamed of their own crimes.

The general public has a slightly different reaction. Part of their hatred towards all criminals comes from a fear of being a victim of crime. They imagine how they would feel if someone hurt them. When it comes to children, the public asks themselves how they would feel, if someone hurt their child. The answer is scared, angry, and filled with a burning desire for revenge. They then take those feelings and project them onto any sex offender they read about in the news.

Feeding that natural desire, to punish those who may pose a threat to you or your children, are the myths of sex offender dangerousness and incurability. The frequent references to the dark triad and to sexual offender stereotypes are used as explanations. They must be narcissists, or sociopaths, who either do not care about their victims or are incapable of caring. The most common questions people ask themselves about sexual offending are why did they do it and how could they do it. It seems to go against all normal human ethical standards and to defy explanation. When confronted with something they cannot explain, people return to simple to understand concepts, like good and evil, or mental illness. Hence, most SO are categorised as either mad or bad or both. There is very little understanding of the role that childhood trauma plays, in an adult's sexual offending.

Then you have people's own understanding of human sexuality. There are two elements to this. The idea that a person's sexuality is fixed and unchanging, plus the notion that any thoughts, desires, or sexual interests must be acted upon because they are impossible to resist.

Most of the public, when they examine their own sexual thoughts and feelings, understand that have a Jekyll and Hyde quality to them. There is no divide between sexual offenders and the general public, in this respect, only a spectrum of sexual offending. Everyone knows that they have powerful sexual urges inside them. Everyone knows that they lose control of those feelings sometimes. The research shows that people take more risks when sexually aroused, for example. When that is combined with a disinhibitor, like alcohol, you often see offending behavior, like date rape, as a result. The feminist argument that all men are potential rapists, seems to be supported by this evidence. There is no 'other'. Any man, given the right disinhibitors, could potentially act on his sexual feelings, in an immoral and possibly illegal way.

But rather than face this uncomfortable truth, it's far easier for society to pretend that only monsters and others are capable of committing sexual offenses. Most of the public sees themselves as Dr Jekyll. Deep down, they know that Mr. (or Mrs.) Hyde exists inside them, but they tell themselves that Dr Jekyll has Hyde under control. Jekyll’s logic and reason can tame Hyde's wild and impulsive sexuality. However, whilst they might believe this about their own sexual desires, they don't extend that same analysis to other people. They worry that other people don't have the same control that they do. It's a bit like people's relationship with advertising. You tell yourself that other people can be persuaded by it because they are less intelligent and more gullible, but you are immune to it because you can see through the advertiser's lies.

This is why there is so much focus on sex offenders being impulsive. They are regarded like the others, who cannot see through the advertising.  Their Dr. Jekyll is absent, and their Hyde is much closer to the surface, ready to act on the slightest whim or sexual thought.

At the same time, there is another sexual offender stereotype, who confounds the notion of inherent impulsivity. This is the Machiavellian manipulator, who, rather than acting impulsively, plots silently. This manipulator grooms his victims carefully, for many years, before acting. He is the polar opposite of the impulsive, situational offender, who acts without thinking. Nevertheless, the public has successfully incorporated the two opposing typologies into their other, with an extraordinary act of doublethink.  Sex offenders are perceived as both uncontrollable and impulsive, whilst being fiendishly cunning manipulators, at the same time.

Then there is the idea of constant, unchanging, sexual orientations, interests, and preferences. As my [supervising agent] put it to me, once. "Do you prefer football or rugby? Some people just prefer men, some just prefer women."  The subtext of this conversation, which he didn't put into words, was that some people just prefer adults and some people just prefer children and that's just the way it is.

He was tapping into an idea that is very common, and widely held nowadays, which is that a person's sexual preferences, interests, and orientation are not their choices. It's just genetic. Something you are born with and have to live with forever. The reason this matters is that to [supervising agents] and the general public, a person who has a sexual preference for children, will have that preference forever. It will never go away. That means it is incurable. That means the best outcome a sexual offender can ever hope to achieve, is to control those feelings and not act on them. But even the ones who don't act, are still wanting to act and will do so, if they ever get the chance. So, it is a simple equation, in the public mind. Sexual orientation can never be cured, therefore sexual offending can never be cured.

What is the solution to this flawed perception?

Reactions from criminal justice professionals vary. I always try to humanize myself to them, by telling them about my childhood traumas. I explain that I lost all my trust in people, as a result of that trauma and this is why I struggle with intimacy as an adult. I suspect though, that most offenders do not do this. For most offenders, discussing these issues with a police officer, who has just invaded their home, is too stressful and shameful. A lot of sex offenders, whose trust in other people has been catastrophically harmed, by trauma and whose faith in humanity has been so terribly compromised, will see the police as just another person who doesn't care about them and wants to harm them. They may tell the police nothing about their life story or they may get defensive, which will just cause the police officer to regard them as hostile, and thus the police will see them as being a higher risk, as a result. 

Probation listen more and most now understand that offenders have been traumatized. They are slowly beginning to understand the effects of adverse childhood experiences on people's adult offending and they recognize that offenders use minimization and denial, as a defense against shame and not to avoid responsibility for their actions.

But the police listen less because they have been trained to see all SOs as devious and manipulative and because police culture perpetuates the urban myth that all sex offenders are liars. Therefore, police find it harder to listen, since they assume that the offender is only telling them these things, in order to manipulate them.

Nevertheless, the solution is still to humanize sex offenders and tell their stories of trauma and childhood adversity, as often and as loudly as possible, so that they are no longer feared. As the fear goes away, so will the hatred and the othering. Creating empathy for sex offenders, in wider society, will not be easy. You will be accused of being soft on crime, but it must at least be attempted.

Most often, when I read about sexual offending in the media, it tells me nothing about the offender. It only gives details of their crimes. Nobody can empathize with that. But occasionally, we do get glimpses into the offender’s life. I have seen tales of men who offended, after suffering unbearable trauma. A man, who had lost his wife and both children to illness, prior to his offending. Another who had an illness, which left him confined to his home 24 hours a day, and who then offended on the internet. These are not coincidences. Trauma and offending are inextricably linked together. That is the message that must be conveyed.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Getting Our Priorities Right.

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

A scan of the media recently has left much to be desired. There is a new documentary about the film director Woody Allen and allegations of sexual abuse made against him in the 1990s. From the article:

Back in 1992, Allen, then 57, admitted he was having an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, 21, the adopted daughter of his long-term partner, Farrow . . . Several months after that, at the height of their viciously acrimonious break-up, Farrow accused Allen of molesting Dylan, who was then seven, one afternoon while she was out of the house. Doctors examined Dylan and found no evidence of abuse. Allen was investigated by the Yale-New Haven Hospital’s sexual abuse clinic which concluded: ‘It is our opinion that Dylan was not sexually molested by Mr. Allen.’ He was also investigated by New York State’s Department of Social Services, which wrote: ‘No credible evidence was found that the child named in this report has been abused or maltreated.’

On the surface, the media coverage is an interesting look at what remains known about this case. From our perspective, it is sad that so many individuals have almost completely disregarded the professionals who conducted official examinations in favor of a trial-by-media approach to a decades-old scandal.

It was tempting to write the Allen case off as a slow news cycle, except that then the Looney Tunes skunk character, Pepe Le Pew, also came to grief when multiple media accounts covered his character’s retirement. Considerable discussion ensued, and in one social media context an expert complained that, as a species, skunks do not engage in rape; at least, not in the way that other animals do (mallard ducks frequently receive mention in this context). In some ways, the Le Pew verdict is timely; his advances towards Penelope Pussycat were never acceptable and were doubtless confusing to some who had experienced abuse. At the same time, we have never met anyone that understood the cartoons of that era as articles of faith.

More seriously, there is also the scandal involving New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is facing multiple allegations of sexual harassment. Adding to the seriousness of the allegations are damaging photos of unwanted advances made in public. The fact that it is happening at an inopportune time of other scandals is certainly not helping. Multiple leaders from both major parties have called on him to resign. As of this writing, he has refused. Clearly here, there are multiple and competing perspectives, from “he needs to step down now” to “many politicians, including recent presidents, have done worse and didn’t resign.”

Meanwhile, one news story basely attracted any attention at all. USA Today has described the rising tide of domestic violence during the pandemic. Their numbers, derived from a study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, are grim. From that study:

Data from US police departments provide some early insight into the effect COVID-19 has had on DV in some regions. For instance, in Portland, Oregon public schools closed March 16, 2020, and on March 23 came stay-at-home orders. Following these events, the Portland Police Bureau recorded a 22% increase in arrests related to DV compared to prior weeks. In San Antonio, Texas schools closed March 20, 2020 and stay-at-home orders came March 24. The San Antonio Police Department subsequently noted they received an 18% increase in calls pertaining to family violence in March 2020 compared to March 2019. In Jefferson County Alabama, the Sheriff's Office reported a 27% increase in DV calls during March 2020 compared to March 2019. In New York City schools closed March 16, 2020 and stay-at-home orders started on March 22, 2020. During the month of March, the New York City Police Department responded to a 10% increase in DV reports compared to March 2019.

The stark relief between media attention to the behaviors of celebrities and cartoon figures and the genuine human suffering, experienced disproportionately by our society’s most vulnerable members, could not be clearer. The amount of violence in our communities was already unacceptable pre-pandemic, has gotten worse, and yet goes almost unnoticed. A search of Google’s news site on each of these items makes clear that finding out many of the true costs of the pandemic remains a real challenge. Perhaps it is because actress Mia Farrow and Pepe Le Pew make for better visual content in media accounts. Maybe it’s because we would prefer to see our leaders taken down than to see our most desperate neighbors given a hand up. Maybe it is because we can’t look at what’s really happening anymore?

Perhaps a broader perspective is called for. Maybe we are not seeing and/or are denying a societal cognitive schema whereby it is easier to target individuals and individual actions rather than examine societal causes and consequences. The #MeToo movement has demonstrated that sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and domestic violence is as much about community and societal issues as individual and interpersonal ones. Once again, we need to step back from simply pathologizing those who perpetrate and are victimized by sexual aggression and understand each within a context. Yes, Woody Allen, Andrew Cuomo, and even Pepe le Pew have all acted badly, caused harm, and should be held accountable for their behavior; but where is the larger societal reflection, critical thinking, and change?

Simply saying publicly that these individuals are to blame, while privately acknowledging that they are a product of the system and reprimanding them but ignoring the wider systemic problems is no longer acceptable. A recent World Health Organization report has shown that violence against women and children is its own pandemic and, like with COVID-19, we need wholesale societal change to eradicate it. That that starts with individuals, communities, and the media.


Thursday, March 4, 2021

Civil commitment in the US: A federal lawsuit returns

 By David Prescott, LICSW, Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D., & Kieran McCartan, PhD

A large-scale challenge to civil commitment laws has re-emerged in the past few weeks, to the surprise of many, involving the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (although the suit could have involved virtually any of the 20 states’ and federal government’s programs). Minnesota’s program had been declared unconstitutional in a federal court in 2015. A federal appeals court reversed that decision, ruling that the judge had applied the wrong standard in his determination. The US Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Now, an appeals court in Missouri has cleared the way for a reconsideration of this case. Readers are referred to the recent media coverage for a more comprehensive discussion.

For those who may not be aware, civil commitment, as applied to people who have committed sex crimes, involves legal proceedings that examine whether a person meets the criteria for a pre-disposing diagnosis (such as Pedophilic Disorder, with the application of many such diagnoses hotly contested across jurisdictions) and an appraisal of the person’s risk to commit further acts of sexual violence.  Many readers will be aware that virtually every aspect of civil commitment law in the US has been challenged in the courts and that the research behind the methods used in diagnosis and risk assessment has also been challenged at every turn. 

Civil Commitment has a complicated history internationally. Other countries have either no equivalent or very different versions of it. For instance, England and Wales had IPP (Imprisonment for Public Protection) sentences which were introduced in 2005 and abolished in 2012. They were determined to be unlawful by the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court in 2007 and a joint report by the chief inspectors of prisons and probation in 2020 concluded that IPP sentences were unsustainable with UK prison overcrowding. Although they are no longer handed down as of 30 June 2020, there were 8,954 (8,618 male: 336 female) determinate sentenced prisoners (those serving Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences and life sentences).

The Sexual Abuse blog has focused on this and related cases in the past, most recently in 2015 (in which the first author asked a number of questions related to ethics and human rights). What’s changed since then? Obviously, the laws do not appear to have changed. Readers of this blog will correctly infer our opinion that the societal context in which these programs operate has changed very little. By all appearances, though, the Minnesota program itself has worked to develop an infrastructure for releasing clients into conditional-release situations in the community, even if the decisions can be controversial within the hierarchies of state government.

Obviously, any lawsuit can be problematic for those directly involved. Why would this lawsuit be good news? Here are some ideas:

-          The clarity of a ruling is an opportunity to improve programming. As one prominent observer noted, it is the state’s job to ensure that the legal processes for release are in place and functioning. It’s each program’s responsibility to line clients up at the door and be ready for release as efficiently as possible. The importance of clarity in programming cannot be understated. Earlier this year, clients at the Minnesota program initiated a hunger strike with the intention of calling attention to what they felt was the absence of a clear pathway to release.

-          Lawsuits present an opportunity for state legislatures to get their acts together. To be blunt, by the time states are losing federal lawsuits, they’ve probably been in the wrong for quite some time. While no politician wants to risk being on the wrong side of public perceptions involving sex crimes, a review of the decade that this case has been active illustrates the dramatic need for change at the state legislature level.

-          Along these lines, the current lawsuit is an opportunity to reconsider the implementation and administration of these laws and perhaps devote more energy to preventing sexual violence in the first place.  With a budget in excess of $90 million in 2020, and the fact that MSOP treats only a small fraction of those convicted for sex crimes in Minnesota,  one wonders what kinds of prevention efforts might be possible were civil commitment laws to be used more responsibly.

-          The lawsuit is a reminder that we can also invest more in our prison-based treatment programs. Does it make society really safer if we lock them up for years and subsequently mandate them to follow a treatment program? Can we still expect sufficient positive outcomes from such delayed treatment programs? Although some prison-based treatment programs have led to controversy, we also know that both short and long prison sentences have little to no effect on recidivism rates. Investing in preventive interventions sooner in the process might lead to more positive treatment outcomes and is also expected to be more cost-effective.

-          The lawsuit further reminds us of the importance of research! Related to the other points, we should also invest more money and time into proper research programs into the mental disorders that these individuals are usually diagnosed with, which includes paraphilias and sometimes personality disorders. Taking the bulk of research on sexual violence into regard, it is striking to note that still relatively little is known about the development and manageability of abuse-related paraphilias, and how they relate to sexual violent behavior in some individuals, but not in others. These insights are however highly needed if we want to offer well-founded reasons for hope to both these individuals as well as society.

-          The lawsuit reminds the community of the reality of punishment and rehabilitation. Quite often communities dismiss and collectively forget about the lives of people incarcerated in prisons unless it directly involves them or the families. The current lawsuit puts conversations about the role, structure, and function or incarceration, treatment, and risk reduction back into the community frame. It reminds people about the reality of punishment and why it should matter to them. This and other lawsuits can remind us all of the realities of indeterminate incarceration and begs questions about the most effective and efficient ways to rehabilitate people. It’s never as simple as locking them away.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Rehabilitation in culture and practice or simply in ideology?

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

One of the authors (Kieran) was teaching about the politics of risk management in the criminal justice system this week. The class focused on the balance between punishment and rehabilitation/treatment. We know that the role of the criminal justice system is to provide punishment for offenses committed and also to provide the opportunity for rehabilitation so that the individuals in question can be integrated back into the community post-release. However, we also know that it's not that simple, that there are different pressures on the criminal justice system that force it more towards punishment than rehabilitation, or (rarely) vice versa. Finally, we know that tools intended for rehabilitative purposes (e.g., risk assessment) are applied to provide punishment instead. Although the balance of punishment and rehabilitation is at the root of important debates, the broader debate has gone on for ages, with little really getting resolved. The results are commonly an agreement that things need to change, with an acknowledgment that they rarely do.

An interesting point in these debates is that we use terms like rehabilitative culture to explain what we do, but the question that we need to ask ourselves is that whether we are really building a culture or more of a hat tip to the idea of it. When we think about culture, we think about a system, a way of doing things that happens in unison with a common purpose. However, in criminal justice, this rarely happens; we often have a gap between ideology and practice, a gap between the way that we want to do things and the way that we are doing things. If we are honest, we also have a gap between how we portray our rehabilitative cultures and the less pleasant realities when we ask the service user’s experiences.

This “rehabilitation gap” often reflects economics, politics, public and professional attitudes, and the media (to name a few) that push policy and practice as well as ideology and implementation further apart. Ideal terms, such as “rehabilitative culture” should reflect values such as a commitment to all aspects of the service users' journey towards successful rehabilitation and community reintegration. However, what we are often left with is a process-driven form of rehabilitation that strives for a cultural underpinning but does not really achieve it; as we’ve seen, many factors can intervene. It is important to note that true rehabilitative culture is a hard thing to achieve and is a practice and a discipline. A bit like a therapeutic community it needs buy-in from everyone and cannot work in a piecemeal fashion.

Is there a difference between a culture that works towards rehabilitation as opposed to a rehabilitative culture? We believe there is. The implications are that we must recognize that our current practices process and outcome-driven without necessarily being culturally embedded. If we want a rehabilitative criminal justice system, we need to be service user-informed, evidence-based, and practice-led. We need to untangle rehabilitation from punishment and look at them as two parallel, interrelated but distinct processes. We have started to do this, but in our review of programs, practices, and policies it often seems that we have a long way to go. In our view, punishment in the absence of opportunities for rehabilitation is cruel.

Questions for front-line professionals might include:

· Does your work setting have a clear mission statement that staff members take to heart?

· Do your clients have a clear understanding of how your treatment completion, rehabilitation, and community reintegration? In other words, do they know what the end of treatment looks like?

· Has your work setting explicitly defined what a rehabilitative culture looks like and how it operates?

· Has your work setting actively sought out the feedback of clients receiving care? Do they agree with your vision of a rehabilitative culture and how it exists in your program?

· Does your work setting have a track record of responding to client feedback? Many agencies collect feedback but do not circle back to tell their clients what changes they are making in response to that feedback.

Anyone who has read the news at all in the past several years will know that no form of culture can ever be taken for granted.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Looking for the best and preparing for the worst.

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

A recent article in Slate questioned a poetic contribution to a magazine. Outwardly, the question was whether the submission from a person convicted of possessing child sexual abuse materials should be included in a magazine highlighting the work of those serving time in prison. One implication of this is that even when the magazine is focused on compositions by people who are incarcerated, people who sexually abuse should still be excluded. It further implies that people convicted of sexual crimes are markedly different from people convicted of any other offense. In our rational minds, we can say “all offenses are different, and the impact is determined by the context and outcome.” We know, however, that this is not always the case as the labels involved in certain offenses can take on a life of their own and can derail the desistence and integration process. One wonders what other kinds of crimes were reflected in the backgrounds of the contributors. Would someone who had sexually assaulted an adult elicit a similar response? What about a murderer

Of course, a broader implication is that that people who have sexually abused children are inherently irredeemable, even more so than people who have committed rape or other crimes (e.g., Kernsmith et al., 2009). Why is that? Why are people who abuse children, so often regarded as more dangerous and untreatable than others? While some immediate answers are obvious (in addition to evoking a need to provide care and concern, children are inherently more vulnerable and unable to defend themselves), all of our extant research demonstrates the opposite, from the recidivism research in the late 1990s and 2000’s to the more refined studies finding that desistance is the norm. Large-scale studies have found that the longer someone remains crime-free in the community the less likely they are to be accused of a sex crime.

It’s vital to separate our responses to the severity of the crime from our understanding of actual re-offense risk and capacity for change. This means sorting fact from fiction; we have to understand that perceptions of offending do not equate to the reality of recidivism risk or the often-strong desire and ability of these individuals to change and to make amends. The way that we think about sexual offending is understandably colored by our perception (or more accurately misperception), of what we what these individuals seem to be. It’s easy and comfortable to assume they are radically different from us and simply best expunged from society. It’s just not that simple.

One component of the article was that it can be retraumatizing for people to see the contributions of someone they had learned to be afraid of. Balancing the rights, needs, and welfare of people who have caused harm and those who either been harmed or anticipate harm has long been the work of professionals in our field. Ultimately, there are no answers that will satisfy everybody. However, as we become more trauma-informed and start to embrace rehabilitative culture in prisons (please see the work of the late Ruth Mann and colleagues on this) we have to recognize that promoting desistence and integration means seeing the potential for change in people regardless of who they are or what they have done. This involves cautious and managed optimism.

In the 1990s, after reading a vivid description of intimate partner violence in an autobiography of Miles Davis, one of the authors (David) sold off his Davis CD collection as a kind of protest. The problem with this action came when it was obvious how many others in David’s music collection had also beaten their partners. Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, soul singer James Brown, even John Lennon, and many others have had histories of engaging in egregious and violent behaviors. David ultimately concluded that experiencing humanity necessarily involves observing the best and worst of what people are capable of.

David is not the only one with such reflexes. It is not acceptable anymore acknowledging that you like movies with Kevin Spacey or that you still laugh with Bill Cosby’s jokes. Notably, some are immediately expelled because of their violent or transgressive behaviors (e.g., Shia Lebouf), whereas others are more easily 'forgiven’ and are still in business (e.g., Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Donald Trump, Bill Clinton). So do we keep up double standards? Why do we forgive some and condemn others? The challenge is not only an individual issue but also a community and societal issue: where are the collective lines drawn? It’s important to see how these issues are played out in society; sometimes the nuance and debate is there (Amber Heard and Johnny Deep) and sometimes it is not (Marylin Manson). Is this because disclosures and actions reinforce our stereotypes of people or are so jarring that we can’t accept them?

The question we have to ask ourselves is, what do we want the accused person to be and do? To constantly live with what they have done and with no possibility to move forward, which is potentially damaging for them, their victim(s), and the surrounding communities. Or do we want to see recognition of past harms, contrition for abuse, and the capacity to move on (which helps everyone). Kieran always found the idea of civil commitment or indeterminate sentencing as it’s known in the UK, interesting as it creates an environment of no hope, no future, and no motivation for change. If we are saying to people convicted of a sexual offense that they have to stop their offending behavior and change their mindset do we not also have to do the same, irrespective of how challenging it is? Should we not be saying that their poetry, if appropriate and relevant to the publication, should be included with the work of others serving out their criminal conviction? Changing comes through recognition and alignment, not separation.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Taking Stock and Expressing Gratitude.

 By David S. Prescott, LICSW.

A recent conversation at David's house went something like this:

David: My Fitbit says I got eight hours of sleep. I’ve had plenty of coffee. Why am I still so exhausted?

Mrs. Prescott: I’m right there with you. I almost wonder if we haven’t had a light case of COVID.

David: I’m not sure I’d go that far, but who knows? Meanwhile, we’re expecting four inches of snow, so that changes my plans for today… again. Rats!

Mrs. Prescott: Uh-oh. Our son just messaged. He drove an hour in all of this just to find out his university class had been canceled. He’s driving home now. Well, only six weeks until Spring!

The mid-winter blues have been particularly tough for many of us. Those of us who manage a caseload or have students have been acutely aware of the strife that has gone unspoken as well as spoken. If we’re honest, the Holiday Season may have been the most difficult since World War II. Clients have been dying of COVID-19 in numbers so high that media accounts of institutional outbreaks are unable to publish their names. Readers in the US have coped with the stress and anxiety that has followed the January 6 riot at the Capitol. Outside the US have been the stresses of Brexit, lockdowns, and heavens knows what else.

While all of this has been going on, though, the hard work and contributions of people in the field of preventing sexual violence have continued. When there was a COVID outbreak in a small program in the Northeast, some staff opted simply to reside at the program (under the supervision of medical staff) and they all got through it together.

During the month of January, David ended up covering cases by video in the wake of a clinician quitting without any notice. The unexpected surprise was how pleasant it was to interact with all of the staff members at the programs. Everyone was ready for video appointments on time and even early. The staff all talked about the clients in the most professional manner and all were thoughtful in the ways they describe client progress and interactions. It’s easy to forget just how dedicated the front-line staff is in the inpatient settings where many of us work actually are. On top of all of this, the sessions weren’t always easy. Many clients discussed all the reasons they are no longer in contact with their families during the holidays while others wept openly about their current statuses.

For us, all of this points in one direction. Our message to the readers of this blog is: You have all been more helpful to our clients than maybe even you know. In interactions such as those above, there is no question that it’s the folks at the front lines, working nights and weekends that have made the difference.

It’s clear that we all get into this work because we want to help people and then we find out who we really are when the going gets tough. This year it’s the front-line people like those reading this blog (and those who can’t because they don’t have the time) who are the ones who have made the difference. This has been especially true for those clients who, whether through their own actions or not, have had no greetings or kind words coming from their family. Instead, with only a few exceptions, our clients don’t know to say thank you because things went as well as they have.

Since the clients and those who remain in their lives too often don’t know just how much you’ve actually done for them, allow us to be the first to say – from the bottom of our hearts – thank you.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Pedohunting: How vigilantes exacerbate the problem of child abuse.

 By Minne De Boeck (NL-ATSA president), Ellen Janssen, Maaike Blok, Kasia Uzieblo (NL-ATSA board members), David Prescott, & Kieran McCartan

Please note that although we don’t think the term ‘pedohunter’ is an appropriate term, we will use this term throughout the blog given that this is the term used in the media. In other venues, we have also recently heard the terms “predator poacher” and “sexual predator hunters” used as well.

At the end of 2020, the Netherlands and Belgium were in an uproar over the disturbing and sometimes criminal actions of so-called 'pedohunters'. The term ‘pedohunters’ refers to individuals who pose as minors on social media with the aim of getting in touch with people who -allegedly- want to abuse children. As this was happening, many pedohunters made appearances on TikTok and Youtube, causing quite a stir in various countries. These individuals try to arrange an actual meeting with whoever has made contact with them. The pedohunters’ aim is to 'teach them a lesson' and to publicly expose them by sharing the confrontation on social media where they might say: “You here to meet a 15-year old?”. These altercations can involve threats, intimidation, and possibly serious violence, and even death. For instance, in Arnhem, in the Netherlands, a man lost his life after being severely abused by several teenagers.

The goal of these pedohunters is to prevent child sexual abuse (CSA) by taking matters into their own hands. They state that the police and judiciary are failing to adequately address the problem. But aside from these “ideological” goals, other motives can also be delineated: Creating followers on social media, addressing boredom, connecting with peers, the search for an identity, and gaining social status. In addition, this phenomenon falls within a larger and more troubling trend of anti-pedophile vigilantism on social media platforms that can be observed worldwide.

Despite their “noble” motive – to save children from abuse – their behavior poses a wide range of judicial and societal problems. After all, simple solutions to complex problems rarely work. In fact, there are reasons to believe that their behavior might even exacerbate the problem of CSA. Although laws often don’t strictly forbid the pursuit of people (alleged) to be a child abuser, the evidence they collect is often rendered useless for further police investigation and judicial prosecution. Citizens often lack the necessary knowledge of procedures and precautions to be considered in gathering and handling evidence, thus risking any further criminal procedures to be compromised.

In addition, people who could potentially abuse children are prematurely alerted by the actions of these pedohunters before law enforcement can take any action. Consequently, many cannot be prosecuted due to a lack of useful physical evidence and/or the absence of actual criminal behavior. Moreover, the pedohunter himself is often treading on very thin ice, especially when the confrontation is accompanied by threats, extortion, and violence. This often results in additional (investigative) work for the police and the judiciary, and – notice the irony – precious time that could otherwise go to the detection and prosecution of people who sexually abuse children is lost.

In addition, when people with bad intentions know that pedohunters are active to lure them into a trap, chances are high they will retract themselves into the shadows and dark corners of the internet. There they find recognition among like-minded people and end up in closed groups that society can no longer oversee. Feelings of isolation, social loneliness, and exclusion by society are factors that aggravate a person having not much to lose and consequently pose an even greater risk to society. Thus, while the goal, according to the pedohunters, is to prevent CSA, they presumably achieve the exact opposite.

Another underlying issue of pedohunting and the attention it gets from media is that by only focusing on strangers deemed to engage in CSA, we close our eyes to where CSA is really taking place and who engages in it. After all, the majority of CSA is committed by a family member, (family) friend or acquaintance, not by an unknown perpetrator (Finkelhor, 2012).  

Another consequence of these hunts on social media is that CSA and pedophilia are far too often carelessly lumped together. Only about 50% of people committing CSA exhibits a pedophilic preference (Schaefer et al., 2010). Furthermore, a Dutch report shows that in all persons suspected of CSA who were subjected to psychiatric/psychological assessment, only 20% exhibited a paraphilia, including pedophilia but also others; thus 80% did not manifest any paraphilias (Nationaal Rapporteur Mensenhandel en Seksueel Geweld tegen Kinderen, 2014). In addition, it is assumed that numerous individuals with pedophilic interests manage to live an offense-free life. Thus, the dogmatic belief that ‘pedophiles must be hunted down at all cost’ is erroneous and has major consequences for non-offending individuals with sexual interests in children.

So, if this dogmatic belief persists and communities support these vigilantes, changes become even smaller than individuals with pedophilic interests will dare to discuss their feelings, interests, and worries. The misconception that pedophilia by definition leads to CSA is not only very stigmatizing for people with pedophilic interests; it does not contribute to prevention. People with pedophilic interests do experience multiple barriers for seeking help because they fear that professionals would react negatively, report them to the police, or misunderstand their problems. Enhancing this stigma will only render them more reluctant to seek help and support. And when help is needed but not sought or not found, this is when situations may become risky. Given the numbers of people reaching out to support groups, it is simply not accurate to say that these are people who uniformly seek out opportunities to offend.

So, what is the right approach to prevent CSA? Offender treatment and various prevention programs, like Stop it Now!, have already proven their importance and usefulness. By reaching out to those who are concerned about their (pedophilic) sexual feelings and/or behaviors towards minors and offering support for their problem, CSA can be prevented. Vigilantes hunting them down is clearly not the solution to the CSA problem.   


Finkelhor, D. (2012). Characteristics of crimes against juveniles. Durham, NH: Crimes against Children Research Center.

Nationaal Rapporteur Mensenhandel en Seksueel Geweld tegen Kinderen. (2014). Op goede grond. De aanpak van seksueel geweld tegen kinderen. Den Haag: Nationaal Rapporteur.

Schaefer, G. A., Mundt, I. A., Feelgood, S., Hupp, E., Neutze, J., Ahlers, C. J., ... & Beier, K. M. (2010). Potential and Dunkelfeld offenders: Two neglected target groups for prevention of child sexual abuse. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry33(3), 154-163.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Moving Towards a “Public Wisdom Model” of Prevention

By David S. Prescott, LICSW, & Kieran McCartan, PhD

In 1998, Rob Freeman-Longo and Geral Blanchard published a book titled, Sexual Abuse in America: Epidemic of the 21st Century. Four years later, Blanchard and Joan Tabachnick penned, The prevention of sexual abuse: Psychological and public health perspectives. Along with other publications, the rallying cry of viewing sexual abuse through the lens of public health emerged. ATSA has championed the idea that society will better be able to end sexual abuse when it adopts this perspective as well as other relevant ways of understanding the issues and preventing the behaviors and subsequent harm. ATSA has long counted the above authors as among its many friends.

Along with this approach came new ways of thinking about prevention: Primary prevention focuses on preventing abuse within the general population (an analogy might be to vaccinating people to prevent illness or public education efforts aimed at preventing abuse). Secondary prevention involves prevention with people who are at risk for a condition (for example, starting vaccination rollouts with health care workers and other vulnerable populations or psychoeducation aimed at students who are entering university about risk factors for abuse and victimization). Tertiary prevention aims to prevent the persistence of a condition after it has happened (for example, medical care for the sick; treatment aimed at preventing further sexual offending). More recently, there has been discussion in the literature about Quaternary prevention, or efforts to prevent unintended harmful effects of other attempts at prevention through the introduction and maintenance of harm reduction and supportive pathways. Although recently introduced to the field of criminal justice and sexual abuse, quaternary prevention is actually not a new idea. Professionals have sought to prevent harm from interventions for a long time. Ultimately, desistence, harm-reduction assisted risk management, and the streamlining of services to reduce the negative impact of over-criminalization have all been important considerations in prevention.

This all seems so simple! The next problem was how to get the word out. Plenary addresses at ATSA conferences (for example an unforgettable speech given with no notes by Suzanne Brown-McBride) focused on how we can best frame the message that abuse is preventable. More recently, ATSA member Apryl Alexander gave an inspiring TED Talk titled, Sexual violence is preventable: Here’s how. Between our knowledge, our expertise, and our framing of the issues, all policymakers should have leaned in and listened. Many have and many others have not. The recent publication of the new England and Wales “Tacking Child Sexual Abuse Strategy” tries to balance prevention and punishment. While there is still a distance to be traveled, it’s a start. Of course, it took centuries to get to this point; we cannot expect our efforts to bear fruit overnight. Just the same, some others have used this public health issue for their own ends.

Recently, we blogged on the rise of QAnon, a collection of conspiracy theories and theorists centering on the idea that there is a cabal involving top-level politicians, financiers, and politicians who are involved in child sex-trafficking. Whatever one’s political beliefs (and we have to note that although it is not our desire to enter the political fray), QAnon appears to have garnered considerable influence over the imagination of millions of people in and outside of the USA. As we write this blog, at least one influential commentator has apparently come to their defense. To be clear, our motivation in mentioning this is not to take sides in a political arena, but to point out how quickly the work of sexual abuse prevention can be unraveled even without any meaningful or credible evidence. Perhaps even more fascinating is that these kinds of beliefs have propagated after years of true-crime television programming highlighting the importance of forensic evidence. Whatever the case, empirically supported attempts to prevent child abuse are not being helped by the likes of QAnon.

In our opinion, it’s time to refine our beloved public health perspective with wisdom. Dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster define wisdom differently, with all definitions coalescing at a combination of knowledge, experience, and good judgment. Interestingly, these three points are reminiscent of the American Psychological Association’s definition of evidence-based practice, which includes the integration of the best available research, clinical expertise, and accommodation to the client’s unique characteristics (including culture).

Why do we also need a “public wisdom model” in addition to our health perspective? Simply put, because there are so many factors required to address sexual abuse as a public health as well as criminological problem. In the age of QAnon, when so many people no longer wish to defer to experts presenting data, we may need to re-brand what we have to offer as knowledge accumulated over years of work at the front lines as well that acquired through scientific study. Instead of using terminology such as “evidence-based practices” we can simply offer tools to communities for their own good judgment, based on the benefit of our shared knowledge and experience. We may also have to replace “here’s the evidence” with, “Here’s what meaningful evidence is and how it can make a difference to you and your loved ones.” In other words, we can offer translation of research and evidence to communities, because if people do not understand the content or the conversation in ways that appeal to them the message and practice will never get across. Wisdom is about being informed and knowledgeable but discussing it a plain-spoken fashion.

A public wisdom model could appeal both to our research and methods for prevention while relying on “what works” in knowledge transfer and implementation science. It could contain empirically supported approaches such as connecting with a community’s safety goals and offering information, all the while taking care not to appear as experts who need to be listened to. In addition to building itself on the principles of knowledge, education, and good judgment, it could also appeal to the good judgment that is inherent to all communities but often not heard in the pandemonium of media narratives

Perhaps the most important aspect of a public wisdom model is that in an era of distrust towards science and experts (for example, the science of political polling may be good, but few people trust it just as others do not trust vaccinations), those with real expertise need to take exceptional care in how we frame the message to others. Instead of implying that we are the experts who should be trusted, it’s time to discuss how we can communicate that we have the experience and knowledge to help communities make good judgments about the safety of their citizens. Therefore, as experts, we must play to our audience so that they can hear and respect what we are saying. It’s time for Muhammad to go to the mountain as the mountain is not coming to him.



Friday, January 22, 2021

Perpetration, Victimization, and Gender

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

Past editions of this blog have explored direct and indirect effects of sexual abuse on those who experience it. However, it can be difficult to quantify this impact; everyone responds to abuse differently, and one size never fits all.  While the individual impact of sexual abuse, varies with every incident, regardless of the gender, race, culture, or identity of the person who commits it. What we have seen over the years, however, is that who the perpetrator is can profoundly impact the narrative of the victim. This week the BBC published a story talking about how sexual abuse by females is still a taboo subject and that their victims do not get the support and help that they need. Unfortunately, this is all too true. 

Cross-culturally and transnationally we tend to have static views of people convicted of sexual offenses:  typically that they are deviant, abnormal, and an “other”—in other words not one of us. However, we know from research and practice that this is not true, as demonstrated by the prevalence of sexual abuse and the array of people arrested and convicted of it. We also see a gender divide in the way that we talk about people who commit sexual abuse with men often being predatory, violent, and aggressive. Females may be perceived as mentally and emotionally unwell, often portrayed as radically abnormal or victims unable to control their behavior. All of this adds up to an often-unspoken perception that the gender of the perpetrator matters in determining how damaging the abuse is to the victim/survivor.

This false distinction is made worse when we realize that the gender of the people victimized is perceived as mattering as well, with boys and young men often being viewed differently from girls and young women.  The media often presents stories about girls being groomed and manipulated by men for sex, whereas the same story with a female perpetrator may suggest that the boy initiated it, wanted it, or just got lucky. Ultimately, this skews the public’s perception of the role of gender, grooming, abuse, and the consequences of these issues by implying that boys are less damaged by female abusers than girls are by male abusers. This suggests that in terms of the perpetrator/victim relationship the female victim of a male perpetrator is more deserving of sympathy than the male victim of a female perpetrator. A false perception of who the real victims are is problematic in the reporting and conviction of people who commit sexual abuse, and their eventual treatment, because it means that boys will be less likely to report sexual abuse by a female and ultimately less likely to get the support they need. 

How do we fix this? How do we level the playing field so that all victimization and perpetration is seen for what it is, regardless of the gender of either party? More research is one place to start: Empirical studies are highly needed to feed an evidence-based discussion on the topic of female sexual abusers. Interestingly, a recent study emphasizes the lack of differences regarding the motivations, characteristics of the abuse, and the modus operandi of male and female teachers who have sexually abused students. Such insights may start changing our perception. But this is a slow process that may not have a tangible effect on this conversation for long. This is proven by the fact that empirical insights on the effect of female sexual abuse of boys have been there for a while now but are still too often ignored or forgotten.

One of the most important and simplest things that we can do is recognize the abuse for what it is and its impact upon the victim, not how the demographics of who the victim and the perpetrator are. It’s not that these factors do not matter, but the focus should be on the abuse. As individuals and communities, we must stop inferring additional contexts, issues, and reasons for abuse. We need to stop implying there’s any difference in what victims and perpetrators are “worthy” of our sympathy, help, and support. How do we do this? We listen, understand, and speak up. We treat all victims the same and we talk with and to them in a way that they want and can hear.