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.