Thursday, October 14, 2021

The importance of trusting the system – and of having trustworthy systems – in cases of sexual abuse.

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

Working to prevent sexual abuse is a difficult and challenging endeavour. The nature(s) of sexual offending is complex and difficult for people to comprehend at times – why would someone rape? Or sexually assault a child? Professionals in the field often hear that people who commit sexual abuse are mad, bad, or sad, and some of them are, but not all. As we have discussed over many years, sexual abuse is common in society, too common for the people who commit it to be abnormal, random strangers.

People who sexual abuse live and work in our communities and are often people we know. This can present challenges for us as communities, since sexual abuse is so common it has been normalized in some quarters (for example, see previous blog posts regarding abuse within religious institutions, sports, and university campuses). This is not acceptable and should never be.

The seeming acceptability of sexual abuse weakens victims’ motivation to seek justice and get support; they often feel that they will not be heard and will not get what they need from the criminal justice system. In the UK, this has often been the case with police not always investigating cases or pushing cases to the Crown Prosecution Service. In the end, victims feel unheard, unsupported, and disenfranchised.

Over the last couple of months suspicion towards the legal system has gotten worse with the prosecution of Wayne Couzens, a serving police officer, who abducted, raped, and murdered Sarah Everard in London and the Met (London’s police force) response to the case. One wonders whether trust at the institutional level can be rebuilt and what are the consequences for female victims of sexual abuse if they do trust the system, the police, or society to take the offence seriously.

Although it hasn’t received much coverage in the US, the Everard case has galvanized the UK. Sarah Everard was walking alone, home from a friend’s house in London early this year during the height of the national lockdown when she was stopped by Wayne Couzens a serving (but off duty) police officer, who “arrested” her under COVID-19 legislation. He convinced her to get into his “unmarked police car”, which was a rental car, where drove her out of London, raped, and murdered her. The footage was caught on CCTV as was additionally footage of his movements and behaviour.

As the case unfolded, it turned out that Couzens had a history of misogyny, engaging with prostitutes, exposing himself to strangers, and other antisocial behaviour that the police where aware of but did nothing about. It became public during his sentencing (he received a life sentence) that colleagues knew about his actions and referred to him as the “rapist”.

There were warning signs. The response from the Met police force stopped short of a rogue case explanation, but we know that’s not true, as there have been other cases of serving and retired police officers engaging in sexually inappropriate and sexually abusive be haviour. The real is issue for the police is that they did not acknowledge his worrying behaviour which then gives the impression that they do bot take sexual abuse seriously. To make matters worse the Met suggested that women who did not feel safe being stopped by a police officer should be “shouting out to a passerby, running into a house, knocking on a door, waving a bus down or, if you are in the position to do so, calling 999.” This response has been criticized across the board and is seen as the ultimate example of the problem, it suggests that the Met police force does not think that it needs to change, does not take responsibility for what happened, and (again) suggests that victims are responsible for their own safeguarding. This case has has completely undermined trust in the police in the UK and makes victims less likely to report sexual abuse cases, and if they do make them less likely to pursue convictions.

What should the Met have done? How can they rebuild trust and accountability? There are several enquiries going on currently into what was known by who, for how long and what was, or was not, done about it. But these all take too long and there needs to be a short/medium term response. The police need to:

-       Admit that they mishandled the case.

-      Accept that there are issues with members of the police, the same way that there are members of any organisation, and pledge to do more about it internally.

-      Consider how they assess potential candidates to the police as well as monitor and check in with serving officers.

-      Recognize their severe public relations problem and spend time in communities finding out what their perceptions of the police and surrounding expectations are as well as how they can change them.

-      Confront misogyny within the police, the way that they have started to deal with race and ethnicity, and develop realistic standards hat officers must attend to.

While we recognize that there are good and proactive police officers and that this case is a rare, extreme example it does highlight that there needs to be more done around misogyny, sexism, and attitudes to sexual abuse within the police. Victims need to know that they will be supported by the police and that reporting sexual abuse is more than a paper exercise.


Thursday, October 7, 2021

ATSA 2021 Conference

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

Last week, for the second year, the ATSA annual conference took place virtually. Although the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be gradually stabilizing, it continues to surround us and has had a deep impact on conference experiences. Although travel is starting up again, international travel is still challenging, meaning that conference attendance is reduced, particularly for international delegates. The 2021 online platform has evolved from last year’s version: It has become more accessible, with more resources and more presentations. All things considered, the ATSA conference team was able to accomplish much more this year.

Some attendees will note some technology glitches such as occasional sound issues and confusion with surveys. In our view, glitches are part of the conference experience. David, for example, recalled the time a workshop room in a conference was flooded and the day’s sessions had to be relocated. On other occasions, there have been times when a presenter’s microphone would end up connected to the PA system in the next room. Add to that the other logistical challenges that can occur, and the only thing missing was the unanticipated meetings of old and new friends in the hallways of conference venues. As we recently blogged, there are good reasons we look forward to in-person conferences. This was the best alternative possible.

In contrast to last year, all the talks and workshops being captured and made available on-demand as the time difference was a significant challenge for international attendees. The conference had a full day of pre-con sessions on Wednesday with the conference proper happening on Thursday and Friday. There were two plenary addresses (Mark Olver and Michiel de Vries RobbĂ© first, followed by Jill Levenson) and over 72 workshop sessions with over 100 individual presentations, 20 poster presentations, online discussion/interest groups, an exhibition hall, chat lounge, online bookstore, and a virtual hospitality suite. A pre-recorded awards ceremony congratulating the Pre-Doctoral Research Grant Recipients (Emily Calobrisi, Christian Mannfolk, Lee Vargen, Anna Vasaturo), the ASA Fellows (12 in total this year), the distinguished contribution award (Jacqueline Page), and career achievements of Ron Langevin, who (among other achievements) started the journal that became today’s Sexual Abuse.  

The platform was easy to access and navigate, with the on-demand function allowing people to attend as many workshops as possible after the fact, which is particularly relevant for international delegates because of the time difference (for instance, Kieran is based in the UK and eight hours ahead and Kasia is based in Belgium, a full nine hours ahead). Additionally, it means that attendees can view as many workshops as they please, as the on-demand service is available for 30 days after the end of the conference. What follows are some of our individual conference highlights.

David was particularly impressed by the format of the Tuesday members-only plenary address, which featured James Cantor interviewing and interacting with Ainslie Heasman, Craig Harper, and Rob Olver. The discussion was lively, the pace was engaging, and the information would not have been available in any other format.

One of the most obvious highlights was the improved poster presentations and sessions, being able to watch the video footage, view the poster, and have an online Q&A with the authors was brilliant. Attendees felt that they could experience these sessions at their own pace, take them in, and not feel rushed. This is part of the online conference experience that improved upon the in-person version. As such, it begs the question, do we need to adapt the traditional poster sessions?

In sum, ATSA 2021, delivered remotely, was a well-oiled machine that learned from 2020’s experience. The ATSA staff and conference team did a brilliant job of pulling together a successful conference, in an innovative way, that allowed the ATSA family to reconnect in troubling times. Although many of us long to see our international colleagues back, many also indicate that these online editions made attending possible given that they couldn’t afford to travel before. These new attendees beg ATSA to organize another online conference or a hybrid conference. So, as we look to ATSA 2022 we start to think about what that holds, with a preliminary announcement that it will be in person in Los Angeles, but will it all be in person or a hybrid approach?