Thursday, February 24, 2022

Giving Back: Reflections on People Who Have Abused Supporting Those Who Have Been Harmed

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

Prince Andrew recently settled out of court in the civil case brought forward by Victoria Giuffre. The accompanying statement indicated that Andrew would provide support by "fighting against the evils of sex trafficking, and by supporting its victims." This resulted in condemnation and concern from sexual abuse charities with the implication that this was a tone deaf and inappropriate response. This raises questions about how those who abuse can offer support and give back to victims of sexual abuse or exploitation. This blog post is not a commentary on whether Prince Andrew is guilty or the legitimacy of his out-of-court settlement, but rather whether it is possible for people accused or convicted of a sexual offense to give back, assist professional practice, or support victims in their ongoing recovery?

The conversation about people accused or convicted of sexual abuse making reparations is often seen as a controversial one, with many in the public and some charities/NGO’s believing that punishment is the only appropriate route. This is a challenge, as a significant amount of sexual abuse and exploitation cases never get to court much less end in a prison sentence. This, in turn, begs the question of what comes next for accountability for their actions and how best to make reparations.

Historically, there have been conversations about the role of restorative justice (also controversial) as an alternative or additional approach to traditional criminal justice. Within the restorative justice framework, recognition, accountability, and restoration are among the most important components; the person accused or convicted of a sexual offense offers insights to their behavior and acknowledge the impact that it has had on the victim. While this is one way that people accused or convicted of a sexual offense can give back, it is a very individualized one based on the inclination of the two individuals involved and the benefits of the intervention being most directly felt by the people involved. Therefore, how do we broaden the conversation beyond the individual and the interpersonal, to make it as much about community and society?

Andrew’s suggestion was that he could support those who have been victimized from a more top-down position with a broader impact. What does that actually mean? Is that working directly with a charity, being on a board of directors, setting up a new charity, or providing a funding pot for victim services or campaigns (all of which he is well able to do given his wealth and position)? It is interesting that his ideas all seem to have his name attached to them. There has apparently been no consideration of helping anonymously or in some other quietly humble way.

Andrew’s response will be watched and commented on, but the reality is that most people accused or convicted of a sexual offense do not have the same reach or resources that he does, so how do they give back?  Some clear steps for anyone giving back and supporting people who have been harmed by sexual abuse include:

Acknowledge: Anyone accused or convicted of a sexual offense who wants to support victims, their families or the wider community has to recognize what they have done and made their piece with it. This is essential because throughout the process of giving back they may need to recognize their behavior, the issues with it, and how they can move on and support people in doing the same.

Accept: It is important to accept that the victim, their support network, related organizations, and the broader community’s, as well as society’s response to the offense that you have been accused or convicted of is out of your control. It is important to go into the process of giving back with an open mind that is not defensive and recognizes that you may be criticized, not accepted, and not forgiven.

Recognize: The most important piece of giving back is to recognize the victim and their wishes, whether they want the people accused or convicted of a sexual offense to give anything back. If the timing and the messaging is not right, then it is important to step back and not force the issue.

Manage: It is important to manage expectations around what the giving back looks like in terms of content, message, timing, and involvement. This needs to be an ongoing process that moves at the pace of the victim and their representatives.

Message: It is important to get the tone of the message and involvement right. Engagement and giving back is not about enabling the person accused or convicted of a sexual offense to feel good about themselves or to feel that they have “done their bit”. Rather is about the victim, or the victim’s organization, what they want and what they need. This can be challenging as the message maybe very different from different perspectives.

Collaborate: In giving back and supporting victims the process needs to move beyond the individuals affected, it needs to be part of a wider prevention and rehabilitation response. This means understanding the socio-political and service landscape so that messaging can be used appropriately. This means that the voice of the person who has been abused needs to be recognized, framed, and progressed accordingly.

Be open to opportunities: The changing narratives around sexual abuse, prevention, and responses, mean that new funding, research, and collaborative opportunities are opening. Some if these may look and feel familiar where others may not. They may feel uncomfortable and challenging. It is important to embrace these opportunities so that people at risk of victimization and perpetration can learn from the experience of the person accused or convicted of a sexual offense. It is important to state that in helping or working with current victims we can help and safeguard against future victimization.

The role of people accused or convicted of sexual offenses giving back and supporting those who have been victimized is not an easy one, nor a decision to be made lightly. It needs careful thought and consideration and must be done in a thoughtful, considerate, and appropriate fashion. While Prince Andrew’s offer may have failed to ignite a positive response, this may be a fault of the messaging, more to do with the tone, nature, and implied ego and intrusiveness of it.


Friday, February 18, 2022

What’s in (another) name?

By David S. Prescott, LICSW

In the early 2000s, I was fortunate to become friends with Jan Hindman, who had taken part in many of the original professional activities that led to the establishment of ATSA. In her inimitable style, when interviewed on her role in the history of ATSA, she referred to herself as having been “the first vagina on the board.” Jan was friendly, loving, funny, and above all never turned her focus away from the suffering of those who had been abused. She used to wonder aloud what people who have survived abuse would make of our field. She often said the words, “Victims are watching.” It was a reference to the importance of carrying out our work in a manner that is sensitive to the experiences of vulnerable people and not passing them by as we seek ever-more-accurate diagnoses and assessment tools.

Of course, given the rates of victimization in the histories of those who have abused, it’s safe to say that practitioners are not strangers to working with people who have endured extreme adversity and caused harm. However, those who split their practice between those who perpetrate and those who have been harmed often describe how challenging the work can be.  Bearing witness to suffering is hard work, and so is shifting one’s focus from perpetration in some clients to anguish in others and then back again.

Fast forward a few years and in the title of a now classic article, Gwenda Willis asked, “Why call them by what we don’t want them to be?” Her article focuses on the ethics of labeling people rather than their actions. Likewise, Willis and Letourneau (2014) wrote on the importance of accurate and respectful language. These articles played a direct role in policy shifts in multiple areas.  ATSA’s journal, Sexual Abuse, suggests that authors use person-first language. This has been the subject of other blogs and articles, and the practice of person-first language has been commonplace in the adolescent arena of practice for many years. It needs no further substantive review here, except to note that many professionals have asked whether there isn’t a new term to describe those who sexually abuse others. Unfortunately, replacing one term with another simply ends up with further reductions in accuracy, as noted above.

Inside our field and even more so outside of it, person-first language is becoming more commonplace. Interestingly, we have not seen this same focus on accuracy and respect actively applied to those who have been harmed. While many of us have tried to develop new writing skills and habits, it is still very common to hear the term “victim” used, although the APA has recently offered guidance on inclusive language.

We are not the first to notice that people who have been sexually abused frequently do not like being called “victims.” A common objection is “I don’t want to be defined by the worst thing that ever happened to me.” Many prefer the term “survivor,” while many don’t. Worse, professionals working with individuals who have committed egregious crimes are aware that not everyone who is abused actually does survive. Discussions of terminology can be highly contentious and rightfully so; we’re discussing deeply personal matters and people rarely agree on everything.

Language, of course, is constantly evolving. In the current era, it can be common to hear people using the term “victim” in pejorative ways (accusing others of “playing the victim,” or of contributing to a “culture of victimhood,” etc.). In a discussion in the development of this post, co-blogger Kasia Uzieblo observed that the Dutch word for victim is “slachtoffer.” A client described how she and others hate this word because of its linguistic origins (slacht-offer translates as slaughter-sacrifice). If there is any comfort in this, it’s that all languages seem to struggle with these issues.

Nevertheless, it seems only respectful to extend the same courtesy of using person-first language to everybody and to ask whether there is particular language that they prefer. At a time in society when respect and accuracy often go missing from discourse, this can be a good place to start.

Friday, February 11, 2022

A call for compassionate leadership.

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

There is a crisis in leadership! This seems like a sweeping statement, but unfortunately, it’s not. In fact, it seems to be getting worse. Over the last few weeks, we have seen very poor leadership being demonstrated on the international and national stages, which has led us to worry about the lack of insight and compassion present in these people as well as in the system. Some examples include:

The repeated failures in the leadership of the Metropolitan police (the police force of Greater London), where there has been more evidence mounting of misogyny, racism, bulling, rape culture, and a lack of respect for victims and their families. This has been compounded by the fallout from the Sarah Everard murder, which was perpetrated during lockdown by a serving police officer. Further, Cressida Dick, the lead police officer, did not take action to remedy matters or even, some would say, recognise the need for change. Overnight, Cressida Dick has resigned as head of the Met Police, but she stated that this was because the mayor of London has lost confidence in her and not because she failed to do her job effectively or recognize the scale of the issues and her ability to respond to them.

-        A recent statement by Boris Johnson, the embattled UK Prime Minister, that Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition, was responsible for not prosecuting Jimmy Savile when he was director of Public Prosecutions. This was proven not to be the case; Starmer was not directly responsible. However, Starmer was mobbed and harassed outside of Parliament as a result of Johnson’s statement. This situation, in turn, has led to calls for Johnson to apologize and retract the statement, which he has done only in part. The anger raised by Johnson’s statement has led to members of his team resigning and condemnation from his own party as well as victims’ charities. Johnson’s statement has been seen a political move that has backfired.

All of these are examples of poor, tone-deaf leadership. They show that we need to have a more rounded, inclusive, and compassionate approach to the issue of sexual abuse and sexual violence, and that this change needs to come from leadership. The idea of compassionate leadership is not a new one, but it feels like a more salient and pressing one now. It:

“…begins with self-compassion so that by attending to yourself, understanding the challenges you face in your own work (and life more generally), empathising or caring for yourself, and then taking wise action to help yourself, you are able to stay close to the core values that give our lives  and work meaning – compassion, wisdom, courage, justice – we are able to have deeper, more authentic and more effective interactions with all those we work with and offer care for” (Professor Michael West)

Compassion leadership is about taking a trauma-informed approach to management across all levels of an organisation so that staff, service users, and partners see that leadership recognises the legacies and impact of trauma, especially when working with complex and nuanced groups. Compassionate leadership embodies the need to lead from a place of understanding, reflection, and adaption; one where all parts of the organisation are open, and able, to adapt their practice from the good of their staff and service users’ wellbeing. Compassionate leadership embodies the principles of trauma-informed practice and involves leaders demonstrating the skills, attitudes, and behaviours that they want from their organisations. It means that leaders need to hold a mirror up to themselves, and their organisations, so that they can be held accountable and change. The examples provided above do not embody compassionate leadership. Instead, they demonstrate that the two leaders, Cassandra Dick and Boris Johnson, are not understanding what their actions and organisations have caused. They are not reflecting upon these and changing in a caring as well as considerate way. They are demonstrating that the status quo matters more, and that current practice needs to be maintained. The public would be better off if they reflected on their behaviour, their leadership, and the challenges within the organisation that allows bad practice to continue. Further, they need to develop a rounded, insightful approach that allows change to happen. The first step for any compassionate leader is to recognise the issue, their role in it, and reflect as well as apologise. If our leaders cannot be reflective and compassionate, how can we expect the organisations that they are?

In contrast and returning for a moment to last week's blog on transgressive behaviour at the University of Brussels: For a while there was radio silence from the leadership, while in the media there was a huge storm and witch hunts for professors who had crossed boundaries. We even began to wonder if this silence was disturbing or if it was a good thing. Just today we - as employers - have received a message from our rector in which she accepts responsibility, but also makes clear what lessons were learned and what steps they will take in the future to pay more attention to the needs of victims and improve their communication to victims. It can be done; leaders are able to switch to thinking slow and take thoughtful actions in the right direction.


Thursday, February 3, 2022

How we all too easily slip into public attacks and evade the real challenges.

 By Kasia Uzieblo*, Maaike Blok*, David Prescott, & Kieran McCartan 

*Board members of NL-ATSA, the Dutch Affiliation of ATSA

On 20 January 2022, a YouTube program called “BOOS” (Dutch word for angry) was aired in which several contestants of the Dutch talent show “The Voice of Holland” testified about sexual misconduct when participating in the show.  The hit TV show “The Voice of Holland” turned out not only to be a popular talent show but was suddenly also depicted as a cesspool of sexually transgressive behaviour.  An overview: two reports of rape, two reports of sexual assault (one of which involved a minor) and 34 reports of sexually transgressive behaviour, including groping, unwanted sexual comments and indecent pictures sent. The alleged suspects are coaches, a bandleader, and a director. Following these allegations, the bandleader has confessed to sexually transgressive behavior; at the time of our writing the others deny the allegations made against them. Although no accusation has yet been substantiated by police investigations, the many signs of transgressive behaviour are worrying.

On 27 January 2022, it was Belgium’s turn to discover that also a university is not free from (sexually) transgressive behaviour. The Vrije Universiteit Brussel (University of Brussels), the university to which the first author is affiliated, fired a professor after "several reports of, inter alia, transgressive behaviour", including sexually transgressive behaviours and abuse of power. In the course of 2020, the reports came in and an internal, thorough investigation was started. After the procedure, the person in question was fired at the end of 2021.

The two events mentioned above caused quite a stir in Belgium and the Netherlands. NL-ATSA wanted to respond to these events, so we wrote a blog in Dutch. But a bad feeling came over us when we were writing the blog. It seemed that once again, we were making the same comments and recommendations. Again, we had to point out that it does not help to describe perpetrators of sexually transgressive behaviour as monsters, and we had to fight against victim-blaming tendencies on social media and other venues. In other words, we were writing a blog that we have written several times before, with only the occasion as the big difference. This awareness led to frustration among the authors of the blog: Why do we always seem to have to press that repeat button? Does it matter what we say at all? Will it ever change? What can we still add to the debate? A writer’s block was imminent. But we did not give up and decided to reflect on the questions: What does this case teach us? And are we focusing on the right questions in the social debate?

The cases show that no institution or structure is immune from transgressive behaviour and that eliminating such behaviour altogether is a very difficult task, and perhaps even an unachievable goal. This is especially true if we continue to focus only on the individuals and do not include the broader context in the societal debate and our prevention policies that continues to make the abuse and culture of silence possible. Or as the rector of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel put it: “it is a collective responsibility. In that respect, too, we must move from MeToo to WeToo.” But no matter how tempting it is now to start promoting the hashtag #metoo or #wetoo, adding an emblem to our Facebook profile, or fulminating on social media, this is not going to solve the problem. By contrast, thinking critically about how you as an individual and as an institution can contribute to the prevention of violence, and acting effectively on it, can help to move a mountain.

What will not help is shaming people who were working on these issues internally or who are expected to help prevent such behaviours from ever happening again, taking into account that we as outsiders have only a partial view of what has been said and done by these individuals. The reactions of the men/women at charge very quickly became the focus of the social debate, with both being pilloried for their reaction or lack of reaction. John de Mol, the creator of the format of “The Voice” and the big boss of the Dutch series until the end of 2019, was attacked for saying among others: "We have to get women to sound the alarm immediately" and “I hope that it doesn’t have a big impact on the rest of these people’s lives, that they can give it a place. And that they should be an example to others in the future. If it ever happens to them again, that hopefully they have learned to raise the alarm immediately, to report it immediately, so that the culprits can be dealt with sooner and so that they can no longer do this to others.” John de Mol was immediately criticized for putting the full responsibility on the women and for victim blaming. The rector of the university, Caroline Pauwels, was criticized because she wanted to handle the case discreetly and avoid excessive media attention and public pillories, and thus – according to her – protect the victims and the perpetrator as well as their immediate surroundings. She also stipulated that “We are a university, not a judiciary. And even in a state of law, people get a second chance.” Caroline Pauwels was reproached for not making it clear enough (mainly on the public platform) that sexual abuse did not belong at the university and for having concluded a settlement agreement with the perpetrator.

Have both then (re)acted correctly? Probably not (entirely). Could they have reacted differently? Probably. Surely. At least, that’s our assessment in hindsight. The Voice case shows that some people are still ignorant about abuse of power and sexual abuse, and lack a  proper understanding of the underlying mechanisms and victims’ behaviour. But apart from that, these cases show that we keep on struggling with such phenomena, and that it is not easy to respond appropriately. It shows that finding the right words and the right tone is difficult. It also shows that finding the right course of action is difficult. Discretion is quickly seen as an attempt to cover things up. Complete transparency is demanded very quickly and uncritically. A lack of quick reaction is quickly labelled as evidence of a conspiracy. In other words, we are very quick to judge how others should have reacted in such situations. In doing so, we often overlook the complex decision-making processes, ignore the fact that it is always easy to judge afterwards, and related to that, we easily forget that we all exhibit the tendency to overestimate our ability to have predicted a certain outcome.

Are we not allowed to take a critical view of these reactions? Of course we are. More than that, we must remain critical and attentive. But shouting and ranting in the (social) media, accusing, and nailing all those involved, directly or indirectly, to public scaffolds is not the solution. We must strive for a constructive, and above all, solution-oriented debate to see what has gone well AND what can be improved. And indeed, there are points for improvement. For instance, facilitating help-seeking behaviour in victims (and in perpetrators) clearly requires much more than setting up various hotlines. We also need to see how we can be more responsive to victims, whose needs may also vary throughout the disclosure and investigation process (e.g., from a need for mere recognition to a need for punishment and rectification). In order to prevent such cases, we also need to explore more in depth how we can teach people to recognize their own abuses of power and transgressive behaviours and how we can urge them to react appropriately when they come to that realization. Also, despite all the programs, trainings, and campaigns, it remains difficult to bystanders to pick up signals of abuse and to know how and when to react. How can we solve all these (and other) issues? These are the conversations we need to have, in the media, in institutions, in living rooms, in practice, and in research. And not the mere finger pointing. For this too is a way of evading your own responsibility in this debate and in this collective search for a solution against (sexual) violence.