Friday, March 25, 2022

The Complexities and Nuances in our Work

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

Over the last couple of weeks Kieran has been involved in several research and practice conversations about the complexity of the population that we work with. These conversations explored the need to recognize that most of the people we work with, including those who have been victimized and those who have committed sex crimes, have multiple risks and needs. Clearly, we need to recognize this diversity in formulating our responses to sex crimes. We have blogged about this before and our aim with this post is not to tread once again over old ground, but to reflect on how effective we are at recognizing and managing this complexity, especially in terms of our practices and contributions to policy making. 

Kieran’s recent conversations have focused on an independent inquiry into concerns expressed in the UK that police officers have fared poorly at recognizing and responding to child sexual exploitation. This is a challenging area because the children involved often have complex relationships with the police and the legal and child welfare systems more broadly, which further complicates outcomes (including reporting, investigations, and impact of these processes on youth). The reality is that we all need to consider our professional biases, the evidence we review, the measures that we use, and what we do with all the information we receive. To what extent do our mental shortcuts influence the health and wellbeing of others whom we influence? How can we get better at processing information and becoming more effective in our work?

The New York Times recently published a piece titled, “The Question Juror No. 50 in Ghislaine Maxwell’s Trial Should Never Have Been Asked.” This refers to jurors being asked whether or not they have been sexually victimized, with the presumption that they could not be impartial in their judgement. Once again, it seems that there are implicit beliefs about those with histories of victimization and a bias towards victims of sexual abuse without understanding the many ways that people understand, recover from, or grow wiser from their experiences. We have found ourselves questioning society’s biases regarding what a good victim should look like, including what they should do and how they should behave.

A similar thought can be made about senator Lindsey Graham’s recent statements during the hearing of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Jackson stated that the number of images of online child abuse viewed or distributed shouldn’t be considered in sentencing. She considers other risk management strategies, including substantial internet supervision, as a valid option. Senator Graham clearly didn’t agree and argued that the only way to deter these offenders from committing new crimes is by sending them to jail.

The above suggests that all too often, the public defaults to dichotomous ideas, such as that people who abuse others are purely evil, that those who are victimized have had their innocence stolen and are forever damaged. The reality is that these extremes, if they exist, are the exception. Human beings are complex and nuanced. Trauma is complex and nuanced. And rehabilitation is complex and nuanced. Therefore, our task can be to question how we can best understand and discuss these issues in a non-biased, informed, reflective manner?

While we certainly acknowledge that we can have biases of our own, we come back to principles we can follow, including:

  • recognizing complexity and understanding what it looks like in interviews, testimony, prosecution, policy, etc.; 
  • continuing to inform the public about the complexity;
  • continuing to respond to the black-and-white reasoning we hear from professionals and policymakers;
  • placing compassion and understanding at the center of our practice;
  • recognizing our own biases and frustrations, noting them when they emerge in our practice and being open to reflect upon them in a non-defensive way; and
  • informing our future professionals, through both formal training as well as informal conversations as well as support structures, about this complexity.

Maintaining an awareness of our own biases and a fluid conversation about harm and resilience can keep us out of ruts that can only hinder our effectiveness.


Friday, March 11, 2022

Redoubling the call to end violence against women and girls.

By Kieran McCartan, PhD, & David Prescott, LICSW

.International Women’s Day on Tuesday the 8th of March 2022 focused on “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”. The field of sexual abuse is often, and rightly, seen as a women’s issue as it tends to impact women more than men. However, this is a bit of a red herring as it’s really a community issue, usually committed by men against women and often underplayed, ignored, or even validated by some communities and groups. This is not to dismiss it as a women’s issue, but rather to expand the discussion and recognize it’s a social issue that we all need to respond to and work towards preventing, regardless of our gender. We all need to part of the conversation, because preventing violence against women and girls needs the engagement of men and boys.

The End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) is a coalition of more than 120 specialist women’s support services, researchers, activists, victims and survivors, and NGOs working to end violence against women and girls in all its forms. As part of International Women’s Day, EVAW produced a snapshot report documenting the extent of violence against women and girls in England and Wales. The report is a useful tool in highlighting the extent and nature of abuse currently, existing best practices, and the changes needed to respond  to it. While the report covers a range of violence against women and girls  (femicide, sexual abuse, domestic violence, online sexual abuse, abuse in public spaces, and others), our focus here is on sexual abuse and rape.  The report indicates that in England and Wales:

-          In the 12-month period ending in September 2021 sexual offences recorded by the police were the highest on record, at 170,973 offences, a 12% increase from the same period in 2020.  Rape accounted for 37% of these offences (63,136 offences).

-          2.9% of reported sexual offences and 1.3% of recorded rapes resulted in a charge or summons, which has fallen from the previous 12 months.

-          41% of rape victims and survivors withdrew their support for action through the criminal justice process and declined to pursue criminal charges.

-          The London Victims’ Commissioner’s 2021 London Rape Review also found that among those who allege rape or sexual assault to police, 65% withdrew support for the case, an increase of 7% in the last two years, with nearly two-thirds of London rape victims and survivors who drop their complaint doing so within a month of going to police, and the proportion of withdrawals tripling in two years.

-          Latest Office for National Statistics data show the disproportionality of sexual assault against minoritized and marginalised women with Black and mixed-race adults more likely to experience sexual assault than white or Asian adults.

-          Cases with white victims and survivors are 1.2 times more likely than Black victims and survivors to result in a charge, and 1.8 times more likely than when victims are Asian (6.7% vs. 3.7%).

-          10 police forces did not bring a single charge over the rape of a Black victim during the five-year period, despite recording 148 reports between them.

-          Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) investigation into police officers who abuse their position for a sexual purpose has shown a sharp rise in reported cases in the past three years, with this form of abuse now comprising the single largest form of police corruption they encounter.

-          After the launch of the Everyone’s Invited, 16,000+ testimonials of sexual abuse in schools were shared from girls as young as 11 years old. The testimonials named 10% of all the schools in England. Following these revelations, Ofsted launched a review that found 9 out of 10 girls had experienced sexist name calling and 92% of girls had been sent unsolicited explicit pictures or videos.

-          Girlguiding’s 2021 Girls’ Attitudes Survey found that 19% of girls aged 11-16 and 33% aged 17-21 said they had been sent unwanted sexual images online in the last year, and 9% of girls aged 13-16 said they felt pressure to share images of themselves that they’re not comfortable with.

The report highlights that there is still a lot of work needed to respond and prevent violence against women and girls. At first reading, the report is disheartening and frustrating, but it paints a realistic picture of nature of abuse in England and Wales. The report demonstrates that we must do more, and offers a number of recommendations, some of which are familiar (i.e., a multi-year, well-resourced public attitudes campaign to end violence against women and girls; a strategic investment to end abuse; far-ranging reform to the criminal justice system’s approach to this abuse; a victims’ bill that responds to the diversity of victims and survivors’ experiences with greater rights and entitlements), some of which are ongoing (i.e., ratification of the Istanbul Convention; An online safety bill that comprehensively tackles online abuse), and some of which are innovative (i.e., effective protection and support for migrant women; support for schools to implement a whole school approach). Because it enshrines a community based approach, we would like to highlight a human rights approach to violence against women and girls, as a key, essential argument in the prevention (and the cornerstone of the Istanbul Convention), as the right to live without fear of sexual abuse and violence is a vital human right for all women and girls in England Wales, as well as globally.

The prevention of violence against women and girls is everyone’s responsibility.  While the London Victims’ Commissioner’s report focused on England and Wales, the reality is that these are issues everywhere. While different countries may have different abuse rates, as well as different attitudes, behaviours, and reporting mechanism, it is safe to say that we all need to improve our responses and prevention activities. Sexual abuse exists everywhere globally, and it’s time for the global community to step up with appropriate responses to this women’s health and human rights issue. 

Friday, March 4, 2022

Bearing Witness to Suffering.

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

The events of this past week have been tragic beyond description. The Putin-led attack on Ukraine has caused further global fear and anxiety at a time when so many of us have felt wrung out from two years of the pandemic. Of course, all of these current circumstances rest on top of other concerns shared by many and discussed publicly over recent years, such as climate change, racial discrimination, and disparities, and the list goes on. Could things get any more complicated than they are? Maybe it’s better not to ask.

These events have affected many of us very deeply. As with other topics we’ve blogged about, current events extend far beyond the scope of this blog and our abilities to discuss authoritatively. These events also present a dilemma for us: Attempts to discuss them will almost certainly fall short, and yet not acknowledging them would be tantamount to turning a blind eye to suffering. Most assuredly, in one way or another, we are all bearing witness to suffering.

The fact is that many of us spend our days listening to narratives of abuse, from police reports and impact statements to disclosures of offending and of adversity in the backgrounds of clients. We then read news about people on the other side of the world in similar circumstances. There are images of people huddled underground in subway stations with backpacks and pets in the news and we catch up with loved ones deeply affected by the pandemic. Along the way we may feel guilty because others we know have it worse.

It only makes sense that with this most recent news we take the time to collectively acknowledge the stress and even the parallel processes of abuse on our caseload and in the community. So what can we do? We may be surrounded by suffering, but can we also bear witness to hope?

We certainly have no magic solutions, but we do hope to invite dialogue. What we are aware of is:

Professionals in our field care deeply about ending abuse. Our best resources include the fact that we are in this together — in the same boat and same storm. There can be relief in simply knowing this. We may disagree on some things, but we are truly united in this. We can find shelter with one another.

Many of us are professional listeners. We understand the difference between listening with a goal of understanding and other, lesser forms of listening, such as waiting for an opportunity to try to be helpful, to respond, or even to interrupt. It is easy to forget how curative being listened to can be.

In addition to listening, it important that we are considerate communicators. It is important that we communicate our ideas, understandings, and opinions in the most effective, caring, and compassionate way to the people around us. Sometimes this is about falling back on our professional training, but more often it’s about common sense and reading the room. This means that we cannot simply be on “auto-pilot” we need to be engaged and present.

Much is made of activities such as yoga, meditation, rest, exercise, and nutrition. This often comes with the price tag of feeling that maybe if we’d done more of these things, we wouldn’t feel the grief and anxiety that we do at any given moment. These are the times when we can remember that grief and anxiety come to us all and that we have an opportunity to practice many of the same skills we teach to our clients. It can also help to remember that even a few minutes of deliberate self-care can create hours of relief under the right circumstances.

Finally, it can be enormously helpful to choose self-care activities that help us be our best when we get back in the game. What talents and skills do we have in our lives that can be helpful to others? The person who enjoys cooking might help others to cook, while the person with a dedicated meditation practice might help others to meditate. Sometimes it’s as simple as giving blood simply to help someone we will never meet; generosity is also curative. It often seems that in the rush and stresses of daily life, we often forget all the things we have to offer one another. The most important piece to remember is that self-care looks different for everyone. We understand that our clients are individuals and need different responses and engagement, so we would do well to remember that we as professionals and our support systems do, too. Have understanding, not expectations.

Each reader will have additional ideas and we would love to hear them. We may have challenges, but we also have the know-how, and we have hope