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.


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