Wednesday, June 29, 2022

We need to START enacting effective practices to prevent and report sexual abuse within institutions


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

Sexual abuse within institutions, whether big or small, is not a new phenomenon. It’s something that we have discussed on this blog before. Therefore, we are not going to re-tread old ground. In recent weeks both the Baptist Church and Hockey Canada have been hit with allegations and been levelled with criticism that they have not responded appropriately. This is agonizing for the community at large, but especially for professionals who want to help. These are the same professionals who ask for a seat at the table to inform policy, too often get rejected, and eventually see the same thing happen time and time again. In this blog post, we ask the question of why do things not change? Why does policy change, but not necessarily public attitudes, beliefs, or practice? As a society and as professionals, we need to ask ourselves, what does it take to change mindsets?

Our beliefs about the world are often ingrained in who we are, they are not hard wired but the older we get the more they are influenced and reinforced by social norms, culture, education, and personality. This does not mean that we cannot change our beliefs or behaviours, but it means that they are harder to change. If this is true of us as individuals, then it’s true if us at a community and societal level. Social and political change is hard regardless of the topic. 

The reality of social change is that it:

- needs to be personal to each individual and they must believe that they can make a difference.

- must focus on an issue that communities can come together on and feel inclusive in tackling; it needs to represent the ideas and beliefs of everyone and make people feel that a shared outcome is possible.

- needs to involve a groundswell across society allowing different communities to come together, contribute, and enact changes. Individuals need to feel that they can carry out society’s mandate for change in their own lives and communities with the understanding that everyone else is working towards the same goal.

Although the desire and drive to prevent, report, and respond to sexual abuse meets the above criteria, there are significant stumbling blocks along the way that have not been addressed, including:

- The perception of responsibility – This often looks like, “It’s an individual behavior that impacts others, but not me! It’s not up to me to police other behaviours and social change is too complicated for me to think about.”

- The reality of time – Some may be able to change attitudes and beliefs overnight, but this is not the case for everyone, especially if they do not perceive the topic as a problem. Real social change needs time and space to evolve and does not result from brief attempts to influence others. 

- The monitoring and enforcement of change – There are broader questions of who is monitoring what change, and how are they doing it? Is there discussion about what progress is happening, and how acceptable that progress is? This is particularly relevant when everyone and no-one owns the issue with the belief being someone else will monitor it. 

- The shared understanding of good practices – Making progress in any social change involves defining what good practices are and their relationship to the evidence base, especially when the evidence base is new, emerging, or non-existent. What do you implement? Who leads? Is there a single voice?

- The noise of “expertise” – Because sexual abuse is a broad area, there are many different voices. Some are positive and some negative. Who are these experts? How do you determine good from bad? How, do they align to your politics, culture, context, and location? How do we nurture an evolving consensus?

- The lived reality of sexual abuse – Given the scale and nature of sexual abuse, everyone reading this post knows several people who have experience sexual abuse (or have perpetrated sexual abuse) with an array of different outcomes. This means that we will hear stories of hope and stories of frustration and desperation. These stories can influence us for better or worse, leading to unrealistic hope or pessimism. As our friend and erstwhile co-blogger, Alissa Ackerman has observed, we are never more than a stone’s throw from a survivor of sexual abuse.

Therefore, what can we professionals do? 

- Perhaps the most important thing is to keep talking about it. We can meet, communicate, and discuss sexual abuse in shared forums.

- We can continue to identify the best practices we want to implement (as well as bad practices we want to eliminate) and expand our growing evidence base.

- We can maintain a realistic sense of what is achievable and set realistic times for their completion.

- In implementing new practices, we can appoint someone or some organisation to be in charge – to drive the bus, as it were – and make them hold us all to agreed actions and follow their judgements.

- We can agree that  we are changing social norms as well as individual actions and agree to continue to work on it in the short and the long term.

- We must continue to demand our place at the policy table and to intervene in public debates to bring and keep the nuanced, evidence- and practice-based vision in the conversation. 

50 years ago, there was almost no public discourse about sexual abuse and offending. People started talking and kept talking about the issues, resulting in a groundswell of support for change at a societal level. With that change came new challenges, involving not only our responses to offending, but the need to accept that we continue to have double standards. Ultimately, we need to help the public understand that this is about all of us.

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