Friday, October 21, 2022

Outcomes from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in the England & Wales


By Kieran McCartan, PhD.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICCSA) has released its final report, in which it outlines the scale and nature of Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation in England and Wales. The IICSA was created by Teresa May, MP, in her role as Home Secretary. Over the 7 years that it was in existence, its role was to understand the roles and responsibilities of government, state, and private institutions duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation, and why they failed to do so. Over its life the inquiry held more than 300 days of public hearings, processed over two million pages of evidence, heard from over 700 witnesses, and engaged with over 7,000 victims and survivors. The Inquiry, through 15 investigations identified, as the Australian Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse (2013 – 2017) had before it, that:

  • “Child sexual abuse and exploitation takes many forms including contact and non-contact offences.
  • Children, particularly those who are sexually exploited, are often degraded and abused by multiple individuals.
  • Historically, inadequate measures were in place to protect children from the risk of being sexually abused – sometimes there were none at all.
  • Children were believed to be lying when they tried to disclose their experiences of abuse.
  • Those who had been victimized were frequently blamed as being responsible for their own sexual abuse.
  • Within statutory agencies with direct responsibility for child protection, there was too little emphasis on the complex and highly skilled work of child protection. Decisions about children were not unequivocally based on the paramount interests of the child.
  • Multi-agency arrangements still lack focus on child protection.
  • There is still not enough support available to both child and adult victims and survivors.
  • Child sexual abuse is not a problem consigned to the past, and the explosion in online-facilitated child sexual abuse underlines the extent to which the problem is endemic within England and Wales.
  • The devastation and harm caused by sexual abuse cannot be overstated – the impact of child sexual abuse, often lifelong, is such that everyone should do all they can to protect children.
  • Finally, this is not just a national crisis, but a global one.”
The IICSA reinforces current research on Child Sexual Abuse and Sexual Exploitation, as will as reiterating the changes that need to be made in policy and practice with an emphasis on prevention, reporting, multi-agency collaboration, and a call for greater community engagement. The Inquiry has made 20 recommendations in this report which are too detailed to go into in this blog, therefore will select a few to highlight:

  • The UK government should collect a single database on all data collected in respect to child sexual abuse and exploitation.
  •  The development of Child Protection Authorities for England and for Wales which work to improve child protection practices.
  • Creation of a cabinet minister for Children, which is significant as they would have a government portfolio for child safeguarding and protection.
  •  Improving compliance with the statutory duty to notify the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS). (DBS helps employers in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland make safe recruiting decisions and prevents unsuitable people from working with vulnerable individuals).
  • There should be an extension of the disclosure regime to those working with children overseas.
  •   Increase Pre-screening to require regulated providers of internet search services and user-to-user services to pre-screen for known child sexual abuse before material is uploaded. 
  • Increase Mandatory reporting of Child Sexual Abuse and Sexual Exploitation.
  • Increase specialist therapeutic support for child victims of sexual abuse
  • Introduce a code of practice on keeping and accessing records which relate to child sexual abuse.
  • The development of a single redress scheme for victims and survivors of child sexual abuse and exploitation.
  • The UK government should change the law to make sure that internet companies that provide online internet services and social media introduce better ways to check children’s ages.

The recommendations highlighted here reflect ongoing discussions in the fields of sexual abuse prevention, risk management, public safety, and reintegration. A lot of them are not new and have been discussed previously, like greater regulation of the internet and age verification, often not reaching a satisfactory conclusion or agreement. The creation of the policy roles and organisations is important in developing as well as maintaining other recommendations like the creation of a single database, better use of DBS checks and greater regulation, as well as compliance. However, the biggest gauntlet laid down is around the expectation that all suspected child sexual abuse and exploitation is reported, recorded, and (potentially) investigated which will place a range of services under pressure. The investigation of suspected Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation is important, and necessary but it means that that the services that do this (i.e., police, social care, social work, etc) need the resources to do this in an appropriate and systematic fashion needs resources, which at the current moment with the looming financial crisis and potential cuts to public services will be a challenge. All these recommendations will take significant political commitment. This will be quite challenging in the UK now having lost its 2nd Prime Minster in less than two months. Hopefully seven years of work has not landed at the wrong time and on deaf ears; this report is significant needs to change the child protection landscape but whether it will remain to be seen.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

We Have So Much Knowledge. When Will We Learn?

By David. S. Prescott, LICSW, McCartan, K. f., PhD, & Kasia Uzieblo, PhD

Two news items caught our attention this week.

The first is an article published this month by The Lawyer’s Daily in Canada. It describes how Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) has been defunded over time in Canada. One of the better-researched approaches to reducing re-offense, especially among high-risk individuals re-entering the community from prison. Ironically, CoSA began in Canada; the story of its origins is inspiring. However, as the article notes:

CoSA was funded by the government of Canada for 15 years starting in 2000. Its annual budget has never exceeded $2 million, compared to the $5 billion Canadian governments spend each year on jails and prisons. Moreover, the public and private costs of a single serious sexual assault have been estimated by Public Safety Canada as being several hundred thousand dollars. 

Despite this, funding for CoSA was terminated by the Harper government in 2015. In 2017 the federal government again provided funding of about $1.5 million per year to support 15 sites across the country that provided circles for approximately 300 people with sex offence convictions. 

This funding expired in March 2022 and has not been renewed. As a result, all four CoSA sites in Atlantic Canada and Quebec have been forced to go on hiatus and three sites in Saskatchewan have cut back programming. Our sites in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Ontario are preparing for reduction or closure if sustainable funding is not secured in the next six months.

The international research evidence supporting CoSA is good. A quick glance at the finances above shows just how cost-effective it can be in helping Core Members successfully integrate into society and learn to manage their desistance journeys, and therefore risk of reoffending. The evidence for keeping people in prison until their mandatory release date is very poor, and the high financial costs of incarceration are well known, as well as its absence of a meaningful return on investment.

All this leads one to wonder what drives politicians, governments, and policymakers to de-funding CoSA? With the governments of countries like Australia, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Iceland, and New Zealand looking to establish, expand or revive CoSA programs, why is the Canadian government pulling its support? Is this about public outrage, a significant re-offense problem, a high-profile case, media outcry, or the impact of tightening public spending? This has been on the books for a while and we in the international community had heard rumors of further de-funding as far back as 2020. It certainly appears to be more ideologically than research-driven, which is always an ever-present challenge in the reality of sexual abuse policy practice.

On the other hand, the question remains of which ideology is driving this? Is society more invested in punishment than in doing what we can to prevent re-offense? Or are politicians, and to a degree policy makers, giving the people what they think they might want? With the growing recognition that offending behavior is linked to a range of social, economic, health, and wellbeing outcomes,  shouldn’t we ensure that programs (like CoSA), which are grounded in this knowledge don’t fall by the wayside in traditional criminal justice debates that have become outdated?

Elsewhere in Canada, which has certainly been a world leader in producing knowledge and practice approaches, a judge in Newfoundland and Labrador relied on rape myths to acquit a teenager on charges that he had sexually assaulted a 15-year-old friend. Despite her overt attempts to fight back and stop the assault, the judge apparently indicated a belief that the young woman could have stopped the assault. From the article:

“The trial judge said if the complainant had been telling the truth, she could have simply left the house when the boy asked her to find a condom, and also suggested she may have been upset due to the "thoughtless and callous manner" the boy left her house.


"[The complainant] did not take the opportunity to leave the situation when she says it was offered to her.… There is no plausible explanation as to why she just did not leave the house and seek help," the trial judge said. 


"The impermissible myth — a woman can prevent a rape if she really wants to — was part of the judge's foundation in rejecting this testimony from the complainant," the appeal decision said.

It is by no means the first time a judge’s leniency has created backlash. Many readers will remember the Brock Turner case at Stanford University; the judge in that case faced a recall vote and was forced to ask not to hear any more criminal cases. Also, internationally in the UK this week,  a barrister at a private family hearing in Belfast stated that a judge had suggested that “only stupid women can be raped.

What puzzles us, however, is the trend away from using knowledge that has been well-known for decades and has been the subject of very considerable media attention, and not simply during the #metoo movement years. However, these cases, over many years, highlight that legal professionals need additional training in respect to rape and sexual assault. This is urgent given the volume of cases resulting in a conviction is dropping, especially in the UK with calls for specialist rape courts to be established. But if judges and lawyers are not trained to understand the reality of sexual abuse and its impact, then how can they be expected to challenge rape myths? The real myth here as that our knowledge base automatically updates as society evolves and grows. We need to give people the skills and knowledge to make informed, professional decisions. In addition, we must also recognize that training will be insufficient for some since their attitudes and beliefs are so intractable that they are difficult or even impossible to change.  For such cases, we also need to find an answer.

The two cases that we have discussed this week may be rooted in Canada but as we have seen, they are not dissimilar to cases and policies internationally. We need to remind ourselves that social change takes time, and we all need to be involved. These cases also reinforce the need for us to lead in and have pro-social, educated, and engaged conversations on changing attitudes as well as practices around sexual abuse.

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Current storms in the UK demonstrate the need to think about sexual abuse prevention and accountability

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

To say that the past couple of weeks in the UK has been turmoil is an understatement. We’ve seen the death of a monarch, a new prime minister, the cost-of-living crisis expanding, increase in gas and electricity prices, as well as a falling pound and a problematic financial outlook. In addition, there have been a number of criminal justice challenges, like the inquest into the death of 14-year-old Molly Ringwall, which highlighted the challenges and responsibilities of social media (it found they directly contributed to her suicide). There was also  a statement from members of Parliament that IPP (Indeterminate Imprisonment for Public Protection; the UK equivalent of Civil Commitment) are flawed and in need of reform and all prisoners on them need to be resentenced. Finally, there has been a recognition that the cost of living crisis puts more women and children at risk for domestic violence.  It’s been a challenging week on the topic of sexual abuse as well, with two news stories at either end of the offending spectrum that ask questions about prevention and response.

Last Friday a news story broke about a Finnish Ice Hockey player joining the UK Elite League team the Glasgow Clan. Lasse Uusivirta was charged with rape for an incident that occurred while he was a university student at UAH (University of Alabama in Huntsville) in 2013. He admitted the rape of an 18-year-old college student at the time but left the USA after he was charged but before he could be arrested. The USA authorities decided not to pursue the international case and return him to the country for trial but stated that the case was still active, and he would be arrested if he ever returned to the USA. It emerged over the course of the next 24 hours that the Glasgow Clan had been aware of this and either ignored it or tried to water it down. It resulted in the suspension of their Coach and General Manger on Friday morning and the rescinding of Uusivirta’s contract. Across this period, there was massive fan backlash against the club and sponsors threatening to pull funding  demanding that they be more socially and morally forthright. The incident raises a lot of questions about accountability and responsibility at an individual and corporate level. The issue is not about redemption or desistence from offending, but rather about accepting responsibly and being held to account by the state. The reality is that Uusivirta committed rape, admitted to it, and then left before he could be held accountable. Knowing this, the club attempted to boost their playing potential by ignoring his outstanding criminal accusations. Unfortunately, this is not the first, nor will it be the last, example where double standards of sports stars and athletes mean that clubs are willing to look the other way and not act with moral authority.

This doesn’t only happen in the UK. For instance, in Belgium, the soccer club of Antwerp appointed Marc Overmars as a new director, knowing that Overmars left a Dutch club, Ajax, just a month before his new appointment in Belgium because of sexual misconduct towards his colleagues. The club decided to do nothing despite the negative reactions surrounding the appointment of Overmars. After some of the Belgian club’s successes, you get the impression the misconduct never took place.

The players may be fugitives from justice and accountability, but the teams have made themselves fugitives from morality.

In the UK case, had there not been the backlash from the fans, sponsors, and media the team may not have changed their minds. This case clearly evidences the need to hold organizations to account and emphasizes the importance of the community voice in standing up to sexual abuse.

Another example of the lived reality of sexual abuse prevention came on Monday with the trial of Wayne Couzens, who was convicted of raping and murdering Sarah Everard while on duty as a police officer during the Covid-19 pandemic, for previous incidences of indecent exposure (i.e., exhibitionism). This led to a debate in the UK press about the role of exhibitionism as a predictor for contact offending. Exhibitionism is often seen as a nuisance crime, with several myths surrounding it about the psychological and social nature of the individuals that perpetrate it. Like all sexual crimes, it is under reported, but is believed to happen to one to two thirds of women at some point in their lives. By comparison to other sexual offenses, exhibitionism is significantly under researched with a lot of the evidence being old and outdated. However, the research does demonstrate relatively high recidivism rates and a likelihood of escalation from exhibitionism to contact offenses, 5-10%, but this is intertwined with other risk factors like antisocial behavior. The reality of this story was not about the underreported or problematic nature of exhibitionism, but rather if Wayne Couzen’s exhibitionism was a predictor of his future offending and the murder of Sarah. Would Sarah’s death have been prevented if there had been an intervention earlier on? It’s difficult to say, but it does raise the question of what are the role of risk predictors, how do we use them, and ultimately what interventions can be provided to reduce escalation?

Although these two cases seem different, they are not. They illustrate the importance of understanding the impact of sexual abuse across the lifespan, including in terms of prevention and risk of first time offending and in terms of accountability and desistance from offending. These cases highlight the individual complexity of sexual abuse and the need for an informed community, a professional response to it, and the responsibilities of all involved, including organisations and employers. Sexual abuse impacts us all and with the challenges that the UK (and western world) faces in the coming years with the cost-of-living crisis, these are set to increase the potential for a reduction in support services and greater likelihood of offending. While we have mostly left behind the Covid pandemic, we are still experiencing a sexual abuse pandemic which is soon to be followed by a larger poverty pandemic.