Friday, September 22, 2023

The Story of Scheherazade: A Fable for JwSO Therapists of Transformation through Care and Conversation (part 3 of 3)

 By Norbert Ralph, PhD, MPH, Private practice, San Leandro, CA

(Editor’s Note: Please click on the links for part 1 and part 2)

This is the third part of a three-part blog about the Fable of Scheherazade, the central figure and storyteller in "The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night" from classic Persian literature (Burton, 1885). The second part identified four therapeutic factors in the fable that parallel the work of JwSO therapists. This third part identifies additional factors and also cautions regarding overidentification with mythic heroism.

Relapse Awareness: For a thousand nights, Scheherazade faced the possibility that the King would "relapse" and not only kill her but continue killing other women. Presumably, this possibility would not be absent from her consciousness for a day. Likewise, the JwSO adolescent, especially those treated in the community, also has the possibility every day of committing some act of sexual aggression. JwSO therapy every week is done with awareness that the harmful behavior may recur and the importance of taking appropriate measures to prevent it.

Curriculum and Fidelity: Scheherazade had a series of stories, which is a lesson plan or curriculum to last a thousand nights, which was presumably implemented with fidelity. The fable notes that she had committed to memory 1000 stories regarding past kingdoms and adventures. Baglivio and colleagues (Baglivio, Wolff, Jackowski, et al., 2018) identified factors contributing to successful outcomes for residential and secure JwSO programs. Some of the factors promoting therapeutic outcomes included whether there was a structured, manualized curriculum administered with fidelity. This would contrast with an unstructured open-ended therapy relationship or a curriculum that was not faithfully implemented. A parallel between the story of Scheherazade and the work of effective JwSO therapists is a structured and faithfully implemented therapeutic curriculum. In working with this population while having a prosocial therapeutic relationship is necessary it is not sufficient. It also involves teaching knowledge, interpersonal and problem-solving skills, and practicing new behaviors both in therapy and outside, and critically reviewing results. Deficits in knowledge and skill areas may contribute to problematic sexual behaviors. In this respect, therapy is like learning Spanish. You have to learn information and practice skills, not just have a positive relationship with the teacher.

Termination and Self-Regulation: At some point, the JwSO therapist, like Scheherazade, expresses the faith that the youth can lead a prosocial life without a lifetime label or controls by terminating therapy. Scheherazade, at the end of 1000 nights of storytelling, told the King she had no more stories to tell. The implicit message was that the support of the storytelling or therapy she was doing was not now necessary because of the skills and transformation of the King. While starting therapy was a profound act of optimism, also stopping and saying it is no longer needed, also represents an optimistic act but one that is realistic based on the acquisition of new knowledge and skills. Presumably, Scheherazade saw termination of therapy as a necessary part of the prosocial transformation of the King. Termination of the youth in therapy gives the message to the youth, the family, the courts, and the community that the youth is ready to construct their prosocial life. Taking responsibility for a prosocial life can be viewed as the last necessary step in treatment and that additional controls or management like sex offender registry or prolonged probation may not only be not helpful but counterproductive.


Lessons from this fable may be that there are commonalities across centuries and cultures regarding how people view the possibility of prosocial transformations of someone who has harmed others. The myth of Scheherazade was created in the ninth century with the premise that you could transform someone who had done harm to others by a conversation, relationship, and combination of skills. In that fable, the caring conversation not only promoted the prosocial transformation of the King but also impacted the Kingdom and promoted public safety and fear of ongoing evil. This is similar to the goal of the JwSO therapist who intends to promote the prosocial development of the youth and also public safety.

Most myths not only are parables to teach moral lessons about dealing with life challenges but maybe cautionary tales. Over-identification with the idea of acting heroically could lead to unwise optimism that would result in greater harm. The therapist can become so identified with heroic goals that they may ignore the dangers and negative possibilities. Joseph Wheelwright (1971), a Jungian analyst and teacher in the Bay Area, talked about how therapists should be cautious about "channeling" mythic images, such as the White Knight riding in to save others. The therapist who over-identifies with the hero's quest, and ignores realities, may end up like Don Quixote, in folly and misadventure, and worse, tragedy.


Friday, September 15, 2023

Pornography and age verification

By David S. Prescott, LICSW

The US State of Louisiana passed a law in 2022 requiring users of pornography websites to upload state-issued identification materials to prove that they are 18 years old or older. Pornhub elected not to conduct further business in that state. More recently, Texas adopted a similar approach. The media attention has been eye-opening. Much of the coverage has noted that only a few pornography devotees have spoken out against these laws, although there have been some discussions of the free-speech implications.

From the outset, Pornhub and other websites that provide easy access to free pornography are not sympathetic players on the world’s stage; not many would rue their downfall. In the past, Pornhub has been the subject of investigations into child sexual abuse imagery and videos shared against the will of participants in them. It is understandable that these laws have met with enthusiasm. A concern remains, however: Are these laws really as effective as we would like to believe? What’s missing?

Virtually all professionals in our field are strongly aligned with not exposing children to sexually explicit materials. Speaking personally as a father, when my own children were growing up, I made considerable efforts to keep them safe from online risks; my heart goes out to parents today. We are so far removed from my generation’s occasional brush sexually explicit materials.

The articles prompt questions:

How will they keep all porn sites from operating in these states. There’s a lot of those websites out there, including related enterprises like OnlyFans, etc. There will be a number of legal issues involved over and above the usual free-speech arguments. It seems that Pornhub is also hiring lawyers and experts for future litigation.

Also, there is so much sexually explicit material in social media (one app actually advertises that it introduces strangers to one another), it’s reasonable to wonder about the intellectual honesty and long-term effectiveness of these laws. Pornhub will go elsewhere, but the issues will not. Much of the material will simply find another host. Are these laws closer to a bandage than a cure? Are our lawmakers doing the best that they can?

Further, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and similar end runs around technology allow users to mask their location. One implication of these technological loopholes is that while these laws may appear to restrict access, the question remains as to how well they actually protect children. Will we ignore the responsibility of adults to be aware of their children’s online activity? To what extent do these laws create a false sense of security? Will some kids simply borrow their parents’ ID?

There is a strangely amusing quality to the restriction.  It’s not just any verification process, it’s uploading a government-issued ID… to a porn website! Anyone should think twice before uploading any government-issued ID anywhere, even to a governmental entity! The risks for identity theft are simply too great. Any reasonable person would be wondering who is monitoring my activity, even as we know that websites such as Facebook, Amazon, and numerous government agencies already possess frightening amounts of personal information. Who is storing this photo ID? Further, many government agencies actually discourage sharing government-issued identification online.

Given some recent activities, such as one state’s legislature’s subpoena of the medical records of transgender patients seen at a hospital, one has to wonder where all of this is headed. What sorts of over-reach into people’s private lives may result, including in the name of child safety? It’s not clear that there are any answers at this time.

Finally, if it’s really about the best interests of kids, perhaps legislatures should take other measures as well, such as funding abuse prevention, boosting child welfare agencies, improving education funding, ensuring the wellbeing of people who have abused, and making sure kids in their state have enough to eat.

Friday, September 8, 2023

A review of the International Association for the Treatment of Sexual Offenders (IATSO) conference 2023

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

Apparently, it’s never too late to try new things! Or so they say. At least in Kieran’s and Kasia’s case, this is true. For the first time, they both attended the IATSO annual conference. David is an older hand at this and was a keynote speaker. Last week saw the 17th bi-annual IATSO conference, which took place in Trondheim, Norway. IATSO has been affiliated with ATSA for many years, and their conference is one of the big 5 conferences that focus on the prevention, rehabilitation, and integration back into the community of people convicted of sexual crimes (with the other four being NOTA, ATSA, NL-ATSA, and ANZATSA). Despite the common focus concerning sexual violence, we experience time and time again that each conference has its own accents, brings different insights, and other opportunities to get acquainted with colleagues as not every expert can attend the big 5. The entire experience made us more enthusiastic about attending ATSA in a few weeks.

This year the IATSO conference had well over 100 papers across 3 days of keynotes, pre-conference workshops, and parallel sessions with over 400 attendees from no less than 20 countries, including Greenland. The range of choice in the parallel sessions was rich. It included talks on – among others – desistance, risk management, trauma-informed practice, compassion in treatment, staff development, risk assessment, and public and professional perceptions. The conference focused on all forms of sexual abuse (including child abuse, rape, multiple preparator abuse, online sexual abuse, sibling sexual abuse, and incels) relating to an array of characteristics (incl. gender, race, learning difficulties, neurodiversity, and age); there was a topic or area for all researchers and/or academics. The sessions also had various angles: some speakers shared their most recent research results, while others delved deeper into specific practices and cases. This way, the participants were offered a diverse mix of science and practice.

There was a wide range of engaging pre-conference workshops. Several workshops were provided by well-known ATSA, NOTA and ANZATSA speakers such as Liam Marshall, Jayson Ware, Carol Carson, Mark Olver, Jennifer Allotey, Keira Stockdale, David Prescott, Brian Judd, and Maaike Helmus. But local experts (i.e., Svein Øverland) from Norway were also given a platform. This approach was the common thread throughout the conference: local professionals and academics were given ample opportunities to share their clinical experiences and scientific insights with the public. This way, the participants not only got acquainted with the rich Norwegian culture, food, music, and nature before, during and/or after the conference, but they also gained insights into local practices and experiences regarding efforts to end sexual violence.

The keynotes also presented a mix of national and international speakers, with a strong focus on Norwegian policy and practice over the years from Knut Hemstad, who started the conference, Oddfrid Skope Tennfjord, talking about working with young people who have committed harmful sexual behaviour and presenting the tool they developed to facilitate sexual education in schools. Anja Kruse (ending the conference) talking about the role of trauma and harm, partly caused by how society and justice treated them, in the lives of men who have sexually offended. The other 4 keynotes where a mix of Canada, USA and UK speakers with Liam Marshall talking about effective treatment practices, Keira Stockdale talking about Offence Analogue and offence replacement behaviours, Mark Olver talking about the role and relevance of protective factors in risk assessment and risk management, Simon Hackett talking about harmful sexual behaviour in young people, and David Prescott talking about reflective professional development and treatment effectiveness. Although at first glance the 7 keynotes seem quite dispirit, in fact they were not, they all talked off compassion, service user engagement, desistence, and professional reflection and engagement.

IATSO was a great, engaging, and intriguing professional conference that enforced the international aspects of working in sexual abuse prevention and response. Although it was the first time that Kieran and Kasia attended, and like David, it won’t be his last. For those interested: the next IATSO conference is scheduled for August 26-29, 2025, and will take place in Poznań, Poland. All information and updates can be found on their website: .



Wednesday, August 30, 2023

The Story of Scheherazade: A Fable for JwSO Therapists of Transformation through Care and Conversation (part 2 of 3)

 By Norbert Ralph, PhD, MPH, Private practice, San Leandro, CA

This is the second part of a three-part blog (link to part 1 here) about the Fable of Scheherazade, the central figure and storyteller in "The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night" from classic Persian literature (Burton, 1885). This second part explores if the myth gives any clues to how Scheherazade transformed the King and stopped his evil actions that parallel the work of JwSO therapists? Several factors can be hypothesized using the lens of present psychotherapeutic practices.

Knowledge and Skill: Scheherazade's faith that she could transform the King is one of mythology's great fables of selflessness and optimism regarding prosocial possibilities in others. Scheherazade, like the JwSO therapist, however, did not go into such a struggle with faith alone. The fable notes she was a beautiful and learned woman who was highly educated. The JwSO therapist approaches their task likewise, well-prepared with a formidable set of best practices and evidence-based methods.

Holding Environment: Winnicott (1960) used the term "holding environment," which has been used to describe the setting and relationship that permits the patient to experience safety and facilitates psychotherapeutic work. Scheherazade, like the JwSO therapist, created a safe setting which put implicit limits on the King's harmful behavior but without coercion and encouraged prosocial problem-solving in the context of caring conversation. It created an environment where not only the King but Scheherazade and implicitly the Kingdom were safe.

Corrective Interpersonal Relationships: Alexander and French discussed a therapeutic factor, the "corrective emotional experience" (Alexander & French, 1946). This referred to the idea that individuals bring into therapy dysfunctional and self-fulfilling behaviors and narratives regarding relationships. Therapy itself can provide corrective new experiences in relationships that can become a template for the patient for more positive future relationships. The King's narrative that women were unfaithful and selfish and deserve to be killed was contraindicated by Scheherazade's behavior daily for a thousand nights. Each day she survived meant one less woman killed at the risk of her own life and affirmed her belief that the King could be transformed. Like Scheherazade, the JwSO therapist's optimism about a prosocial future for the youth along with relevant knowledge and skills can become self-fulfilling when others doubt such an outcome.

Patient Autonomy and Motivational Interviewing: Scheherazade, like the JwSO therapist, respected the autonomy and dignity of her client, the King, to find his own reasons for change. For a thousand nights, at the end of each story, Scheherazade gave the King a choice of what he wanted to do. The choice to continue a prosocial dialogue was the King's alone. Similarly, the therapist cannot "make" the JwSO youth pursue a prosocial dialogue in therapy but must give the youth the autonomy, with guidance, to find their motivation. Coercive therapy is a contradiction and an impossible idea.

Prosocial Parables: Scheherazade's stories were prosocial parables that provided information and ideas about how people could exemplify virtuous behavior, overcoming challenges, and lead more prosocial lives. Likewise, the JwSO therapist may use stories or parables as a way to teach the youth prosocial models regarding relationships and consider one more prosocial perspective or behavior to better obtain the goods of life and create a prosocial lifestyle. This was exactly the technique that Hamlet used with the play when he said, "The play's the thing Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King" (Shakespeare, 1603).

The third part of this blog will be published shortly will continue the discussion of look at the therapeutic aspects described in the fable through the lens of present psychotherapeutic practices. It will also discuss the therapist's identification with heroic roles while being a source of possible strength can also create vulnerabilities.

Friday, August 18, 2023

How the Online and Offline Worlds are Intertwined

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

There is ongoing debate in many countries about the online grooming of children for abuse and sexual exploitation. The debate in the UK currently involves the online safety bill, which is making its way through the House of Parliament. Debates regarding how best to protect children are not new, and although it is an important topic, it is only part of a broader question.

Beyond efforts to end grooming are questions about online safeguarding, corporate responsibility, and who polices the internet. Unfortunately, not many governments are clamoring to deal with these issues; there are many divergent special-interest groups, ideologies, and vested interests. There are also legitimate questions about the limits of privacy and free speech. We often hear that an attack on the internet is an attack on free speech and that by limiting online behaviors we are limiting free speech and creating a dystopian, big-brother state. One often-unspoken perspective in this is the need to consider the crossover between online and offline social harms.

This week the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) reported that children were at more at risk for online grooming than ever before (an increase of 82% in 5 years) They further reported that there have been increased levels of reporting alongside a need for more safeguarding. Although it is true that there is more reporting, recording, and observing of socially inappropriate behavior online (including but not restricted to sexually exploitative behavior) we need to keep in mind that there are a range of explanations for this beyond the inappropriate behavior itself. For example, there is better detection, more confidence in reporting, more police and justice reaction, and better-informed communities responding to it.  Further, the world after the #metoo movement has seen a greater acknowledgement of abusive behavior (and calling it out when it happens) and better responses to it. And yes, there is also more acknowledgement of online sexual harm; but the question is what do we do about it?


In the UK, the online safety bill, although quite debated by this point, wants to hold internet providers and website owners responsible for content on their platforms and that they could be as culpable as the people who post on them. There is pushback to this by many who state that the internet is the last bastion of free speech, and that protectionism has gone too far. On the other hand, the internet is not the wild west of older times, and moderating content needn’t be invasive.


It is tempting to see these debates as centered exclusively on free speech; there is no question that this is a central concern. Too often missing, though, are coordinated efforts by experts from the various professional disciplines that contribute to the wellbeing of children: Victims’ services, child protective services experts, researchers who study those who perpetrate online offenses, and those with expertise in domestic and other forms of interpersonal violence. It is difficult to imagine how the internet can become safer without these voices at the table, collaborating with one another, and sharing knowledge.


It is well known that online context can affect offline behavior, shape attitudes, influence behavior, and result in abuse. In fact, it’s a two-way street, with offline behavior also affecting the online world. In many ways, the age-old distinction between these worlds may no longer serve society well.


Further, we have seen from conversations and research on incels, pornography, abuse, and violence against women and girls that the online and offline worlds are not segregated communities. We know from discussion with clients that online and offline actions and attitudes and impact their decisions to engage, or not engage in, abusive behavior. This is not to say that everyone is impacted by the internet and online context in the same way, but clearly the internet and online content can impact people. Therefore, if something is abusive offline, should it not be considered the same online as well? A clear example of this is a campaign from Australia discussing the harm of strangulation pornography.


This blog post started with the rise of online grooming and is ending with a discussion on the lived experience of online behavior. One may ask why these two are linked; the simple answer is the implicit and often-explicit online message that abusive behavior is acceptable. Our hope is that communities can get a better grasp of what really happens online, and what the implications are for the most vulnerable members of society. That requires stepping up and asking hard questions of ourselves, our communities, and the systems that are involved in them. We need to see the online world as an extension of the offline world, and vice versa, not just separate entities. The sooner that we come to terms with the full extent of abuse and exploitation happening online, the sooner we can do something about it.

The question remains as to how we then best meet these challenges. Holding providers and website owners more responsible may be a necessary move to motivate them to really do something about the problem, even though it is not hard to imagine the legal questions that will arise from this. It is all-important that we continue to have this conversation about our shared responsibility and that we do not shy away from the complex challenges and issues, whether about online or offline behavior.




Wednesday, August 9, 2023

How horrific cases prove the need for prevention

By Kieran McCartan, PhD, & David Prescott, LICSW

Criminal justice policy is often written in the wake of high-profile, horrific cases. Living up to the axiom that “bad cases make for bad laws,” the rationale for reactionary policymaking, which is often punitive, is that it will act as a deterrent for would-be offenders and those that have been caught will learn their lesson. However, this assumes that people make rational choices to commit a crime, and that they will change their behavior based on the consequences of their behavior. Over the years research has taught us that this is not necessarily the case, and that prevention is often better than deterrence or punishment. When it comes to discussions of preventing/deterring/treating sexual abuse, this is a tightrope that we have been walking for years, with prevention making sense with professionals and policy makers, but the practicalities of it often becoming hard to implement across society.  A recent case from Australia and the reaction to it from policymakers suggests that tide is changing and that high-profile cases do not need top lead to a reactionary, putative response, but rather an opportunity to learn and add to the case for prevention.

Last week, Australian police charged a former child-care worker with abusing 91 girls over the course of 15 years, involving 1,623 charges, including 136 counts of rape and 110 counts of sexual intercourse with a child under 10. In addition, the person in question also photographed and recorded most of this abuse, posting it online through the dark web. The offenses took place between 2007 and 2022, while the unnamed childcare worker worked across 10 child-care centers, mainly in Brisbane. The police have identified 91 children, 87 of whom are Australian.

This case is horrific and highlights abuse over a significant period. It would be easy to see how this case could lead to a punitive criminal justice response, and yet his offending was so persistent and thought out that it illustrates what research tells us about deterrence: That the threat of imprisonment did not stop him, but the likelihood of being caught might have.

While holding the person who has committed the abuse to account is of obvious necessity, we need to do more than that; we need to learn what happened, how it continued, what (if anything) prevented bystanders from intervening, and then introduce effective measures for prevention and stopping abuse as early as possible. The case highlights how there were probably multiple points where disruption and intervention could have happened. Therefore, those invested in prevention still need to think more about upskilling communities, improving knowledge around child sexual abuse, and increase strategic community action, bystander invention, and empowering appropriate organizations to help.

One of the Australian leaders and policymakers that responded to this case was Dr. Leanne Beagley. Dr Beagley is the National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse, which was formed out of the findings of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. She has discussed the need for us all to come together to prevent child sexual abuse and that it is all our responsibilities. Hers is a clear government/policy voice in favor of child sexual abuse prevention and indicates that the socio-political tide is changing regarding this. We need to do more to get political and policymakers on board with the prevention child sexual abuse, with Australia being the example that we need to evidence.

Everyone wants to deter people from offending, and yet we have yet to implement the right policies and procedures.


Monday, July 31, 2023

The Story of Scheherazade: A Fable for JwSO Therapists of Transformation through Care and Conversation (part 1 of 3)

 By Norbert Ralph, PhD, MPH, Private practice, San Leandro, CA



Scheherazade is a character in a fable that can inform the work of therapy with juveniles who sexually offended (JwSO), what factors may contribute to change, but provides also a cautionary tale. This blog, like the fable, which is a series of stories, is told in a series of parts, each hoping to interest the reader to read more. This is the first part of a three-part blog. Each blog will provide useful information and when taken as a whole may provide some useful ideas.


The Fable:

Scheherazade was the central figure and storyteller in "The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night" from classic Persian literature (Burton, 1885). The myth described a heroic figure who transformed a king who had done monstrous deeds by the use of care and conversation alone. In the story, a King's wife was unfaithful to him, which devastated him. The King, in response to the hurt he experienced, sought to address it by truly monstrous behavior. Every day he would marry a new virgin and then have her beheaded. He had killed a thousand women by the time that he met Scheherazade, a beautiful and learned woman who had mastered philosophy, science, the arts, and poetry. She had committed to memory 1000 stories regarding past kingdoms and adventures. Against her father's wishes, Scheherazade volunteered to marry the King, as a way to save not only the Kingdom but, even more amazingly, also the King. As a farewell favor, she asked the King if she could read him her final story before she herself was put to death. The King agreed, and listened to her story with awe regarding her grace and beauty. The story was halfway through when dawn was breaking, and she said there was no time to finish the story. So the king spared her for one day, and she not only finished the story but began a second, even more exciting tale the next day. Again, she was not able to finish the story before dawn, and again the King let her live for another day, and so this continued. At the end of a thousand and one nights, Scheherazade said she had no more tales to tell. In the process, though, the King had fallen in love with her, allowed her to live, had three sons, and was made wiser and kinder by her example of care, bravery, and the stories she told, and he made her his queen.


The Lesson for JwSO Therapists:

The JwSO therapist works with a teen who victimized others, often children and other adolescents. The therapist has to have faith, which to others may seem unreasonable, that the youth who has done harm to others can be transformed by care and conversation alone, or at least not recidivate. Like Scheherazade, the JwSO therapist asserts a radical idea, that not only the youth, but the "kingdom" will be safer and better because of these efforts.

The JwSO therapist, like Scheherazade, is confronted with a clear "evil" in the "Kingdom," that is an act of sexual aggression or related crimes done primarily to minors. The King's evil deed in Scheherazade presumably had a sexual component to it, in addition to murder. The JwSO youth, like the King, also had the possibility of continuing the harmful acts. The King's behavior was a reaction to his feelings of betrayal and hurt and mirrors the situation many JWSOs whose harmful acting-out behavior is also related to some trauma or life disruption.

It can be assumed that the reaction of the kingdom to the King's evil deeds was one of horror but also fear of future ongoing evil deeds. Likewise, a community's responses to a JwSO youth's crime are similar, at least in part. Sexual violence not only violates laws but is a violation of social norms, more so when the victim is a child.

Scheherazade's offer to marry the King is the opposite of what would be conventionally expected, which makes the fable so intriguing that the solution to evil deeds is caring and conversation. She offers presumably her love, and her life itself with the almost certain expectation at least from others that she will be killed. Scheherazade's idea that she can stop the evil and change the evildoer met with profound disbelief on the part of others, particularly her father. What a fantastic idea that this would be possible. Similarly, the JwSO therapist is often challenging conventional expectations that by conversation alone they can protect public safety, prevent future sexual recidivism, and assist with the transformation of this youth into a more prosocial person.

The second part of this blog will be published shortly will look at how Scheherazade transformed the King using the lens of present psychotherapeutic practices and how this parallels work with JwSO.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

What do the BBC and McDonalds have in common? A problematic workplace cultures related to sexual abuse.

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

The concept of culture is important in understanding how people experience and engage with the world around them. Over the years on this blog, we have talked about different types of culture and their relationship to sexual abuse. The conversation is one that never stops because although we want a society that does not allow and or promote sexual violence, we have not arrived there (although we are further down the road than where we started from). Culture change is difficult and takes time; the #Metoo and everyone’s invited movements are recent examples. However, at a local community level, cultural change should be easier and more realistic. Community culture change is more contained, and it can be easier to gain buy-in. Two stories this week from the UK serve as examples of the difficulty of culture change. These involve the BBC in one and the other, McDonald’s. In both employment-based communities, the necessary culture change that is needed to prevent sexually abuse isn’t happening. Instead, what we see is employer disengagement, denial, inaction, and risky behaviors.

Over the last two weeks, the BBC has been involved in a story about one of its leading presenters being allegedly involved in sexually exploitative practices, as reported by The Sun and based upon information from the victims’ parents. The claim from The Sun was that the presenter had been involved in an exploitative relationship over three years with a vulnerable female. It involved paying her monies totaling £35,00 for sexually explicit photos and imagery of herself. The report claimed that she was vulnerable, was using the money to pay for heroin, and that the abuse started when she was 17. In the report the parents claimed that they had approached and reported this to the BBC, who had done nothing. After the story was published many high-profile BBC presenters distanced themselves from the events, including on social media. Additionally, the victim came out and said the story was “rubbish”. Eventually the wife of the person at the center of this story came out and named her husband, Huw Edwards, as the person at the center of the story. In this statement she says that her husband suffers from major bouts of depression and is currently hospitalized.  

In short, it’s a mess. We are aware that media coverage of breaking news can be flawed. Nonetheless, it is clear that the BBC, like many other organizations, have a long way to go to prevent abuse in the workplace and by people in positions of trust.

Over the course of this story, the BBC has been criticized for not taking the claim seriously, trying to cover the story up, trying to protect the person at the center of this, and having a culture where abuse, cover-up, and mystery is commonplace. The BBC responded and said that it was protecting the human rights of person at the center of this, that that had suspended them, and a full investigation would take place. Since the release of this report, more allegations against Huw Edwards have come out from BBC colleagues.

The story highlights the need for an engaged employer who can respond to claims of abuse, that has policies and practices in place to respond, and can demonstrate that they take the claims seriously. One note of consideration about this story is why the BBC would get involved in a private case as this not between to employees? As the presenter in question is very senior and the face of a flagship news program, there are expectations of his behaviors and attitudes that go beyond the organization. Both the presenter and the organization are in positions of public trust. There are concerns of moral fiber, questions of trustworthiness, and issues related to institutional damage. Also, without phone logs we don’t know when the messages took place or whether it was on company time, with a company phone, etc.

The second story also involves the BBC, but this time in an investigatory role. Early this week, they reported on an investigation into reports of sexual abuse, misogyny, harassment, and bullying at McDonald’s restaurants in the UK. The report claimed that many victims of abuse reported them to management and to corporate headquarters but were dismissed and ignored. This often resulted in the employee leaving. Within 48 hours of the story breaking over 100 more former employees verified and expanded on the claims in the report, indicating that the culture of abuse was wider and more significant than originally thought. This case, like the BBC, involves an organization that likely is not in touch with the realities of abusive behavior in their workforce, does not listen to people who are victimized, and do not engage with the problems or the people involved. The CEO of McDonalds’ UK and Ireland admitted this, saying that they as an organization had let staff (especially young staff) down and would strive to do better in the future.

It should be obvious that everyone has the right to work in a workplace free from sexual harm and misogyny. Everyone has the right to have an employer that is engaged around these topics, takes reports seriously, and engages with staff appropriately in response. This, however, hasn’t been the case. We would suggest the BBC and McDonald’s are not outliers in this area, but that they are representative of many organizations who need to come to terms with abuse. This raises the question of what employers are doing to make their workplaces abuse free and protect their staff from harm. Are they writing policies without meaningfully implementing them or making earnest attempts to end abuse now?

In an ideal world, we would have research-informed messaging, support for staff wellbeing, trauma-informed workplaces, and activities that promote inclusion and equality; but unfortunately, we are not there yet. Here are some ideas of what employers can do:

1.       Create a culture of equality, inclusion, and diversity though actions, communication, and environment.

2.       Link together corporate policy and practice, behaviors, attitudes, and actions on the ground.

3.       Embrace compassionate leadership and create a culture that acknowledges and supports staff who have experienced trauma and difficulties.

4.       Train and upskill staff around behavioral and attitudinal expectations when in work and then hold them accountable to them.

5.       Encourage staff to speak out about abuse and offence behavior. In addition, create systems that allow this to be done in a safe and anonymous fashion if needed.

6.       Listen to staff when they do speak out and have HR/wellbeing procedures in place to respond to these issues.

7.       Make sure that anyone involved in abuse or problematic behavior is treated in fair and transparent fashion.

8.       Make sure that all messaging and communications are fair, balanced, and respectful.

9.       Post investigates make sure that staff are supported to return to/reengage with work in protected, proactive fashion.

10.   Review policies, practices, training, and the working environment regularly see if current practices are fit for purpose.

But the bigger question is how can employees and society hold employers to account to make sure that they do this and maintain standards? Do we need an industry badging system like Athena Swan (“a framework which is used across the globe to support and transform gender equality within higher education (HE) and research”)? Our belief is that there are some aspects of organizational culture that cannot always be left to organizations to monitor themselves.

Friday, July 14, 2023

Racism and Risk Assessment

 By David S. Prescott, LICSW[1]

In 2014, then US Attorney General Eric Holder made public his concerns about risk assessment in the criminal-justice system. He said, among other things, that, “These tools could have a disparate and adverse impact on the poor, on socially disadvantaged offenders, and on minorities ... they may exacerbate unwarranted and unjust disparities that are already far too common in our criminal justice system and in our society.”

Considerable dialog and debate followed. Many researchers examined their data and methods and found nothing inaccurate, although many pointed to systemic issues. That there are racial disparities in the criminal justice system is neither unknown nor controversial. Study after study has found this. Adding to the confusion is that many of the existing scales themselves tend to do well in research generally, even as many observers continue to have questions about how representative a client really is when looking at the development or cross-validation samples.

In 2015, Julia Angwin and her colleagues at ProPublica published a widely read article titled, “Machine Bias.” It took aim at risk assessment issues generally, and an instrument called the COMPAS in particular. It created enough further dialog that Anthony Flores, Kristin Bechtel, and Christopher Lowenkamp published a response in Federal Probation that took issue with Angwin and colleagues’ data analysis. The debate is interesting and informing, but beyond the scope of a single blog post.

Just the same, a 2020 review by Gina Vincent and Jodi Viljoen of the available risk measures turned up less evidence of bias than one might expect. They pointed out that not all risk assessments are created the same. They differ in their purpose, the way risk levels are determined, in their construction and the types of items included, etc.

More research is urgently needed. Those familiar with a wide range of instruments know that they can differ from each other in substantial ways. Nonetheless, practitioners have an obligation to understand how implicit and explicit biases may enter their work. This is not always so easy; no one wants things to go wrong on their watch and professionals may become reliant on instincts that are less empirically informed than they may believe. This could lead to a distrustful attitude and a readiness to seek revocation of probation with individuals they don’t understand.

Some examination of the available risk measures leads to more obvious speculations. With the well-documented racial disparities in the criminal justice system, items on risk measures related to criminal history (such as the number of prior convictions, number of prior sentencing dates) would certainly seem to indicate that there are ways that racial disparities can find their way into the measures themselves, whatever the intention of those who develop and use them. Some forms of sexual behavior have become increasingly commonplace while remaining stigmatized in court; might this play a role?

Other questions are more difficult to answer. Do scores on items related to relationship stability cause harm in cultures where pair-bonding may take a different form or where community disenfranchisement makes these relationships more difficult to build and sustain? What about people who live in high-surveillance areas who are arrested before they can reach the two-year cohabitation requirements of many scales?

Finally, what do we know about protective factors? The role of extended family, for example, can be very different in communities of color. On the other hand, what opportunities do they have to mitigate risk in communities where they are more likely to be arrested. It has been a common experience for professionals to see that most youth placed in diversion programs are White.

Evaluators do not always have it easy. There are many considerations when it comes to risk assessment, even with tools that can appear straightforward.

Given that many biases can take place beyond the awareness of the evaluator, is it possible that evaluators may become more biased when considering those items that are harder to define? For example, a White evaluator may find evidence of escalating negative affect in Black or Hispanic clients more worrying than in clients from their own background. This could be the result of the evaluator’s lack of understanding with respect to other cultures’ emotional expression.

Similarly, is it possible that an evaluator examining the sexual history and functioning of an individual from another culture may become biased? While some items in the available measures are clearer, some, such as “sexual preoccupation” might be easier for bias to enter. Let’s face it: most professionals have little training in the cross-cultural elements of human sexuality. Are the differences between majority and minority cultures enough to lead an evaluator to assign a higher score based on a lack of familiarity which leads to concern? An implicit tendency to score an item just a point higher “just in case?” Racial stereotypes of sexuality among historically marginalized people are well known. In fact, they can be inescapable enough that one has to wonder what kinds of effects they have on evaluators despite their training and best intentions.

It’s worth emphasizing that nothing in this blog post is meant to impugn the multitude of evaluators who do the best they can with the training, knowledge, and resources that they have. This author’s concern is all the ways that bias might creep into a risk assessment, one item at a time in virtually undetectable ways.

French science fiction author Gerard Werber observed, “Between what I think, what I want to say, what I believe I say, what I say, what you want to hear, what you believe to hear, what you hear, what you want to understand, what you think you understand, what you understand...They are ten possibilities that we might have some problem communicating. But let's try anyway…”

It might be worthy of consideration to extend the same idea to the process (not the measures) of risk assessment:


What the scale’s instructions say

What I think they say

How I think an item applies to a client

How I think a client scores on an individual item

How I hope or want them to score on it (beyond my awareness)

How I score that item

What I want to say about that item in a report

What I think I say about that that item in a report

What I want to say in the report

What I actually do report

What I want to recommend

What I think I recommend

What I recommend

What the reader sees

What the reader wants to see

What the reader thinks they see

How the reader interprets the report

What decision-makers want to do

What decision-makers think they should do based on the report

What decision-makers actually do based on the report


Of course, this potentially applies to each item as well as the total score and other elements of the report itself that may be implicitly biased or biasing.

I suspect many of us hope for broader dialogues on how we can all improve our processes.

[1] I am grateful to many people who read an earlier draft of this post and provided feedback. They include Tyffani Dent, Apryl Alexander, Laurie Rose Kepros, Seth Wescott, Amy Griffith, and Katie Gotch. 

Thursday, July 6, 2023

Online Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Children in the Philippines: Towards an understanding of “supply-side” facilitation offending.

By Maggie Brennan (Dublin City University), Elaine Byrnes (Dublin City University), Gabriel Katz-Wisel (Justice and Care) & Nicole Munns (Justice and Care)

Online sexual abuse and exploitation of children (OSAEC) has become more prominent in recent years with the growth in internet connectivity, access to mobile devices and online payment mechanisms. Vulnerability to OSAEC in the Philippines heightened throughout COVID19 lockdown, with foreign customers and local facilitators enjoying an unprecedented level of access to children.

While OSAEC has received increasing attention from authorities, academics and practitioners, extant research typically focuses on ‘demand-side’ offending in the West, with little attention to ‘how’ and ‘why’ OSAEC crimes are facilitated in the Philippines. Consequently, there is a dearth of literature and empirical understanding of the role of and profile of ‘supply side’ facilitators of OSAEC.

In order to fill this knowledge gap, in 2022 Justice and Care joined with International Justice Mission, Dublin City University and De La Salle University (Manila) to carry out a two-year study on the facilitation of online sexual abuse and exploitation of children in the Philippines, a global epicentre of live-streaming OSAEC. The project seeks to enhance our understanding of methods of OSAEC offending, to shed light on the situational factors, motivations and pathways to offending, and to inform practical strategies related to law enforcement investigation and technological and financial facilitation of this crime with a view to improving the efficacy of protective, deterrence, and preventative approaches to this type of exploitation.

The first year of the project implemented a mixed-methods research design to produce a broad profile of key features of supply-side OSAEC offending in the Philippines and the offence context, with attention to possible determinants of these offences and avenues to offence disruption and prevention. To that end, the research team examined case-file records of convicted OSAEC Filipino offenders and conducted interviews with domain experts and professionals with direct experience of working on OSAEC, including key informants from law enforcement authorities, financial service companies, online platform providers, child protection agencies and local social workers.

Preliminary findings from this analysis corroborated and reinforced the results of previous studies of OSAEC in the Philippines. In line with the existing literature, our data confirms that the country is indeed a ‘hotspot’ for OSAEC, with OSAEC activity taking place in both rural and urban areas. The majority of OSAEC facilitators are females aged 25-50, usually a family member or a trusted neighbour/friend of the victims, and many of them – including older minors – were themselves victims of exploitation in the past. These facilitators tend to prey mainly on girls, who are significantly more likely to be exploited than boys; when boys are the victims of OSAEC, child-on-child or sibling-on-sibling abuse is common.

Also consistent with prior research, we found that facilitators’ motivation to engage in OSAEC is primarily economic: most of them live in extreme poverty and must support large families. However, economic need is not the only motivation OSAEC involvement: the lure of making ‘easy money’ is also a powerful motivator, especially when the earnings from this type of activity are much higher than those obtainable from regular employment or other sources of income. Contextual and/or contagion effects also play an important role in facilitators’ decision to engage in OSAEC activities: in areas where there are precedents of OSAEC activity, facilitators learn about the financial ‘advantages’ of this type of criminal endeavour from other community members, particularly in neighbourhoods where levels of trust in authorities is low and reporting is unlikely. 

Nonetheless, our analysis also offered novel insights that complement and expand previous work in this area. For instance, we uncovered a – hitherto overlooked – association between the age of victim and relationship to facilitator: where a facilitator is a close family member, the child is more likely to be under the age of ten. By contrast, a trusted adult who is not a close family member is associated with more traditional commercial sexual exploitation presentation related to trafficking. There is also evidence of changing advertisement and recruitment patterns on the part of OSAEC facilitators, with older youth increasingly recording and posting highly sexualised content on social media platforms as a recruitment strategy for engaging with foreigners. 

Additionally, our interviews revealed interesting psychological and cultural factors that – alongside economic considerations – help explain the prevalence of OSAEC offending in the Philippines. At the individual level, we found that both OSAEC perpetrators and facilitators rely on strategies for offence minimization that enable and sustain exploitative practices. An offence-supportive belief of perpetrators, for instance, is that the financial payments they make to the facilitators ‘help’ victims by contributing to education expenses or other material needs of those victimised. For facilitators, in turn, there is the strongly held fallacy of ‘no touch, no harm’, namely, that children experience no harm so long as they are not physically abused by foreign perpetrators.

These micro-level psychological ‘justifications’ for OSAEC are compounded by cultural norms (e.g., an unwavering respect for the decisions and behaviours of older family members, a generalised distrust in authorities, communal support for or at least tolerance for such activities) that act as barriers to crime reporting, and a long-standing history of inter-communal tensions that undermines the cooperation between regions on OSAEC-related issues. These factors, together with inherent procedural and administrative challenges that deter victims from pressing charges (e.g., concerns about privacy and uncertain support of advocates to assist in filing a report, the involvement of – and the requirement to visit - multiple offices to lodge a complaint) create obstacles to the prevention, disruption and deterrence of OSAEC perpetration in the Philippines.

These preliminary findings open up new avenues for investigation that will be further explored in the second year of the project. This next stage will incorporate data from interviews with convicted OSAEC offenders, financial transactions and chat-logs between Filipino facilitators and – typically Western – OSAEC ‘consumers’ to develop more comprehensive behavioural profiles of supply-side offenders, identify opportunities for offence prevention and – ultimately – point to specific courses of action that financial services providers, social media platforms, law enforcement, and other relevant stakeholders should take to tackle OSAEC more effectively in the Philippines.



Thursday, June 29, 2023

Born of rape: new legislation in the UK

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

In April in the UK, the media reported that children born of rape, or any form of sexual abuse, would be designated as victims of sexual abuse. This was accompanied by a BBC documentary examining the issue and the challenges involved for those children and their mothers. This designation of children born of rape is potentially a two-edged sword as on one hand it acknowledges the harm that was done to them and their mothers, but at the same time, it potentially labels, and could stigmatize them. Also, it expands the definition of “victim” in ways that could potentially dilute it and draw away from the experiences of those who experience direct victimization. This new legislation, while seeming on the surface to be more proactive and victim-centered, needs to be unpacked more.

Sexual abuse is potentially traumatizing to its victims and the people who surround them; research, policy, and practice have borne this out. The life experiences of children born due to sexual abuse is an under-researched area. Over the years, through work with those who have been victimized, individuals convicted of sexual offenses, and organizations dedicated to preventing abuse, there are anecdotes of the impact of being a child born of sexual abuse; many believe it should be recognized as Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). The experience is often related to parental separation, growing up in a traumatized household, diminished parental mental health, and substance abuse issues as well as psychological and mental health issues brought about by the disclosure of conception.

In the BBC documentary, victims of rape who went on to have children as a direct consequence of the sexual assault talked about how it impacted them and the relationships that they had with their children, stating that they were traumatized, depressed, and anxious. The mothers felt that the fact that their child was a product of rape directly impacted their relationship with their child with some rejecting the child, others distancing themselves from them, and others being more protective; all of which was driven by the child being a constant reminder of a traumatic event in their lives that they would rather forget. As the child grew and developed, they often found out that they were born of rape, either through their mother telling them or another means (i.e., a family member or friend), resulting in shame, blame, depression, and anxiety. These children often blamed themselves for what happened. The documentary highlights the intense feelings of shame, guilty, self-blame, anger, and resentment that the mother and child feel around the conception and birth of the child. This includes what these children represented; both mothers and children hoping that they would not end up like their fathers. The documentary ends with the mothers and children reaching a common ground and being able to move forward. In many cases, however, this was after a lot of support and soul searching. The documentary finishes with a need to recognize children born of rape as such so that mothers and children could get the early intervention and ongoing support that they needed.

Another consideration is that it is not always only about the children and women who have been victims of the sexual violence. (New) partners of these women and other family members as parents also carry a great burden when faced with such consequences of sexual violence. They see the consequences and are expected to provide adequate support. But this is not always so obvious. They, too, struggle with this and experience the impact of these complex situations on their well-being and their relationships with other family members. However, this group rarely gets a voice in research and practice. We should not forget them and offer them the necessary tools to deal with this situation and support them when needed.

The creation of new legislation will hopefully identify children born of rape more readily and allow them, their mothers, and the broader family system to seek support, but what does that support look like? This is not addressed in the legislation, and additional funding is not referenced in the press release. In the documentary, participants talk about therapy, counseling, social welfare, and family systems therapy as all things that they have used in the past and found helpful; but these are all costly. While it is important to recognize the harm done to people, it is also irresponsible to expose that harm and not support those individuals in processing it. Recognizing the challenges faced by children born of rape and its impact on them, their relationships is important. While it’s important that we recognize the harm we must provide services to help and support these individuals in dealing with that recognition.