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.