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.


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