Thursday, October 26, 2023

Halloween and Crime

 By David S. Prescott, LICSW

As a young clinician, I recall the director of a residential treatment facility for adolescents bemoaning Halloween. “Those of us who work in this field wish this ‘holiday’ would just go away,” he said. He wasn’t entirely wrong. The troubled teens we worked with were angry that they wouldn’t be able to party that night, and they had often gotten in trouble because of Halloween-related activities. As I got older, I recall one neighbor (a teacher) who was particularly vulnerable to students who covered his trees in toilet paper. During this time, I also sought to help my own kids get through each Halloween gracefully, exercising both caution and restraint against going too far.

Looking back over my career, however, I don’t recall ever hearing that a client had abused a child while trick-or-treating. I also don’t recall ever hearing about sex crimes on Halloween from colleagues, despite it being a topic of discussion this time of year. It seems worthwhile to mention all of this because people on probation who’ve been convicted of sex crimes often deal with a heightened level of scrutiny and restriction on Halloween, no matter the nature of their crimes.

While I don’t question the importance of appropriate supervision methods and restrictions in helping clients prevent further crime, I do wish that these took place in a more evidence-informed way.

In 2009, Mark Chaffin, Jill Levenson, Elizabeth Letourneau, and Paul Stern produced an excellent study titled, “How Safe Are Trick-or-Treaters? An Analysis of Child Sex Crime Rates on Halloween” for the Sexual Abuse journal. The abstract from that paper speaks for itself:

“States, municipalities, and parole departments have adopted policies banning known sex offenders from Halloween activities, based on the worry that there is unusual risk on these days. The existence of this risk has not been empirically established. National Incident-Base Reporting System crime report data from 1997 through 2005 were used to examine daily population adjusted rates from 67,045 nonfamilial sex crimes against children aged 12 years and less. Halloween rates were compared with expectations based on time, seasonality, and weekday periodicity. Rates did not differ from expectation, no increased rate on or just before Halloween was found, and Halloween incidents did not evidence unusual case characteristics. Findings were invariant across years, both prior to and after these policies became popular. These findings raise questions about the wisdom of diverting law enforcement resources to attend to a problem that does not appear to exist.”

Five years later, Jill Levenson wrote a post for this blog on this topic, pointing out that in her research with Chaffin et al:

“We then examined over 5 million crimes that took place in 30 states on or around Halloween in 2005.  The most common types of crime on Halloween and adjacent days were theft (32%), destruction or vandalism of property (21%), assault (19%) and burglary (9%).  Vandalism and property destruction accounted for a greater proportion of crime around Halloween compared to other days of the year (21% vs. 14% of all reports).  Sex crimes of all types accounted for slightly over 1% of all Halloween crime. Non-familial sex crimes against children age 12 and under accounted for less than .2% (2 out of every thousand crimes) of all Halloween crime incidents.

“Other risks to children are much more salient on Halloween. According to the Center for Disease Control, children ages 5 to 14 are four times more likely to be killed by a pedestrian/motor-vehicle accident on Halloween than on any other day of the year.  These findings call into question the justification for diverting law enforcement resources away from more prevalent public safety concerns on Halloween.” 

Many years of work in residential treatment later, it still amazes me how much our decision-making can be swayed by the emotions that holidays bring out in us. For example, poorly constructed family visits at Christmas that would never have been considered at another time of the year have sometimes led to life-altering consequences. Again, Jill Levenson summarized the emotional elements well:

“Lest some critics suggest that by pointing out the limitations of these laws I am demonstrating a lack of concern for the safety of children, I'd argue that we are all on the same side. We all want to live in safer communities and I agree that public awareness generated by these laws has led to important dialogue about intolerance of sexual violence. But as tax-paying citizens, don't we also want our resources to be utilized in ways that are most likely to achieve the expected goals? And don't social scientists have an obligation to help inform strategies designed to enhance the public good?”

The above points may be even more important today than when they appeared in 2014. It often seems that our public policies today are driven more by in-the-moment emotion than by facts. Here in 2023, as we prepare for more anxiety around Halloween, I hope we will remember all the other threats to children in the world and take the right actions accordingly.

Friday, October 20, 2023

Discovering what was already there: The (re)emergence of Sibling Sexual Abuse

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

It’s interesting to consider the ebb and flow of academic and professional interest. We have seen on the blog over the years (this is post 510 and the blog has been running since July 2010) different topics come and go, some having periods of significance and periods of dominance. We have seen prevention become established, while risk assessment developments roll along in the background and the polygraph remains controversial, sometimes even divisive.

One topic that seems to have emerged strong and is now dominating the conversation, especially in the UK and parts of Europe, that no one really saw coming is sibling sexual abuse (SSA). This month, the Journal of Sexual Aggression had a special issue dedicated to it, as well as the journal of Child Abuse & Neglect; so why the sudden increase in research (and in some areas, practice like the development of a new mapping tool for assessment and treatment planning) interest when SSA is not a new phenomenon?

Controversies about incest and psychology have been with us since Freud. In the US, sexual abuse within families and among siblings became a focus of mental health interventions in the 1980s. At the time, authors such as Chloe Madanes used techniques for family-based interventions that appear harsh and misguided by today’s standards. Her contemporary, Jan Hindman, wrote at length about clarification of abuse and demonstrated how treating those who abuse can assist the healing of those abused. Within the field of treating adolescents who sexually abused, authors such as Jerry Thomas and Joann Schladale emerged in the 1990s and 2000s and addressed SSA through a family-therapy lens. Much has been written outside of scholarly research about the experience of surviving SSA; much less about those who commit the abuse. And fewer still have conducted scientific inquiry into SSA until now.

While the above practice developments took place in the US, there has been a growing conversation amongst professionals about SSA over the past five years in the UK and Europe. This has often emerged from the study of harmful sexual behavior in childhood, with research by the Centre for Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse developing a range of policy, practice, and research papers that indicate that it’s the most common form of intrafamilial violence.

These papers have started to change conversations and perspectives, particularly away from the typical perspective of father (or male caregiver)-daughter incest being the most prevalent form. This changing conversation has led to scoping studies and emerging research conversations across the UK that have indicated a professional and practice interest in the area. A main driver has been the emergence of SSA as a bespoke form of abuse that is not the same as child sexual abuse, peer-on-peer abuse, or other sexual exploitation. SSA involves a combination of different forms of abuse, neglect, and exploitation (sometimes across multiple contexts), which makes it complicated and nuanced not only for professionals and policy makers, but also for the children being harmed, the children harming, their family, and peers.

The complexity of SSA means that those who are victimized do not always feel seen in the system. They may not recognize themselves in service provision, nor in prevention campaigns against sexual violence, which means that they do not necessarily seek help or support. In many cases, they may not realize that they have been abused. The implications of this are that the true prevalence of SSA is unrecognized and underrepresented in children and adults services; this is a problem because if we truly want to prevent and respond to all forms of sexual abuse we need to recognize and see all forms. This means that professionals need to rethink, reconceptualize and redevelop some of their existing practice in this area.

It is important to state that in the flurry of research and practice activities related to SSA (full disclosure: Kieran and Kasia are researching and publishing in this area while David has produced book chapters and trainings in this area), we must balance the old with the new. It is essential to recognize that we need to look at the full picture and consider existing research and practice from other areas and what role they can play in professional discourse, rather than simply creating new information.

SSA sits at the crossroads of Psychology, Sociology, Social Work, and Children’s Studies. We therefore have to consider what these disciplines say about trauma, family dynamics, abuse, violence, and their interactions with each other. The CSA Centre and special edition of the JSA have done this well. It will be wise to acknowledge and recognize what we know before we adapt and develop it for a new perspective or audience. Additionally, it’s important to look towards other trends and norms that are feeding into the establishment of this emerging topic (particularly in light of what we are seeing with the lingering impact of COVID, lockdowns, the presence of trauma and adversity, and the growing influence of pornography on young people). Regarding this last point, with respect to pornography, practitioners are reporting a rise in brother-sister/stepsibling content on relevant sites.  Each of these considerations speaks to how we need a broader social and community recognition of SSA and that conversations around prevention need to happen in homes, schools, and communities.

While we recognize and welcome the increased conversation about SSA in the professional, policy and research arena, we think that it’s important to state that this is not a new phenomenon. Rather, it is a shift in focus regarding a long-existing concern, and a need to address a real issue in the lives of individuals and families. Sadly, this problem receives scant attention in the media and that it is not a topic regularly discussed in clinical practices outside our field. It thus remains taboo. Nevertheless, we hope that with increased scientific attention to this topic, interest from the community, counseling, policy etc. will also significantly increase. Because there are still so many questions that remain unanswered, such as, what interventions are adequate with this group? What prevention measures can make a real impact? How can we also better support adult victims of SSA? To answer these, we need input, insights, and expertise from all services providers and users. Let’s not wait until a serious case appears in the media before we really start investing time, money, and efforts to prevent sibling sexual abuse.


Friday, October 13, 2023

It’s all about taking full responsibility.

 By Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D

Oh Belgium, dear Belgium. A small European country, unknown to many. You can say a lot about Belgium, but you can't say it's boring here politically. For example, a politician has now been discredited for making racist statements toward the Roma community. He made these statements against some police officers on a night out. This news has dominated the Belgian news since Sept. 21, but it was not until Oct. 5 that the politician in question apologized for his behavior at a press conference. During this press conference, he acknowledged that he made wrong statements. Here he emphasized that he does not remember well what was said, that he was going through a heavy period and had drunk too much, and that the statements took place in yet an amicable atmosphere: “Even though it was drunk talk and even though he was joking, I still want to apologize.” During the press conference, he did not mention the word "racist." He would not understand should the public prosecutor prosecute him for racism. "That's up to the prosecutor's office. But it takes an intentional element. You have to want to hurt and offend someone. You really have to be intentional about a group. …that intentional element is absent with me. Also, the state I was in. You really shouldn't put any value on what was said there at the time."

In recent weeks several politicians have been discredited because of their behavior, and each time we heard the excuse: I was drunk. What does this have to do with sexual violence you may think? Well, because it is a behavioural and cognitive pattern we recognize in many clients. Now take the following example. This same politician had coincidentally previously been discredited in the context of sexually transgressive behavior. Although these cases have since been dropped because of a lack of evidence, his arguments during a TV interview still resonate. When asked if he had engaged in transgressive behavior, he stated that it is difficult to determine what transgressive behavior actually is, since that boundary is different for everyone. In the same breath, he stated that it is essential that others have to indicate when this boundary is crossed.

To be clear, I do not mean to imply that this politician nor others I’m referring to have exhibited sexually transgressive behavior, but the rationalizations one hears (e.g., I don't remember it well, I had too much to drink, it wasn't meant to be hurtful, it was not intentional, others have to set boundaries), we also often hear from our clients. And in that sense, their sense of responsibility or rather, lack of, is relevant, also to our field.

We often observe similar defensive reactions and rationalizations in our clients, and this raises several issues and questions. People in public office, such as politicians, should be well aware that they are role models. Obviously, they are also human beings, and people make mistakes. But when you make mistakes, you must take full responsibility and minimize neither the behavior nor the consequences. This is also what we focus on, among other things, while treating our clients. But what are our words about taking responsibility worth, when our clients turn on the TV, hear similar rationalizations from politicians and see that they can get away with it? Another question I’ve been struggling with is the apparent ambiguity that we, both as a society and as professionals, assume in this. Why do we go along with myth-strengthening and cognitive distortions of some people while we condemn the rationalizations of others – and certainly of the target group we work with? Moreover, within the group of people who committed sexual offences we see that we differentiate: with some offenders we seem to accept such arguments as it were, while with others who may be less empowered, less eloquent, have less status and/or have committed more heinous acts, we do not accept these rationalizations at all. My argument is not that we should accept this passing on of responsibility in everyone, but rather that we ourselves adopt ambiguous attitudes, and by doing so, we give ambiguous messages to our clients: some may cross boundaries when drunk, but not you. And it is this ambiguity that we must dare to question, as a society, but also as professionals.


Friday, October 6, 2023

A New Era: The 2023 ATSA Conference

 By Kieran McCartan, PhD, and David Prescott, LICSW

Last week, newcomers to the field and seasoned professionals came together once again for the ATSA conference, which took place in Aurora, Colorado (near Denver). As it has been since the 1980s, it was a time to reconnect with like-minded professionals, learn, discuss the current status of the field, and upskill. ATSA is always one of the highlights of the conference season, not only for North American delegates but for those from overseas.

The first thing to say about the conference was a change to the traditional schedule with some events being dropped and others added (a closing reception) and others being adapted (moving the Next Generation reception to a luncheon, turning the welcome evening into a pre-conference welcome and networking event). The other big change was that the pre-con sessions where on the same day as the opening keynote. This is the first time that ATSA opened on the evening of the pre-con day. These changes where good to see as the structure and function of the ATSA conference has not changed in the 15 years that Kieran has been going (his first one was in Atlanta 2008, when David was ATSA President!!). It will be interesting to hear attendees' feedback and see what sticks for next year.

All things considered, it was an excellent experience. The ATSA Office staff and Executive Director Amber Schroeder, along with Conference Co-Chairs Apryl Alexander and Tom Leversee, had clearly thought out every angle of the experience, down to the background colors of the main stage. They are to be commended for their efforts. While no conference goes without minor hiccups (a missing room number here, a noticeable typo in the program there), the classic “ATSA conference vibe” was in full swing by the end of the first day, with people from around the world connecting with one another.

The plenary addresses this year set the tone for the conference and balanced all the elements that the Conference Committee and Office hoped for. They ranged from issues of the day (sexual compulsion, the impact of online abuse on those who experience it) to the systems we work in (juvenile court) to what has and hasn’t worked since before the living memory of attendees (an 80-year metanalysis).

The first plenary address was by Nicole Prause, PhD, who addressed what we do and don’t know about sexual compulsion as a “disorder.” Central to her work is that if we can’t completely understand the issues involved in sexual compulsion, our efforts to provide treatment related to it will be severely compromised. Dr. Prause reviewed the science thoroughly, often using screenshots of the research she drew upon for her slides. Dr. Prause has often attracted unwanted attention and criticism from those who believe fully in the construct of sexual addiction, and was understandably highly prepared with a very considerable wealth of research to back up her points. For David, this was one of the highlights of the conference. It is easy to read articles, while finding someone with expertise who can summarize the actual science (and not the public’s opinions) is a far greater challenge.

The second day of the conference started with Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio who provided a perspective on working with young people who sexually harmed from the court’s perspectives. Kieran found this talk interesting and different from the typical ATSA keynotes as it gave voice to an often unheard, but important voice in the sexual harm debate, the judiciary. The judge reinforced the restrictions and complications the legal system is bound to, and described how ultimately a judge’s sentence may reflect the reality of the system rather than the nuance of their perspective on what works. It made Kieran think about where the voice of the judiciary is in the UK and how this might be replicated at NOTA. David, who has spent time in the juvenile justice system, also noted some controversial aspects to the judge’s approach, including compelling the young person to describe their crimes in detail at sentencing. David’s opinion was that this is better left to the clinical team treating the youth and can have adverse consequences when it takes place in a courtroom.

The third keynote at the end of the second day was from Lindsey Lobb, Director of Operations for the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. She spoke on the topic of working together to support families and victims of online sexual violence. After providing some general information, Ms. Lobb provided sobering statistics about the nature of online harassment and extortion. It is not nearly as simple as kids sharing nude photos of themselves and facing shameful circumstances. Rather, the scenarios that Ms. Lobb works with involve deep fear, humiliation, vengeance, and the threat of serious harm. In fact, the dynamics strongly resembled/intersected with domestic violence and human trafficking. These will be dynamics that therapists need to address in treatment.

The fourth and final Keynote was Patrick Lussier who, for Kieran, delivered the highlight of the conference. He discussed his meta-analysis of trends in sexual offending reconviction data across 80 years. He illustrated how public policy and public attitudes where at odds with evidence on sexual offending rates and reconviction, asking the question of what was really causing the downturn in reconviction rates across recent decades.

The conference had pre-con workshops that covered everything topics such as risk assessment, prevention, treatment, reintegration, pornography, and sex education. There was also a full array for workshops, parallel sessions, and special interest sessions. Among the more remarkable it-could-only-happen-at-ATSA experiences was a workshop by Tony Beech, David Thornton, and Mike Miner. These experts discussed sexual disorders in DSM-5, with the highlight being a fascinating Q&A at the end involving Ray Knight, who also has a long history of involvement in this area as well and who has collaborated on occasion with the others. To have several of the leading experts in the world (and across our field’s history) engaged in such lively dialog drove home what a unique experience our conference can be.

While some of the format of ATSA may have changed in 2023 its welcoming attitude and commitment to evidence-based practice and professional engagement has not. It was a marvelous accomplishment by many, many people, not least the attendees themselves. The conference was a success, and now it’s on to ATSA 2024 in San Antonio from the 16th -18th of October!