Friday, June 7, 2024

Sex and Autism Spectrum Disorder: Deeper insights into complex relationships (NL-ATSA webinar)

By Minne De Boeck (Stop it Now! Flanders, University Forensic Centre, University Antwerp, Belgium) & Kasia Uzieblo (Helpline 1712, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium)

An essential goal of the Dutch-speaking affiliation of ATSA, NL-ATSA, is to bring science closer to local professionals, and thus, to strengthen the bridge between theory and practice. Therefore, NL-ATSA, hosts webinars and conferences on various topics relevant to our daily practice. Many professionals indicated that they increasingly encounter people with developmental disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder, who conduct sexually transgressive behavior. Autistic traits seem to have a substantial impact on the experience of sexuality, sexual identity and sexual behavior. In addition, developing a healthy and safe sexuality can be challenging for people with autism. In times of social media and easy access to online sexual content, things only seem to get more complex for them. These challenges call for an autism-sensitive approach. The question that arises, then, is how to bring about such an approach in our practice? To shape such an approach, we obviously need, first, to understand how these individuals experience sexuality and where the concrete challenges lie.

For these reasons, NL-ATSA aimed to gain -and share- insights about the impact of autism on. NL-ATSA invited several (inter)national experts for an online webinar to discuss autism and (deviant) sexuality.

The first lecture was given by Dr. Wenn Lawson and Maree Crabbe (Australia). Dr. Wenn Lawson is an autism expert and Maree Crabbe is a pornography-education expert. Their presentation focused on the role of pornography on people with autism. Before explaining the role of pornography and technology, the meaning of the term ‘autism’ was briefly touched upon. Different terms are used to describe autism; hence, it is always necessary to check which term is preferred by people with autism. Today, pornography is more readily available than ever before. Also, it increasingly depicts more aggressive forms of sexuality. Since pornography is normalized by many people, pornography is a sexual educator for many. This has serious implications for young people's ability to appreciate and give meaning to concepts such as ‘free consent’ and ‘mutual respect’. The impact of pornography can be even more challenging for young people with autism. Throughout the presentation, the term ‘monotropism’ was strongly emphasized. Monotropic minds tend to have their attention pulled more strongly towards a smaller number of interests at any given time. This characteristic can lead to young people with autism being particularly vulnerable to the effects of pornography. Moreover, there is a risk of forming unrealistic and unhealthy sexual attitudes and expectations. For example, themes such as strangulation, violence, incest, etc. are becoming prevalent in pornography. Even though these themes clearly do not reflect normal and safe sexual behavior, this can be very confusing for young people with autism. These can create doubts about sexual identity, sexuality experience and sexuality (within relationships). This is partly because of their difficulties in interpreting facial expressions and body language, and the fact that the sensory systems of people with autism can be more easily overwhelmed. These characteristics may increase the likelihood of young people with autism becoming victims or even perpetrators of sexual crime, partly because of their distorted perception of what normal sexuality entails. Dr. Wenn Lawson and Maree Crabbe also gave various tips on how to deal with individuals with autism and the impact of pornography. Think about engaging in dialogue, offering adequate sex education, offering healthy alternatives but also posing certain restrictions. 

The second expert was Robert de Hoog (the Netherlands), physical therapist specialized in sensory information processing. His presentation focused on autism and sensory information processing. As humans we are confronted with an almost innumerable number stimuli from the environment and from our own bodies, through our senses. People differ in what kind of stimuli they find pleasant or unpleasant, that certainly applies to persons with autism as well. Furthermore, some people become under- or overstimulated. Understimulation involves barely reacting to a touch and may involve obsessive behavior. Overstimulated people may experience anxiety upon physical arousal and may perceive stimuli (e.g., touch) as painful. Since persons with autism often face under- or over-stimulation in sexual experiences, it is important to understand these processes when working on healthy sexuality with this target audience.

The next speaker of the webinar was Manon Heyndrickx (Belgium), a forensic psychologist at the forensic inpatient treatment centre PC Sint-Jan Baptist. She discussed how sexuality is experienced by people with autistic spectrum disorder and this from a theoretical standpoint as well as from her clinical practice. She portrayed this by showing the video ‘Mind My Mind’. The functioning of the brain of people with autism and how this functioning affects their view on sexuality was explained. Among other things, problems with central coherence in individuals with autism were addressed. Central coherence refers to people’s tendency to process information globally and in context. However, people with autism tend to focus on local rather than on global processing. Consequently, their processing of information is too detailed, too specific, too context-dependent and/or too absolute. In addition, sexual contacts tend to involve unwritten (social) rules, there is a lot of nonverbal communication and limited predictability. This is precisely what makes it so difficult for people with autism, partly as the result of a lack of social insight and skills, limited empathy, and a lack of inhibitions and knowledge. Preoccupations, sensory preferences and persistent, repetitive, behavior are also mechanisms that could explain their (deviant) sexual behavior.

Hence, although autism per se may not be a risk factor for the development of sexually deviant behavior, it is clearly important for clinicians to gain insight into how certain autistic characteristics influence their (deviant) sexual behavior. The numerous attendance during the webinar and the numerous questions NL-ATSA receives about autism in clients who commit sexual offenses, illustrate how important it is not only to discuss scientific insights, but also to give adequate attention to sharing good practices and clinical experiences.

The last speaker was Professor Kieran McCartan (United Kingdom). This presentation provided an opportunity to learn about the Prevent Through Support Project (2PS), a European Commission-funded project that aims to map and understand secondary prevention programs in Europe for (potential) perpetrators of sexual abuse of minors. The session introduced the project, discussed how professionals in our field can get involved and debated some of the challenges and opportunities for secondary prevention right now. Even though this presentation was not about sexuality and autism, this was an excellent opportunity to make our field aware of the necessary prevention initiatives currently underway.

Friday, May 31, 2024

Relationships, Sex and Health Education: a critical tool in prevention of Child Sexual Abuse

By Sheona Goodyear, PhD student, University of Birmingham.

My Granny became ill with cancer and died when I was eight.

I resisted being left alone with my Grandfather before her death and have been perceived as ‘difficult’ ever since. On one occasion, I screamed “f**k off!” at my Dad, in desperation to be allowed to stay behind at a friend’s house. This was not typical behaviour in my family.

I tell you this because it happened when I was young: younger than year 4.

The government has issued a new Draft Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education: Statutory guidance for governing bodies, proprietors, head teachers, principals, senior leadership teams, teachers (DfE, 2024). In addition, the government has launched a consultation which ends 11th July 2024.

The guidance states its aim is to ‘keep children safe and informed about growing up and the challenges this may present’ (DfE, 2024, p.7). It emphasises a need for appropriate teaching which should be delivered by ‘a trusted adult’ and a wish to ‘help’ and ‘support’ ‘prevention of harm and early intervention’. At the outset this nonspecific language leaves the guidance open to interpretation which is at best a concern. The inclusion of age limits for when topics deemed sensitive should be taught in schools could compound the lack of clarity or be a dangerous backwards step in practice to safeguard young children.

The Secretary of State for Education insists parents hold the main responsibility for teaching Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE). In an ideal world, perhaps parents could deliver outstanding RSHE, but how many children live in an ideal world? Not all children even live with parents. And with experiences of home education fresh in parents’ minds, how many would wish to take on the complexity of the RSHE curriculum?

Another consideration would be whether parents are invested in preventing harm. While most parents undoubtedly nurture their children and promote their best interests, in some home environments this is not the case. While the guidance asserts it has been grounded in advice from an independent expert panel, it seems that evidence commissioned by the government has not been considered. In areas the guidance upholds inaccurate stereotypes, for example, that risks of sexual harm are likely to occur from strangers. The Home Office funded Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse repeatedly confirms child sexual abuse is most likely to be carried out by someone known to the child (Karsna and Kelly, 2021). Furthermore, 53% of victims and survivors of child sexual abuse who contributed testimony to the government’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) reported that the abuser was a member of their family, foster family or a residential carer (Jay, et al., 2022).

The guidance for the primary stage does direct schools to deliver relationships education to ‘equip pupils to recognise and report abuse’ (DfE, 2024, p.17). This is crucial: 79% of victims and survivors reporting to IICSA were aged 11 or younger when sexual abuse started (Jay, et al., 2022).  The Centre for Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse found 55% of victims and survivors were age 11 or younger when abuse began (Karsna and Kelly, 2021). Another consideration is the finding from DfE that more than half of children on child protection plans with significant risk of sexual harm were age 9 or younger (for the year ending 31 March 2021) (Jay, et al., 2022).

Meanwhile, IICSA and other sources agree the prevalence of child sexual abuse is impossible to determine. Only 33% of the IICSA Truth Project participants reported the abuse when it was happening. The Government’s Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy (2021) states:‘it is difficult to truly understand … how many victims and survivors remain unidentified because of under-reporting, under-identification of victims and survivors by agencies, and a lack of robust survey data’(p.138).

Appropriately delivered RSHE is an important tool giving children knowledge to identify harm, whether intra or extrafamilial, and in whatever form. It provides alternative opportunity for a child to consider telling someone if they have experienced sexual abuse. This is particularly significant if adults in the family environment cannot be trusted to act when a child discloses abuse. High quality RSHE might also give a child the vocabulary to be able to tell, so the significance of what the child is experiencing comes across clearly.

IICSA reported that ‘relationships and sex education in schools did not reflect the current challenges facing children and was mostly inconsistent and inadequate’ (Jay, et al., 2022, p.127). If interpreted openly, in the spirit of reducing stigma and enabling children to talk about the challenges their relationships may involve, this guidance could secure better advice for children and young people and support development of healthy, positive relationships in their futures. However, ambiguity in the guidance leaves opportunity for it to be misinterpreted and to undermine the sensitive approaches required which were encouraged in previous documentation. In addition to this, observing rigid age limitations for sharing of information may leave children unprepared for their own development, ill-equipped to identify dangers in their worlds and as unable as I was to explain if something harmful happens to them.

References:

Department for Education (DfE) (2024) Draft Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education: Statutory guidance for governing bodies, proprietors, head teachers, principals, senior leadership teams, teachers. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1090195/Relationships_Education_RSE_and_Health_Education.pdf (Accessed: 22 May 2024).

His Majesty’s Government (HMG) (2021) Tackling child sexual abuse strategy 2021. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/605c82328fa8f545dca2c643/Tackling_Child_Sexual_Abuse_Strategy_2021.pdf (Accessed: 22 May 2024).

Jay, A., Evans, M., Frank, I. and Sharpling, D. (2022) The report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Available at: https://www.iicsa.org.uk/reports-recommendations/publications/inquiry/final-report.html (Accessed: 22 May 2024).

Karsna, K. and Kelly, L. (2021) The scale and nature of child sexual abuse: Review of evidence. 2nd edn. Available at: https://www.csacentre.org.uk/documents/scale-nature-review-evidence-0621/ (Accessed: 22 May 2024).

Friday, May 24, 2024

The 2024 New York State ATSA and Alliance for the Prevention of Sexual Abuse Conference

By David S. Prescott, LICSW, ATSA-F

A Diverse and Engaging Experience

One of the joys of ATSA membership is being able to travel to different state ATSA conferences. Each one is different, and each reflects the landscape and culture of the area surrounding the event. Every conference is organized slightly different, and the New York State ATSA/Alliance conference is a prime example of what a conference can be under the right conditions.

The Perfect Setting: Saratoga Springs

New York is a large state with differing regions. Western New York, with Buffalo being the largest city is a different environment from Northern New York (Watertown, Plattsburgh, etc.), for example, and the New York City metropolitan area more different still. The conference has been held for several years now in Saratoga, a beautiful town best known for its natural springs and horse racing. In May, it presents the perfect combination of natural beauty and a thriving downtown. It is a perfect fit for people coming in from all corners of the state and beyond.

A Welcoming Atmosphere

The NYS ATSA Board of Directors maintain a welcoming presence throughout each event. The first things one notices on arrival are the various get-togethers where old friends re-connect and newcomers are welcome, including gatherings at a local pub and early-morning meditation sessions. And the pre-conference presentations, keynotes, and concurrent workshops all feature a great balance of local and (inter)national talent.

Insightful and Applicable Pre-Conference Workshops

The pre-conference workshops for this year included David Thornton on theoretical and empirical issues in the use of protective factors in assessment. Jenna Sachs and Lorraine DiFiglia presented on their work with trauma-informed crisis response teams, and Kim Spence presented on forensic assessment and best practices with clients on the Autism spectrum.

Timely Keynote Addresses

The keynote addresses covered many bases and reflected the various signs of the times: Alex Rodrigues spoke on the TEAMS (Triage, Education, Assessment, Monitoring, and Skills Building) approach for addressing adolescent online sexual behavior. Alex is, as always, a dynamic and resourceful presenter with good ideas that he organizes very well. The second keynote focused on New York State’s new targeted violence prevention strategy, formed in the wake of the 2022 racist attack on a supermarket in Buffalo. The presenters were Paula Granger, Sara Winegar Budge, and Sammie Wicks. It was clear that the presenters had studied and knew their audience. They represent a field much like ours in the 1990s – filled with very good ideas based on sound practices, while remaining in need of further research. What was clear in their approach was that they have put very considerable and balanced effort into their work; it was not a consciousness-raising effort nearly as much as a progress report based on the best available evidence.

Relevant Concurrent Workshops

The keynote address for the third day was Kim Spence. She has become a familiar name on the conference circuit, and for good reason. Her keynote combined the latest research and ample practical applications. She used case examples to illustrate what professionals need to know and emphasized the need for expertise and best practices. Most welcome to this writer was the sheer applicability of it all, from the basics of teaching social skills to areas of particular concern, such as the use of public bathrooms. She somehow combined all of this with a sense of humor that was edgy yet very compassionate towards her clientele and other professionals.

Finally, the concurrent workshops were all timely and presented well. Sarah Louer and Ashley Wilfore gave a talk on balancing least restrictive practices with less resources for the treatment of adult clients with intellectual disabilities. Angelique Caley presented on intervening with adolescents who are suicidal. Robert McGrath gave a workshop on the ROSAC (Risk of Sexual Abuse of Children). These and other topics do not get the attention they deserve in the usual mix of conferences.

Next year!

Once again, NYS ATSA and the NYS Alliance pulled off an excellent experience for all! And during the proceedings they announced that next year’s conference will again be in Saratoga.

 

 

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Relationships, Sex and Health Education policy for schools will inhibit preventative and early intervention work for child sexual abuse and harmful sexual behaviour.

 By Sophie King-Hill, Ph.D., & Kieran McCartan, Ph.D.

Today the government released their updated Relationships, Sex and Health Education policy for schools for England. The policy states that it aims to ensure that sex and relationship education is age appropriate and fit for purpose; however, upon scrutiny, it is evident that this is far from the case and the new proposals are embedded within dangerous and discriminatory ideology rather than robust research. These new proposals will impact adversely upon the early intervention and prevention of child sexual abuse (CSA), child sexual exploitation and harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) in children and young people. This new draft guidance is contextualised within an election year and much of this appears politically motivated (The Guardian).

The new policy guidelines outline restrictions that include online gaming and social media not being taught before age 7-8, puberty not being taught before age 8-9, sex education not being taught before age 9-10, sexual harassment not being taught before age 11-12, direct references to suicide before age 12-13 and bans any explicit discussion of sexual activity before age 14-15. The logic for this is not based in evidence but appears to be grounded in the concerns of conversative MP’s and their voters (see press release for more context). Interestingly head teachers, educators and related charities do not share the same view, instead asking for a more considered and nuanced approach (BBC news; Brook’s response). The guidance seems to be ideologically informed as it is not evidence based.

When considering the prevention and early intervention of CSA and HSB the real juxtaposition is how the policy seems to be at odds with the current public health and criminal justice joint approach highlighted in the recent, child sexual abuse strategy (2021) developed by the same government. The strategy states that.

‘Children are given the best start in life, including access to information and education around healthy and abusive behaviours.’

In the strategy the government talks about upskilling professionals who work with children's parents/carers and young people about the reality of sexual abuse, how to notice it, prevent it, and respond to it.  The new draft guidance also appears to be in conflict with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child  articles which highlight the rights of those under the age of 18 to education, information and support that will keep them safe (see specifically Articles 3, 13,  17 and 28). Access to good RSHE is the right of the child and young person as it can allow then to make informed choices as they grow and protect them from CSA and HSB.

 

Some of the central conflicting aspects of the guidance being taught too late when considered in the context of CSA and HSB prevalence and ages. They include not teaching what constitutes harmful sexual behaviour, that making and sending indecent images is a crime, the laws around sexual exploitation, abuse and grooming and the risks of inappropriate images before ages 11-12. This is further contextualised by the draft guidance stating that details of sexual acts and the concept and laws relating to sexual violence, including rape and sexual assault, and not teaching the details of violent abuse before ages 14-15.

However, if most sex and relationship education is not being taught until ages 11-12 then a direct conflict with how younger children are protected from CSA arises. CSA prevention research and practice shows that primary (broad based social education on CSA and HSB, including but not limited to school, organisational, and intuitional) helps upskill individuals and communities, and that secondary prevention (working with at risk communities, both the individuals with the potential to sexually harmed and those at risk of being harmed) can reduced  problematic and harmful sexual behaviour in children and adults (Di Gioia, Beslay, Cassar, & Pawula, 2023). Reducing first time, as well as repeat, sexual abuse and providing safe spaces where CSA can be disclosed leading to early intervention is often embedded within education. One example of this being Together for Childhood (TFC) spearheaded by the NSPCC and partners, which takes a community-based approach to the prevention of CSA. The TFC approach involves school and community education about the reality of sexual abuse in childhood, the warning signs and how to respond, which is in line with the CSA prevention strategy conflict with the recommended RSHE guidelines published today. Additionally, the guidance also seems to contradict the work of the Centre for Expertise in Child Sexual Abuse, Children's commissioner for England, and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, all of which talk about making the conditions where sexual abuse can happen tougher for potential offenders by upskilling, informing, and equipping communities with the skills to identity and report sexual abuse, this includes education. The risks of online grooming from a young age are clearly outlined by the current guidelines reinforce silence and victim shaming, they reinforce the idea that sexual abuse is not talked about and implies that it is taboo, shameful and problematic, which can create the conditions that make CSA and HSB more likely and sustained.

The need to have age-appropriate conversations about sex and relationship education is not up for debate, but the answer is thinking about and developing resources that allow school, and related organisations to do this. It is important to consider how conversations are framed about relationships and sex, online and offline, talk about attitudes to women and children, as well as consider the impact of problematic and abusive behaviour. These are complex questions and need thoughtful and considered answers, not blanket bans. A more realistic conversation that needs to be had that is inclusive of all parties, including CYP which are missing form this debate (see King-Hill, 2024, for the views of CYP on current RSHE).

Child sexual abuse, including harmful and problematic sexual behaviour carried out by CYP, are social and community issues. This needs to be embedded holistically across the socio-ecological model and maker school a lynchpin and safe space to have these conversations, because as we know from research and practice that for many CYP home, and family life, are often the places where sexual harm can occur. The new draft guidance, in the context of CSA and HSB, is dangerous and risks resulting in long term adverse outcomes for children and young people.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

NOTA 2024 Annual Conference review

 

By Kieran McCartan, PhD., & Dulcie Faure-Walker, Ph.D.


The annual NOTA international conference took place in Birmingham, England, last week.  Despite it being NOTA’s 24th annual conference it was the first time that it had been held in the UKs second-largest city. There were over 280 attendees, across three days, with six keynotes and 36 parallel breakout sessions. For this blog post, we talk through the highlights of a successful, engaging, and thought-provoking conference.

 

The conference kicked off on Wednesday morning with a keynote from Marcella Leonard  where she talked about the role of child protection and safeguarding in sport. Marcella has worked with several sports organizations and governing bodies over the years and really highlighted the need for organizations to do more to protect children, but especially boys in sport. The presentation highlighted the importance of protecting children and young people’s mental health as well as their physical health, and that there needs to be more accountability in professional practice nationally as well as internationally. Marcella’s presentation was followed by one from Nina Vaaranen-Valkonen from Suojellaan Lapsain, Protect Children who discussed the data and outcomes of their recent anonymous multilingual surveys on the dark web with CSAM users. The survey reached and engaged with over 35,000 individual participants across 21 different languages, and is the first to give a more in-depth, global view of CSAM use and how it factors into an array of sexually abusive behaviors, online and offline. The data highlights that CSAM users have been exposed to CSAM material at a young age, often when they were children themselves, that it’s a gendered activity (i.e., men looking at images of young girls), that they are a higher risk of contacting a child, and that there has been an increase in livestreamed CSAM material. Nina’s research is based on the largest population sample of CSAM viewers, offering us real insights to this group and their activities to better frame prevention and well as treatment.

 

 

On Thursday the conference started with Anna Glinski from the Centre of Expertise in Child Sexual Abuse discussing their research on the prevalence and lived reality of child sexual abuse. It is important to note that this was the center for expertise’s first time delivering a keynote at NOTA, and I dare say it won’t be their last. Anna discussed the under reported and under recorded nature of CSA, that professionals needed to be support better through training and supervision to do challenging work, as well as that need to work together in a multi-disciplinary, trauma informed way to prevent and respond to CSA. Like in the previous day the conversation of the under reported nature of sexual abuse victimization of boys was raised and stated that we needed to do more to support boys in reporting, as well as recovering from sexual abuse. Anna’s talk was followed by a split keynote on females who sexually abuse by Anna Motz and Kate Fraser, which was a much welcome to return to conference for an issue we have nor discussed for several years. The keynote was a perfect balance of research, clinical practice, and frontline engagement. Anna as a researcher and clinician discussed the reality of females who sexual offend and what this means in terms of sexual interest, motivation, offending and rehabilitation; whereas Kate talked about the challenges that females face in the prison system and how this impacts their time inside and, ultimately, if it helps of hinders their rehabilitation. This was a welcome keynote to an often-overlooked population in the treatment of people who sexually offend.

 

 

The final day of the conference started with Professor Alexis Jay who discussed the main processes, findings, and outcomes of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Alexa highlighted the need for them to be a real social and political legacy to the enquiry and that it needed to make a significant contribution to making children’s lives better. Although the research of the inquiry came out at a challenging time for the government, Liz Truss resigned as Prime Minister on the same day, Alexis assured the audience that the conversation was not finished and that there were still ongoing conversations about what to implement and how best to do it. This led to the final keynote of the conference by Professor Aisha Gill on her recent research on policing race and gender. Aisha gave an engaging and thought-provoking talk on the relevance of understanding intersectionality, but especially race and gender, in policing sexual abuse and the need to really tailor practice, and understandings, to the communities that you are working in. Aisha highlighted the challenges, and opportunities, to keep in mind while engaging with diverse communities and how the state needs to change its approach to being more nuanced and trauma informed.

 

 

Across the Wednesday and Thursday afternoon we had 36 breakout sessions covering topics as broad as research and treatment on sibling sexual abuse, harmful sexual behavior in young people, risk assessment, sexual abuse prevention, masculinity and sex education, treatment, desistence, and updates from HMPPS on current policy as well as practice. In addition, we also had a number of lunchtime fringe events, including one on the future development of NOTA Northern Ireland branches, a discussion of a Child Sexual Abuse prevention framework for England and Wales lead by NSPCC and Barnardo’s, as well as a session jointly lead by the NOTA research and student committees on developing and conducting a PhD.

 

This year the conference had a special online edition of the Journal of Sexual Aggression curated by Dr. Nadine McKillop; readers are invited to go to the journal website and twitter account for more information.

 

In closing, the conference was a great success. It was a great opportunity to reconnect and reengage with colleagues as well as learn about innovative research, policy, and practice. The next NOTA conference will be in Belfast in Early May 2025, we hope to see you there!

Friday, April 26, 2024

What’s New? (And What Isn’t?)

By David S. Prescott, LICSW

Recent changes involving ATSA have inspired discussions about change. Over the years, ATSA has been many things to many people, inspiring comments such as “the ATSA conference is like coming home.” Not surprisingly, some discussion has focused on changes in leadership: Our Executive Director (Amber Schroeder) and new members of the professional staff are fully settled into their roles. The office itself is primarily virtual, with ATSA staff spread through various parts of the US (and if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that this kind of arrangement can be as effective as it is economical). Each of the individuals involved are getting excellent reviews by ATSA’s board of directors. And to top it off, ATSA’s leadership has updated our mission statement:

Creating a world where ending sexual harm is a shared responsibility and an achievable goal.  ATSA champions research and treatment, informs public policy, and advocates for best practice. Together, we can shift narratives on preventing sexual abuse perpetration.

It doesn’t end there, though. Every individual involved, in the office and on the board, has worked to make and adapt to the many changes necessary in the times. These changes have been as singular as getting task force reports finished and as broad as addressing the economic realities of the times. It is therefore no surprise that many would have questions about the direction the organization is going in. Indeed, there has just been a survey to inform the next iteration of our strategic plan. Some members have naturally expressed confusion, while others have observed that change is hard.

A Look Back

This all seems worth mentioning against the backdrop of our history. So much has changed. Memories of my earliest experiences with ATSA include listening to speakers such as Elaine Hatfield speaking about the history of romantic love and Dennis Doren discussing the evidence behind his approaches to risk assessment. Fran Henry, the Founder of Stop It Now! Talked about sexual abuse through a public health lens, which authors such Joan Tabachnick and Geral Blanchard were also beginning to discuss. Bill Marshall gave a plenary address in which he discussed the emerging but little-known Good Lives Model. At the time, these were all true innovations. Even the idea that sexual abuse is preventable was arguably in its infancy.

The Present Landscape

Fast forward to the present: in the past several weeks, I’ve had the privilege of attending the MnATSA and MATSA/MASOC conferences. To name just a few of the topics (and with apologies to all that are not mentioned):

·       Sexual behavior in the current era (with researcher par excellence Debby Herbenick reviewing her findings on the prevalence of rough sex and choking)

·       Treatment of clients with high levels of psychopathic traits (which was not the dominant belief at the turn of the century)

·       How to communicate with the media (in which Kelly Socia provides hair-raising examples; it is no wonder he has been asked to speak at so many conferences)

·       Sex positivity and inclusivity (presented by different people, such as Bud Ballinger and Molly Shepard in different locations, with Nikole Nassen presenting elsewhere on the topic in the coming weeks)

·       Cultural reverence, humility, and competence (with Apryl Alexander, although Tyffani Dent has spoken on this elsewhere many times in the past few months)

·       Assessments of the Impact of Race and Culture (a/k/a IRCA assessments

·       Raising awareness of the challenges faced by LGBTQ+ people (multiple workshops!)

This is not to say that these newer topics have crowded out the advances in other critical areas. Andrew Brankley gave an excellent presentation at MATSA/MASOC on controversies surrounding pedophilia, and progenitors David Thornton and Robert McGrath are slated to appear at the New York State ATSA/NYS Alliance to Prevent Sexual Abuse conference next month in Saratoga. Recently, on the circuit has been Mark Olver, giving excellent talks on topics such as offense-analog behaviors and psychopathy.

Ongoing Challenges

Things have indeed changed, often very dramatically in recent years. Some of these changes have confused and even angered some professionals. What remains fundamentally important to our field, however, is that we keep talking about the issues.

With all of these changes, however, some things still really need to change. Just during this week, we have seen Harvey Weinstein’s conviction in New York overturned (readers will remember the allegations as having sparked the #metoo movement). Likewise, the US government agreed to pay a $138.7 million settlement over the FBI’s botching of Larry Nasser’s infamous sexual assaults. It is no wonder so many people who are sexually assaulted don’t wish to come forward and don’t trust the systems involved. Where the legal system once did not take sexual abuse seriously enough, it now seems we have to come to terms with the fact that our attempts to improve it are still too far from producing the results we need.

Welcome Aboard!

If you’re new to this work, welcome aboard! We need more of the innovations and conversations mentioned above. If you’ve been around a while, please stay! We need your wisdom! Our work has evolved, and yet there is still so much to be done.

 

 

 

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Sibling Sexual Behaviour and Abuse: UK-Canada knowledge exchange trip

By David Russell, PG Cert, Sophie King-Hill, Ph.D., & Kieran McCartan, Ph.D.

Before we begin it is important to set out the language we are using in this piece as it has been part of an important discussion of late. In our work over the past four years focussing on this issue we have seen many instances and examples of the behaviour between siblings being clearly sexual abuse and sexually abusive. However, there are also key examples where this is not the case and that the issues present as sexually inappropriate and/or sexually problematic. This is an important distinction, and with this in mind, for this blog, we will use ‘sibling sexual behaviour and abuse’ (SSB/A). We would also like to acknowledge that terminology in this space always evolves and that SSB/A is not a static term and is likely to change as we begin to understand more about this issue.

#SiblingsToo day is held in April each year and hosted by Nancy Morris, based in Ottawa, Canada. Nancy first developed and introduced the #SiblingsToo awareness day in 2023. This day brings together a range of lived experience and professional voices within the complex theme of SSB/A. A survivor of SSB/A, Nancy hosts a range of discussions via podcasts and videos tackling themes such as the impact, prevention and societal responsibility within the context of SSB/A.  

This year David Russell (Thriving Survivors, UK), Professor Kieran McCartan (University of West of England, UK) and Dr Sophie King-Hill (University of Birmingham, UK) marked #SiblingsToo day by embarking on a trip to Canada to share international approaches in responding to SSB/A, sharing research, learning and practice considerations.  The trip started in Ottawa at Nancy’s famous office, reflecting on the #SiblingsToo data collection and testimonial portal where hundreds of survivors have currently placed their experiences of SSB/A from all over the world.  An incredibly powerful experience, the portal highlighted the international need for bespoke supports for survivors impacted by SSB/A and the need for international co-ordination and coalition.  This supported the four of us to use the time together and record a podcast discussion called ‘in five years’. This podcast explores our professional and lived experiences to consider what needs to happen in the next five years to address the SSB/A. 

We made the most of our five days in Canada and met with a range of professionals and groups.  This included a thought-provoking meeting with volunteers at Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) held in Ottawa. CoSA in Ottawa works to help integrate men convicted of a sexual offence (Core Members), mainly against children, back into the community post release. Throughout the course of the conversation we learned that in addition to the traditional child sexual abuse interventions that CoSA run they also had some which were based on cases of SSB/A, which was interesting to hear especially given some of the restorative, integrative and desistence challenges these posed. This discussion highlighted some interesting themes for us all which influenced our next discussion with Dr Christine Gervais, an Associate Professor from the University of Montreal who has spent many of her academic years focusing on the rights of the child.  We then had a productive meeting with academics from The Police and Public safety Institute at Algonquin College in Ottawa, where we looked at cross over in our work and practice and potential collaborative projects.

Academically and professionally we are collectively passionate about the role of health and child protection has within SSB/A. We were particularly keen to see how frontline health and child protection teams respond and intervene with families affected by SSA/B.  To explore this further we met with child protection professionals at Childrens Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). The team here work with a range of children and young people including but not exclusive to those impacted by child sexual abuse (CSA) and those that display harmful sexual behaviour (HSB), specifically during immediate crisis.  This conversation allowed us to share learning and explore gaps within health provisions both within Canada and the UK.  Keeping with the health theme, we were interested to unpack this further and specifically understand what the current mental health service provision was in Ottawa and its role within supporting children and young people affected by SSB/A, HSB and CSA.  This established a meeting with Heidi Nichilo and her team at the Youth Services Bureau, Ottawa.  A passionate and proactive group of professionals, we were truly refreshed to hear about the fantastic work they do.  We discussed the prevalence of SSB/A within health services and explored potential ways to ensure children, young people and families have safe routes to access to supports and disclosure pathways in relation to SSA/B. 

Our final day of the trip was in the beautiful Montreal, requiring a 4:30am wake up for a train ride from Ottawa to meet Anaïs Cadieux Van Vliet, a PhD student exploring the role of siblings that have not harmed, or been harmed in a family experiencing SSB/A. An area in much need of exploration.  A quick breakfast and discussion with Anaïs and we were on route to the University of Montreal to deliver our panel input on ‘International approaches in responding to SSA/B: Research & Practice’ at the Centre International de Criminologie Comparée (CICC).  This panel input included a fascinating Q&A session and discussion, providing a safe place for an in-depth discussion.  We felt incredibly privileged to share a space with academics, students and those with lived experience, our sincere thanks to the team at the University for facilitating this and for their hospitality.

The learning from this trip has been significant and the opportunity to meet with so many passionate people working in this field has gained us further connections which we hope will support our mission in tackling SSB/A on an international level. 

This trip could not have been possible without the huge support of Nancy Morris, we are incredibly grateful to Nancy and her husband Jim for their fantastic hospitality and eclipse hunting expertise.  


For more information or support around sibling sexual behaviour/abuse please see the Thriving Survivors website: https://www.thrivingsurvivors.co.uk/

To register for the Thriving Survivors 2024 conference addressing sibling sexual behaviour/abuse please see: https://www.thrivingsurvivors.co.uk/event-details/ts-annual-conference-2024

 

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

The Adolescent Risk Assessment Paradox

 By David S. Prescott, LICSW

A recent conversation among ATSA members on risk assessment with adolescents sparked both new ideas and old memories.

It all seemed so simple a few decades ago. Science was marching forward in developing methods to assess dangerousness among people who had been violent toward others. There were even references to “hitting the forensic sound barrier,” with the development of high-quality measures. Understandably, the most pressing issue was how we could best classify people according to risk. Entire books were written on the topic; many of the older writings are still worth a read. It was only after we had a solid understanding of risk assessment methods in forensic settings that we could focus more on other areas. Our understanding of dynamic risk naturally led to a clearer understanding of treatment needs. Fast forward to the present, and we have promising measures for assessing protective factors. It is now thirty years since Chris Webster and his colleagues (Vern Quinsey, Grant Harris, Marnie Rice, and Catherine Cormier) published the first version of the Violence Risk Assessment Guide. It may not seem so now, but it has been an exciting few decades to be alive and watching these developments.

It has been equally exciting to watch similar efforts in the adolescent world, but for very different reasons. It was natural that researchers would attempt to develop risk assessment measures for youth. The first version ot the JSOAP was described in April 2000 in what is now Sexual Abuse, affectionately known as “the ATSA Journal.” At around the same time, James Worling and Tracey Curwen made the ERASOR available. In 2003, Drs. Prentky and Righthand published the JSOAP—II, this time with a caution that has been quoted many times in conference presentations and conversations: “No aspect of their development… is fixed or stable. In a very real sense, we are trying to assess the risk of ‘moving targets.’”

These developments were welcome. Other scales came along as well, including the JSORRAT—II, the SAVRY, the MIDSA, and others. The authors of the JSORRAT—II, JSOAP–II, MIDSA, and ERASOR earned reputations for making themselves available to questions, ideas, and discussions in both public and private settings. The results seemed consistently good but not great. The tentative progress of the adult world led these same authors to urge great caution. However, the contexts in which professionals worked soon came to expect a lot from risk assessments. Behind the scenes, I’ve heard of cases where judges would order assessments using a specific measure, causing dilemmas for evaluators who felt the tools were helpful but not the final word in assessment.

Over time, professionals noticed that the ultimate referral questions seemed to be different for kids than for adults. While adult risk assessments often focused on establishing a baseline of likelihood for future sexually violent acts, the implicit question for many professionals assessing juveniles was often closer to, “What do we need to do the help this kid make it into adulthood without hurting more people?”

As all of this was happening, thought leaders in the adolescent world had been talking about areas like the neurological impact of trauma since the 1990s. Some authors, including Janice Bremer and Jane Gilgun, began publishing on protective factors as long ago as the late 1990s (although not with the same rigor that the adult world does now). Kevin Creeden was among the first to question why we were focusing on risk when there was so much work to do with trauma and neurodevelopment. Most importantly, Gail Ryan and her colleagues (including Sandy Lane and Tom Leversee) published articles and entire books on the importance of understanding the developmental processes and environmental context of youth to best serve them. These are all ideas that gained greater credibility in the adult world later.

While this may all seem like a history lesson, some of the questions involved along the way have been maddening:

 - Given the meta-analyses by Michael Caldwell, which argues that recidivism rates have decreased since 2000, and Patrick Lussier (et al.), which argues that in fact recidivism rates have been low all along, what can any professional meaningfully say about risk for sexual re-offense?

- If we recognize that adolescents are far more likely to re-offend non-sexually, shouldn’t we abandon our sole focus on risk for future sexual harm? Or at least put it in the context of other potential harms? And strengths? And possibilities?

- How do we best understand a young person’s risk when it is so dependent on the environments in which they live, go to school, etc.? How much noise is there in the system that makes any form of prediction impossible?

Even today, a conference presenter quipped that, “Kids change so fast. Even when I go back and interview them a week later, it seems like they’ve gotten a foot taller.”

These are major reasons why the change in focus of recent years has been so welcome. The newest generation of measures, based both on research and experience, are focused far more on understanding adolescents, including their development, context, protective factors, needs, progress already made, etc. Important questions remain as to their various properties, but the thought that has gone into their development is encouraging. Their structure enables clinicians to reflect on and understand clients while developing recommendations. They help us to see past the age-old questions of risk and focuses on what professionals and caregivers can meaningfully do to mitigate whatever risks exist.

Sometimes the highest risk that adolescents pose is not to live up to their full adult potential.

The most recent conversations have focused on what to call our reports. The most common answers seem to center on the idea of needs assessments, as a few predicted many years ago.

Perhaps our greatest risk is forgetting that across world history, including time, place, and cultures, adults have always had trouble predicting how kids will turn out. The current focus in many quarters on helping kids become adults may be what we were best suited for all along.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

The well-being of professionals: a shared responsibility

By Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D.

Many professionals working with individuals who have committed sexual offenses often find it challenging to discuss their work with those around them due to fear of misunderstanding or trying to avoid any awkward silences. However, we should be extremely grateful to all these professionals for their daily dedication to preventing sexual violence and their willingness working with these clients. This type of work is far from easy and significantly affects the well-being of these professionals. They may experience emotional and psychological stress from repeated exposure to disturbing and traumatic accounts. Professionals may feel frustration, helplessness, or burnout when dealing with individuals who have committed sexual offences. Additionally, there may be ethical dilemmas and challenges in maintaining objectivity during treatment or supervision of offenders. The nature of the work can also impact personal relationships and social interactions, as professionals may encounter stigma or negative judgment from others. These challenges may partly explain why we face high staff turnover within our forensic services.

It is interesting but especially encouraging to see a growing focus in research on the forensic professional and how they experience their work. To illustrate, two recently published articles underline the impact of working with people who committed sexual offences.

Taylor and colleagues (2024) studied the effects of working with sexual offenders on Canadian probation officers. They interviewed 150 professionals and found that while some probation officers reported no significant impact, many struggled with the nature of their work. Repeated exposure to detailed stories of victimization and perpetration was linked to reduced mental well-being and the development of disorders such as PTSD among professionals. The gender of the professionals was identified as a vulnerability factor, as the field predominantly employs female professionals while working with mainly male offenders who may exhibit dominant behaviour and hostility towards women, which may lead to complex and even threatening interactions between the client and the professional. The personal circumstances of the professional, such as entering into new intimate relationships or the birth of a child, were also intertwined with the experienced negative impact.

Similarly, Maguire and Sondhi (2024) explored the extent and nature of work-related stress among police officers investigating rape cases and serious sexual offenses. They found that despite experiencing work-related stress, a substantial number of police officers continued to work. Many felt compelled to do so either by themselves or through pressure from colleagues or superiors. However, this coping mechanism often proved inadequate and led to negative consequences such as dissociation and compassion fatigue towards victims. While many officers knew where to seek support for psychosocial issues, most felt that their police department did not focus enough on promoting well-being and providing professional psychosocial support.

Whether working with individuals who have committed sexual offenses has a greater impact on well-being compared to working with other forensic populations remains debatable. Nevertheless, these and other studies emphasize that resilience and adequate self-care strategies are necessary when working in this field, which is also highlighted in a recent blog written by David Prescott, Janet DiGiorgio-Miller, and Sarah Snow Haskell. Self-care strategies are however not enough; support from colleagues and supervisors is also essential. It is not solely up to the individual professional to seek necessary support for psychosocial issues, work-related stress, moral dilemmas, etc., but colleagues and supervisors should also be attentive to possible signs of decreased well-being and pro-actively promote collegial or professional support. Caring for the professional is thus a shared responsibility.


Friday, March 15, 2024

The intersection of online and offline behaviours in sexual abuse: reframing approaches

 By Kieran McCartan, PhD & Sophie King-Hill, PhD

Over recent years there has been a rise in conversations about sexual abuse in the online environment. These conversations encompass a wide range of online behaviours such as catfishing and its impacts, sexual and relationship education in UK schools, the production of Child Sexual Exploitation material internationally, as well as the nature of pornography on legal sites (i.e., Pornhub). The main premise that all these conversations have in common is how the relationship between sexual abuse and exploitation is understood in the online and the offline world.

There are different components to consider when addressing the issue of online sexual abuse. These include education, safeguarding/child protection, law enforcement, and the responsibilities of online companies. These all need consideration when attempting to understand and change social norms in relation to the online world. Many of the solutions that are offered are rooted in established models and ways of thinking because they are familiar to us does, however due to the differing complexities of the online world they may not be fit for purpose. One of the first steps in this process is to recognise the differences between online and offline sexual abuse.

Research has been ongoing into the online world for the past 30 years, with knowledge and practice moving on significantly. Due to this there is a relatively good understanding of the practices that occur online, who partakes in them, the reasons why they engage in these activities, and how we can prevent reoffending. The understanding of the relationship with technology and the online world has evolved and it is not simple.

The online and offline worlds are becoming increasingly intertwined in our daily lives and identities. In relation to young people, the boundaries between these two worlds are not present and are seamless. Therefore, it is important that professionals recognise how identities are evolving on and offline. There needs to be a shift in the understanding of behaviour and action and how we think about this issue needs to shift.

Online sexual behaviours need reframing to recognize that our current ideas about the online world and how to approach the issues that it presents are not fit for purpose. The relationship between the online and offline worlds needs to be redefined in respect to sexual abuse. Consideration needs to be given to how conversations are framed in society and how change policy and practice can influence this. Realistic education and awareness programmes are needed that put this debate at their heart, that don’t see talking about the online environment as a bolt on or afterthought and that actively involve the users.

It is therefore important to recognise that our perspectives of this are rooted in our experiences and knowledge of the offline world and these need to adapt and evolve to fully tackle the issue of online sexual abuse and harmful sexual behaviours.

Monday, March 4, 2024

Finding joy in our work and our lives

By David S. Prescott, LICSW

Reviewing the blog posts and ATSA communications for the membership (The Wire, the Catalyst newsletter) of the past few weeks provides a wonderful snapshot of the work we all do. From risk assessment to protective factors, and empirically sound treatment, it’s all in there. As we’ve said before, the people in this field can be real superheroes.

Of course, there are topics that can be difficult to talk about. A recent survey found many of us experiencing the signs and symptoms of burnout despite having good overall self-care practices. Likewise, last week’s blog, about imposter syndrome  generated lots of agreement (ironically, almost all through private channels).

None of these topics address the joy that can be found in doing this work. It is easy to overlook and often fleeting.

If I may share an example: In the mid-1990s I worked in a residential treatment program for adolescents. I had provided treatment to a young man who had caused significant harm to his siblings.  They had all been horribly abused by their stepfather. He had been placed in another program that was shut down by the state because of rampant sexual abuse by the staff against him and others. Working with him was a challenge. Privately, some staff had even given him the lighthearted nickname of “the Hurricane.” We worked to put his life back together, address his own victimization, his actions towards his brother, and everything one might expect. After much work, we were able to step him down to a program much closer to his home.

In the hours after he left the program and I was preparing for more cases to come my way, my supervisor said, “Nice work, David. You never violated the relationship.” She was right, but it would take many hours for the full impact to set in. I had focused for so long on the tasks of treatment and the various case-management and documentation needs, that I had forgotten the sheer joy of the work itself. I had never considered the joy that comes with providing a relationship centered on helping the other to reach their full potential. And I had never considered the joy of taking one step closer in the direction of being a better therapist, citizen, and man. It’s fundamental to the reason any of us do this work: we want to help, and it feels good to get it right.

Why is it that we don’t discuss joy in our work more often? Is it because it’s not always so well defined? I went to the Merriam-Webster dictionary online, and its first definition was “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires.” Personally, I wonder about some of this. What kind of success, fortune, or possessions? Is this a materialistic sort of joy? Is there more? Maybe our difficulty defining it contributes to our difficulty talking about it? Maybe we don’t talk about joy because so much of it is beyond words? Maybe it’s because we often bond with one another talking about our pains, fears, and misfortunes? Maybe it’s because the joy we experience is often so fleeting? (After all, the joy in the case above was time-limited by my need to open another case the same day!)

There could be many reasons why we don’t always focus on joy as much as we could. After all, too many of us work in joyless environments with clients who have never experienced joy. Is it too easy for us to become numb and jobless as a part of working in close proximity to abuse? Do we lack the skills not just to self-regulate, but to co-regulate with others as a partial result of bearing witness to suffering? Is returning to a place of joy a skill that we can develop? I believe it is.

I watched ATSA Past President Dr. Tyffani Dent give a speech to some colleagues while accepting an award a few years ago. She talked about her experiences of “Black joy,” those moments somewhere between fulfillment and ecstasy that she and others experience simply by virtue of being Black. Despite the horrific legacy of racism, this Black joy has never gone away. I came away with the impression that it is indestructible, at least from the outside. If I’ve read correctly between the lines, Tyffani actively and intentionally maintains an awareness that joy is possible, and takes effective action to find it, with others, in her life. Can we all do something similar?

As the reader will notice, I do not profess to having the answers, only questions. If I may be permitted some lighthearted humor, no one knows better than me that I will never directly experience Black joy. But just being in its presence for those moment gave me deep hope for the future. How can we become aware of the possibilities for joy all around us? Probably more accurately, how can we return to our places of joy more frequently and deeply? Despite the challenges of our jobs, the work itself provides many opportunities for joy.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Imposter Syndrome

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

At last year’s ATSA conference, David had the good fortune to facilitate two discussion groups for people who, due to their circumstances, don’t have many colleagues with whom they can speak openly. By far the two biggest topics that came up were working in isolation and imposter syndrome, also known more recently as “imposterism.”

During these sessions, newcomers to the field heard from us old-timers, who all agreed that we still feel it often. It all reminded me of the time — years ago — when a world-famous researcher openly discussed how even his submissions have occasionally not been accepted for the ATSA conference. While many simply acknowledged having had the same experience, many more thanked the researcher profusely, saying they were grateful to know that they were not alone; it can happen to anyone! 

Have you ever had that feeling that someday you will be outed as the fraud you fear you might be? I (David) am very lucky that I was far along in my career, with nothing to prove to anyone, when a disgusted colleague approached me.  My name had come up in conversation with a prominent researcher who said, “Don’t forget… He’s not Dr. Prescott, just Mr. Prescott.” My response was probably along the lines of “whatever,” but doubtless it would have hurt had I still been an early career professional. Not everyone has been so lucky. 

The reason I mention all this is not because of all the research showing just how common imposterism is across professions. Nor is it to illustrate that men are just as prone to it as women and nonbinary people. It’s to emphasize something about ATSA members learned across many decades now: we have your back! We support you and want you to succeed! What you do and who you are matters. As much as we may argue over research and practice within ATSA, the work you do on a day-to-day basis is likely to help our clients and communities. 

While there are legitimate questions about treating and over-treating the truly low risk, and similar questions about the structures of our laws (lifetime supervision, civil commitment, etc.) the fact remains that everyone doing this work has something to contribute to our broader goals of stopping offending, helping clients live better lives, and building community safety. 

If there is anything most ATSA members learn from membership and attendance at our conferences, it’s that we all support each other and especially our newer members and students. As a part of this, it’s worth mentioning that those of us who are further along in our work lives don’t always have to project a perfect image of ourselves. Allowing ourselves to be open about our doubts and failures can also be inspiring and reassuring precisely to those who look up to them or are making their way in the field. We all have an obligation to help the next generation along.

Psychologist Jill Stoddard recently wrote a book on this topic titled, Imposter No More. In it she advocates flexible thinking skills that can help individuals find their way through the often crippling effects of imposterism. In her TED Talk and interviews, she discusses her own experiences, including how her family teased her with weight-related nicknames. She is now a highly regarded practitioner of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, often referred to simply as ACT. Every time she shares her story, making herself vulnerable along the way, she touches hearts and inspires others. Her work is worth a look. 

In his recent interview with ATSA Executive Director Amber Schroeder, Karl Hanson also emphasized the importance of proceeding fearlessly with our careers while remaining open to the feedback that helps us become more effective. 

In the end, the message from ATSA’s leadership and blogging team is simple. We have your back! If you’re feeling like you have no one to talk with, feel free to reach out. No one should feel alone in this work.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

The challenge of balancing human rights for all

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

Last week’s blog post focused on an unfortunate reality: We can’t always discuss things publicly lest we be labelled as political partisans. Although no one is without some degree of biases and leanings, it is simply too easy to attack and be attacked for statements taken out of context. We recall the sad fate of someone who commented in social media that balancing the human rights of the client and the community can be a challenge. His statement was sent to a local politician, who went to the media and scored significant political points saying that this doctoral level researcher and policy wonk had a “catch-and-release policy towards predators.” (It is worth noting that many human rights are enshrined in international law as well as state and agency policies; the Tokyo Rules are one example. In the US, the death penalty has been ruled unconstitutional for sex crimes, but that hasn’t stopped some states from trying.)

Working in the criminal-justice field often presents many paradoxes and contradictions that leave professionals conflicted about their roles, and/or their belief systems. In some cases, we have to and having to justify our roles to others. On the one hand, compassionate treatment approaches are the most effective. On the other hand, the practitioner may have to work hard to to look beyond their own biases and beliefs to do so. Important to remember is that having compassion for someone does not mean that you condone or endorse their behavior; it means that you can see into their situation, try to understand, and prioritize their highest needs (which means developing a lifestyle free of harming others).

Over the years, this blog’s authors have written about the early-life adversity that has influenced our clients and the need for trauma informed practice in order to ensure the most effective participation in treatment. What we often talk about less is human rights, although many have done so. It’s easy to respect the human rights of law-abiding people, but more difficult top do that for people who have hurt and harmed others.

In recent weeks there have been many cases across Europe that have called for us to have respect for others, to call in question our moral lens and to advocate for human rights in difficult cases. We have seen a call for care homes to be built for aging individuals convicted of sexual crimes, an individual being tried and convicted of manslaughter on the grounds for diminished responsibility for the murder of three people last year in the UK, and the change in incarceration conditions for Josef Fritz as a result of his dementia diagnosis. These cases beg the question of how we best treat those whose who have committed horrific crimes when their capacity to understand their punishment is gone. Where are our human rights thresholds?

Not surprisingly, many have found it difficult to tread a line between compassion and punishment, especially when the system is built on the grounds of punishment. Public, as well as political, sentiment often reflects that. However, its important to remember that many professionals are in the field of rehabilitation, even as we work in environments that stem from punishment.

Rehabilitation, treatment, and support cannot be seen as an afterthought or an add-on to punishment. We all want people to come out of the criminal justice system better able to manage themselves in society than when they went in, or at least no worse. We have seen the damaging legacy of doing nothing through the failed “nothing works” doctrine of the 70’s and 80’s started by Robert Martinson, and that became a hallmark of the Reagan-Bush and Thatcher eras. We know though research and practice that treatment works, but that it can take effort and that it works in different ways, at different times, for different people. This can make it complex and not easy to rationalize or fund when one can’t entirely predict the outcomes. Although it can seem like we are in a revised nothing-works era currently, that is not true with the influence of public health and prevention policies in criminal justice. We are still talking about treatment and rehabilitation; but it’s challenging for professionals at times to engage in these conversations and find support.

We need to be compassionate in our work and think about the human rights of often risky and at-times dangerous people. How can we hope for them to reduce their risk and to integrate back into society if they can’t learn about pro-social, empathic, and good behavior from us? How can we best accept our clients even as we don’t accept their behaviors? How do we process our work with others? How do we explain it? Where do we seek help? And, more importantly, do we get help when we ask? It is important to provide a rationale, critically discuss, and support each other in the challenging times we are experiencing. Supporting people who have seriously offended and are dangerous is as much a collective endeavour as an individual one.