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.