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!