Thursday, June 27, 2024

Slow-Walking Sexual Abuse Prevention?

 By David S. Prescott, LISCW

With all the modern technological wonders, artificial intelligence, space tourism, and the like clearly, we live in a fast-paced world, but advances don’t all progress at the same rate, especially where human rights are concerned. For example, The United States became a "free" democracy in 1776, but women didn't get the right to vote until nearly 150 years later and weren't allowed financial independence until the 1970s. Even now their fight for bodily autonomy goes on. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery at the start of 1863, but it took another two years for many who were enslaved to find out about it, and more than 150 years for their emancipation to be celebrated with an official holiday. Still the struggle for equality goes on.  Examples of slow-walking abound.

Slow-walking is a common tactic in street protests, effective enough, apparently, that last year the UK passed legislation to allow police to restrict any protest that hinders or delays traffic. Merriam-Webster defines “slow-walk” as, “to delay or prevent the progress of (something) by acting in a deliberately slow manner.” Wherever active resistance to the unfolding of human rights wasn’t happening, slow-walking the end of these abuses was there in its stead. Setting aside the other horrors, it grimly reminds us of the power of passive-aggressive behavior and its exhausting toll on us all.

Fast forward to the present and our field, and we see that a simple Google Scholar search on “racial disparities in criminal justice” yields over 300,000 results. Likewise, a search on “racial disparities in child protective services” yields over 235,000 hits. While mainstream media often uses terms like “controversial” in addressing public debates on race, power, and privilege, there is really nothing controversial in the reminder that our society is slow-walking the amelioration of these injustices. They are right in front of us all.

What does this have to do with the prevention of abuse? For starters, a recent investigation claimed that 1,800 law enforcement officers may have sexually abused children and that high-ranking officials are “failing” at protecting minors. Further, prosecutors have given favorable plea deals to officers who have admitted their crimes. This is not even close to the first time that abuse by law enforcement officers has made headline news or even appeared in this blog (for example, see here and here). Over the years, I have worked with and trained many law enforcement officers for whom I have nothing but admiration and respect. The point that I and others have made is that the systems in which many of these officers operate appear to have slow-walked their efforts at preventing further abuses. As Phil Zimbardo observed, it’s often not just the few bad apples, but the bad apple barrels and the bad makers of apple barrels (which are the policies that allow systemic abuses to occur).

Other examples often appear in the news. In the past few days, the pastor of a “megachurch” resigned after it came to light that he had abused a 12-year-old girl in the 1980s. While this happened some 40 years ago, the media coverage quickly noted other recent scandals, such as an expanding probe last month into New Orleans Catholic church leaders. Decades after the first sexual abuse scandals in churches, Kansas is now considering requiring church leaders to report suspected child abuse in most cases. Utah has also only recently pursued a similar policy.

Sexual abuse does exist everywhere, and I am highlighting easily identified cases of abuse within law enforcement and religious institutions because they are in positions of trust in society. No profession is free from it, as one can see in reviewing the minutes of state professional licensing and regulatory boards for psychologists, social workers, and clinical counselors.

The question for all of us engaged in prevention efforts is whether we can see and stay focused on the systemic slow-walking of efforts to prevent sexual abuse.

In the end, contrary to what many in the public may believe, sexual abuse, like other forms of violence, is preventable. Professionals in our field have many reasons to be hopeful, take pride, and find joy in our work! However, it is not enough to limit our activities to assessing and treating individuals. We need to identify and call attention to slow-walking by institutions when it occurs.

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