Tuesday, October 24, 2017

"Safer Communities & Better Lives" - Realizing the Narrative

Note: Since 2010, Chief Bloggers, Robin Wilson and I, along with Associate Bloggers, David Prescott and Jon Brandt, and dozens of guest bloggers, have turned out 239 blogs with over 300,000 total page views.  As a clinician and writer, Jon Brandt has been contributing to the Sexual Abuse Blog and The Forum newsletter since 2012.  With today’s blog, Jon is stepping down as an ATSA blogger, but readers will see occasional guest blogs and other writing from Jon in the future.  - Kieran

While it’s not an official moto of ATSA, the first time I heard someone describe the quest for, “safer communities and better lives,” I remember thinking isn’t that the essence of what we should all be striving for?  Regardless of our role in the prevention and treatment of sexual abuse, it seems the catchphrase of Safer Communities & Better Lives could help to realize more successful outcomes – for every victim, for and every offender, for their families and friends, and for communities.  When we underreact or overreact to sexual misconduct, the result might be neither safer communities nor better lives.  What’s being missed is not just equitable balance, but the fact that safer communities and better lives are not mutually exclusive.  We can realize BOTH Safer Communities AND Better Lives.  “Creating Balance” is the theme of ATSA’s 36th Annual Conference.

“When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Current social rules and laws around interpersonal sexual behavior have roots in 20th Century sexual mores, widespread myths about sexual offending, and the co-occurring faulty narratives.  Hardly a day goes by without a media story about egregious sexual misconduct.  But it’s encouraging that, in the 21st Century, such reports frequently result in a social media firestorm, like “#MeToo.”  Consider how we can create more productive dialogue for more effective interventions and prevention with these…

Ten Narratives for Achieving Safer Communities & Better Lives

1.  Victim advocates, treatment providers, and other stakeholders are becoming unified for the same common goal: the prevention of sexual abuse.

2.   Sexual violations occur on a continuum, requiring different responses and interventions.

3.   Sexual violations flourish in darkness and secrecy; it’s difficult for sexual abuse to exist when everyone is talking about the meaning of respectful interpersonal sexual conduct, even kids.

4.   We can’t expect young people to know all the rules and laws for interpersonal sex.  As a public health concern, education and dialogue must be integrated into our educational systems.

5.   When sexual violations occur between children, they typically occur through different pathways than adults, and require different responses.  We need to get the message right.

6.   In the interests of sexual safety, we are better at separating people from their families than we are at putting families back together again.  All parties to sexual abuse need help for personal recovery, and to restore healthy relationships.

7.   The public widely believes that: “sex offenders” are intrinsically evil, recidivism is “frightening and high,” and the answer is incarceration.  Evil is not a diagnosis, and punishment is not a cure.  Overwhelmingly, offenders want help for recovery.  We know how to do that.

8.   Public policies and civil regulations for “sex offenders” resemble the Dark Ages practices of public scorn and banishment.  “They” come from “us” - they are our sons, brothers, fathers, neighbors…  and they come from all walks of society.

9.   Effective Interventions can be found in the empirical guidance of Risk, Need, and Responsivity, and in strength-based principles of recovery, such as Good Lives.

10.  Misguided policies and practices come from misinformation.  When people are educated about sexual abuse we can realize Safer Communities & Better LivesIt takes a village.

Several years ago, knowing that half of all sexual assaults are infused with alcohol, and that men are responsible for the majority of sexual violations, I wrote, “Is it possible that every guy is a six-pack of beer and one bad judgement away from being a sex offender?”  A lot of men told me they cringed when they read that.  As long as boys become men, “male” is a robust risk factor associated with sexual violations. 

The “Rule of 90” is a handy way to change the narrative about sexual abuse: 
  • About 95% of sexual abuse is committed by males.  We need to better understand social, cultural, and biological etiologies of sexual abuse.   There are many stakeholders, but men need to own this, and mentor boys.
  • About 95% of sexual offenses are committed by previously unknown offenders.  Resources committed to known offenders could be better spent on primary prevention. 

Perhaps it could be called the rule of 95, but the “Rule of 90” allows some wiggle room for errors in data and reporting.  Even if we can’t achieve accuracy on the rate of sexual reoffending, we know that the prevalence of sexual misconduct, around the world, is indeed, frightening and high.  Myths about recidivism being “frightening and high,” continues to drive misguided policies and practices.
“For every complicated social problem there is an easy solution, which won’t work.” -  H. L. Mencken

Laws rooted in fear and anger propagate anger and fear.  Civil regulations (i.e. sex offender registries, residence restrictions, and sexual offender civil commitment) are rooted in erroneous rates of recidivism, strain the true cost-benefit ratio of effectiveness, and contribute to false narratives about community safety.  There is strong evidence that civil regulations are unwarranted, and growing concerns in US courts that some regulations of “sex offenders” violate the US Constitution.
The US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has endorsed the false narrative of “frightening and high” rates of sexual recidivism, but recently issued a surprising, unanimous ruling to limit government overreach in the management of “sex offenders.”  Packingham v. North Carolina has nationwide implications for the right to Internet access.  In another compelling ruling, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Does v. Snyder, issued a scathing rebuke of Michigan’s civil regulations.  In unanimously finding Michigan’s SORA laws unconstitutional, Circuit Judge Alice Batchelder wrote, “Tellingly, nothing the parties have pointed to in the record suggests that the residential restrictions have any beneficial effect on recidivism rates…  [It] brands registrants as moral lepers solely on the basis of a prior conviction.  It consigns them to years, if not a lifetime, of existence on the margins.”  In 2017, SCOTUS let Snyder stand.  The Boston College Law Review writes, “Snyder is a shining example of a court actually engaging with scientific evidence that refutes moralized judgments about a particularly disfavored group.”  Judicial courage can change the narrative, but the courts alone cannot fix systemic problems.

Judges, prosecutors, probation officers and corrections agents may have little leeway with imposing mandated civil regulations, but they typically have great discretion over prosecution, sentencing, release, and conditions of probation or parole.  False narratives of “frightening and high,” that drive policies and practices, can be overcome with empirical evidence.  ATSA members who know the research can inform our allied professionals, and help to ensure that empirically-based practices are applied to every client.

“Do the best you can until you know better, then, when you know better, do better.”   -  Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou’s famous quote doesn’t suggest that when we know better we “can” do better, but implies that when we know better we “should” do better.  ATSA is in a unique position to change the narrativeSafer Communities & Better Lives will come from researchers who are providing the empirical evidence that we need to establish best practices, from clinicians, who are on the frontlines of treatment, and from many allied professions who are working to ensure justice and equitable outcomes for victims, offenders, and their families.  People who work in this field are not apologists for “sex offenders.”  Treatment for those who have sexually offended does not come at the expense of victims; it honors them.

Treatment is effective.  Evidence indicates that a strong therapeutic alliance, sensitivity to trauma-informed care, principles of positive psychology (e.g. motivational Interviewing, Good Lives), and individualized supervision, contribute vastly more to successful recovery than confinement, onerous conditions of probation, or ineffective civil regulations.  Civil regulations are especially harmful to kids.  Too often, it seems, perceptions of “safer communities” come at the expense of “better lives.”   Isn’t it likely that Better Lives and Safer Communities could be mutually beneficial, if not synergistic?

“Everything will be okay in the end; if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”   -  John Lennon

A colleague on the ATSA listserv recently observed, about the evolving state of our field, “If we are not appalled at what we did 20 years ago, we have not worked hard enough to be better.”  Perhaps we should tweak that sentiment a bit…  if we suspect that current policies and practices are contradicted by existing research, let’s not wait 20 years to be appalled.  Now would be a good time to bring policies and practices in line with empirical evidence.  If challenging status quo feels professionally risky, perhaps too far ahead of colleagues where one practices, ATSA’s got your back.  We need only to know the research, step into our fears, and follow the lead of ATSA experts.  There’s a whole bunch of them in Kansas City this week.  By working together, and Creating Balance, we can truly realize Safer Communities & Better Lives.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”  -  Margaret Mead
I am very grateful to Robin Wilson and ATSA for the privilege and opportunity to be an ATSA blogger.  And much appreciation to current co-bloggers, Kieran McCartan and David Prescott, for the team effort to bring (hopefully) thought-provoking blogs to ATSA members.  It’s been a great run, but “it’s not the end.”
All the best,

Jon Brandt, MSW, LICSW

Friday, October 20, 2017

Changing the social norms on sexual abuse, sexual assault, and sexualised behaviour

By Kieran McCartan, PhD, David Prescott, LICSW, & Jon Brown, MSc

The recent, often deeply courageous statements and disclosures about sexual abuse, sexual assault, and sexualised behaviour on social media over the last week since the start of the Harvey Weinstein allegations should not shock us. They conform what we already knew, that there is a normalisation of sexual abuse and harassment in our culture.

Over the last couple of years there has been a steady expansion in the number of people affected by sexualised behaviour coming forward, some related to historical cases while some is contemporary. What this indicates is that people feel more confident in coming forward, more confident that they will be believed as well as supported, more confident that the system will respond appropriately and better able to engage socially on the topic. At the same time, there is no denying the bravery behind each disclosure; the stakes are as high as they are unpredictable.

Consequently, the movement towards greater transparency and disclosure brings a multiplier effect. That is, the more that people come forward and talk about sexual harm, the more it’s exposed and – therefore – the more that abuse gets reported. As a society, we start to realise that our idealised social norm of “no abuse” is not the reality, that sexual harm is occurring on a daily basis across our communities locally, nationally and globally; therefore, we need to work harder and smarter in responding to it.

While the most recent conversation about the reality and impact of sexual harm focuses on Hollywood, it reflects what we have seen in the world of sport, social care, religious organisations, politics, and education. Once we started to have the conversation about sexual harm, we realised that all same thing was happening cross organisationally, cross culturally, and internationally. The story is all too familiar: it is about power and control, it’s about taking advantage, it is about perceptive social norms, low level sexism and social acceptability. It is about similar people and actions in different contexts! If we think about the parallels between the different contexts we are talking about men (mainly, but not always) in powerful roles that can take advantage of individuals (mainly women, but not always because men have come forward too) desires to achieve something (achieve in an industry or promise of a better life) and offer them a way to achieve it with caveats (sexual abuse, blackmail manipulation) resulting in the victims being placed in an impossible situation that is often perceived as the norm (identified through their multi experiences of the same thing at different times in the same industry and similar stories from their peers) that gets internalised, accepted and normalised. Once we started talking about institutionalised sexual harm in care homes and sport, why did we not think that it would be the same in other areas?

The question is how do we respond? Just like Jimmy Saville, Jerry Sandusky, and too many members of the Catholic Church, Harvey Weinstein is not the only sexual predator in entertainment. This is larger societal issue and taps into the roots of our normative social practices, relationships, boundaries and values.

Perhaps most difficult to consider is that many of those for whom there is strong evidence of wrongdoing – Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, and many others – are or have been respected as public figures. Whatever one’s leanings, the truth about who has abused can be deeply painful. Indeed, that is one of the many ways that abuse is pernicious and harmful.

Our current situation will not change overnight. The brave people standing up to post “#metoo” are a great start as their actions reveal the scale and impact of the issue at street level. We need to turn this outpouring into a constructive response that prevents sexual harm and changes the support social norms. Violence, including sexual abuse, is just not acceptable. If we’ve learned anything over the past two decades, it’s that sometimes the most practical action one can take is to speak up and speak out. We need to promote the message of a zero tolerance approach to all forms of sexual abuse and violence wherever it is happening and we need to promote and support prevention approaches that will address the problem at the earliest possible opportunity, in schools, in families and in our communities. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

We can do better at preventing & responding to sexual abuse on college campuses: The impact of Title IX Rollbacks.

By Becky Palmer, MS, & Jenny Coleman, MA, LMHC.

The United States Department of Education (DoE) withdrew statements of policy and guidance for colleges and universities on Sexual Violence in September 2017. The DoE also issued new guidelines that substantially changes the interpretation provided under the previous administration.  These new guidelines will be available for comment in the near future.  Title IX’s intent is  to help keep all students safe by allowing them to live without fear of violence—by charging colleges and universities with providing prompt and equitable responses to sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual violence. While indeed a tall order, the use of Title IX has been remarkable as a pioneer effort to combine what we know about the impacts of violence and trauma with the ability to pursue certain rights, such as education—understanding that no one really can work or study when they are afraid or hurt. Although Title IX initially gained popularity in 1972 through its use to address gender-based discrimination in sports, it has provided a critical foundation to address other barriers based on gender that interfere with one’s equal opportunities and rights.

In 2011, the Dear Colleague Letter (https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201104.pdf) was issued across campuses, calling for adherence and timely responsiveness to Title IX’s policies. .  We’re not sure why it became important to rescind this letter’s directives for quick and equitable responses.

The Campus Advocacy & Prevention Professionals Association (CAPPA) wrote in their CAPPA Position Statement on Title IX Implementation for Campus Sexual Assault: 

“Prevention professionals have at their fingertips solid evidence-informed strategies for educating students in this realm. These are focused on what decades of scholarship tell us about what factors are associated with harming others, especially in late adolescents and young adults, who comprise the majority of our students. These include both individual-level risk factors like a preference for impersonal sex and hostile masculinity, as well as community-level risk factors like general tolerance for sexual violence and weak community sanctions for sexual violence. It is our responsibility as student affairs and allied professionals to address the full range of risk factors in order to enable our students to live safely and thrive, not just on our campuses but in their family systems and post-education lives.”

As members of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA)’s Prevention Committee we know through experience  that we can make a difference when there is accessible, and knowledgeable support and treatment – especially when problematic behaviors are identified early. We can offer help to young adults struggling with their own sexual behaviors, personal boundaries,  and troubling concerns; and campuses can become  more safe for all students.   Training is a crucial element of providing equitable responses.  We understand that it is unfair and ineffective for college administration to be held accountable to create a safe environment without being given the training, preparation, and tools to know what to look for in high risk situations, how to assess risk in reports of misconduct or assault, or how to even engage its population in responsible bystander interventions and self-care behaviors. The answer isn’t to diminish the call to action of Title IX but rather to build its capacity to actually create sustainable change and reduce sexual violence and its harm on everyone impacted.

We can do better; Secretary DeVos is right – talking about sexual assault is a difficult and uncomfortable conversation, yet one that we are morally responsible to have and to get right. It is imperative to have conversations that illuminate our understanding of what it will take to create safe environments for all students. As a society at large, and as institutions of higher learning responsible for the safety of an estimated 20 million enrolled students, we have an ethical obligation to do better than eliminate the very processes that hold us accountable for the safety and well-being of anyone seeking an education.

We can do better; as Title IX provides a map for strengthening campus’s ability to practice and support safe and healthy boundaries and behaviors. Rather than disregarding or even eliminating Title IX’s responsibilities to provide responsible, honorable and protective responses to any concern of sexual harm, officials and campus leadership need to collectively guide the creation and maintenance of  learning environments that promote respect, empathy, understanding and above all – safety.

We can do better;  through ensuring that officials conducting investigations and hearing processes are provided annual and ongoing training on evidence informed understanding of what may contribute to sexual abuse, dating violence, domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexual assault and stalking.  All students do deserve a fair and impartial process.  It is important to ensure that practices pertaining to investigations and hearings are fair.  We need to respond with balance, without labeling individuals as sexual predators or "monsterizing" anyone accused of sexual misconduct in ways that they can't recover from. We need to develop resources that allow both the accuser and the accused to continue their education while the investigation continues and ensures that punishments are not administered before a finding has been achieved. Schools are already required to do this through Title IX guidance and the Clery Act. The Clery Act requires that “proceedings must afford a “prompt, fair, and impartial process from the initial investigation to the final result” – with trained and non-biased officials. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-federal-jeanne-clery-act-already-addresses-many_us_59bb128ce4b06b71800c37f7   https://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/handbook.pdf

We can do better; we must use what we know about college campus life to institute proactive and protective measures, resources and responses. We know that the college campus culture is one that may lend itself to acts of heightened impulsivity and more risk taking behaviors. The youth and young adults on these campuses are still experiencing intellectual, emotional and physical development changes that may contribute to other (environmental, social and personal) risks that may lead to sexually harmful behaviors.

In campus culture, there are risks of many forms of sexual misconduct, and if schools use the opportunity to intervene earlier, then everyone will benefit. Colleges and universities have the opportunity to intervene in all forms and all levels of sexual misconduct with responses that are individualized yet hold to standards of safety, well-being and equality. By taking early advantage of these opportunities, we can set a different social norm that does not wait until a sexual assault or rape is reported.   In fact, schools are responsible for understanding and addressing this, and do all they can do to "eliminate the hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, and, as appropriate, remedy its effects”, as stated in Title IX. Prevention must be part of a school’s obligation. (Citation: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/qa-201404-title-ix.pdf) .

We can do better; for courageous survivors of sexual assault seeking responses that are not only validating and respectful, but also address security needs. Sexual assault remains vastly under-reported we need to understand that there are many victims of sexual assaults both on and off our college campuses, deserving of justice and respect.

We can do better; by recognizing that medical and mental health services for students are critical for safety planning. Treatment and recovery supports for victims will only help strengthen a campus community, and for any youth or adult recognizing their own risk of harm to others and who bravely seeks out help, providing skilled resources is part of any comprehensive prevention plan. Treatment services and resources for individuals with sexual behavior problems can help individuals move forward with their lives and allow them to interact as productive members of society. http://www.atsa.com/sexual-offense-specific-treatment. 

We can do better; by having productive conversations that are informed by research, best practices and experience. Listening to every person affected by violence informs all of us of both compassionate and restorative steps to pursue, not only focusing on retribution. We know restorative justice brings about healing and change unlike retributive justice which brings only punishment. http://www.cscsb.org/restorative_justice/retribution_vs_restoration.html

We can do better; we know this is not the time to scale back Title IX requirements. Rather it is time to fully embrace and embed a commitment to improve our practices and dedicate our resources and knowledge to improving the safety, liberty, and well-being of everyone across all environments, including institutions for high learning.

We can do better!

Friday, October 6, 2017

A Little Bit of Sunshine, A Lot of Dedication & A Focus On Prevention: NPEIV Annual Forum 2017

By Katherine Gotch, MA, LPC
The National Partnership to End Interpersonal Violence (NPEIV): Global Partners for Peace Annual Forum was held on Saturday September 23, 2017 in beautiful San Diego, California. NPEIV is a multidisciplinary collaboration of professionals, organizations and community members with the mission of making the prevention of all forms of interpersonal violence (e.g., sexual abuse/violence, child abuse, intimate partner/domestic abuse, elder abuse) a national priority and to encourage healthy relationships by linking science, practice, policy and advocacy. This was the 9th year for the Forum (formally Think Tank) and another successful coming together of people from around the world focused on ending all forms of interpersonal violence across the lifespan.
This year’s Forum began with recognition of prior leadership and the growth of the organization over the past ten years as highlighted by the addition of an Executive Board and a formal welcome to the first elected NPEIV president, Viola Vaughan-Eden.  Guest speakers Reco Bembry spoke about fundraising and philanthropy within a purpose driven economy, and Katherine Chon spoke on preventing and disrupting human trafficking victimization. The NPEIV National Plan was also highlighted, with an emphasis on the almost two hundred organizational and individual endorsements for the Plan.
NPEIV has seven actions teams (Public Awareness, Training & Mentoring, Research, Practice, Public Policy, Dissemination/Translation, Global Peace) focused on tackling all forms of interpersonal violence and supporting the mission of the National Plan, a fully referenced treatise of recommendations based in research, best practices, and common sense to further NPEIV's mission of ending interpersonal violence across the lifespan. Each action team met for the majority of the day to strategize and prioritize their agenda and activities for the upcoming year, with a final reporting of next steps to all attendees at the conclusion of the Forum.
As the Senior Chair of the Public Policy Action Team (AT5), it was wonderful to see the energy and interest from ongoing and new attendees at our meeting. In addition to continued work on proposed federal legislation focused on requiring training of all forms of interpersonal violence within undergraduate and graduate programs, development of an overarching statement for community engagement related to policy and reaching out to potential partnership organizations within each member’s community were identified as primary goals for AT5 members for the upcoming year. The intent of this community outreach is to develop stronger relationships with grassroots and community level programs and organizations directly involved with those impacted by interpersonal violence in order to facilitate mutual learning and strengthen the ability for policies to meet the needs of our diverse and unique communities. Continued work on research based policy was also an area of discussion, as well as strategies for incorporating trauma informed concepts into policy and the ongoing work on current areas of focus (e.g., corporal punishment, sexual abuse, intimate partner violence).
Activities of other action teams for the upcoming year included, but are definitely not limited to, effective linking of research to practice through the Violence Research Digest, creation of an easily accessible database of trauma practitioners to assist consumers in locating providers within their region, development of an NPEIV blog, strategies for addressing interpersonal violence at the international level, and continued work on the development of the Handbook of Interpersonal Violence Across the Lifespan.
One of the most rewarding aspects of my involvement with NPEIV over the past four years has been the networking and opportunities to learn from individuals across all disciplines, many of whom I may not have had the opportunity to connect with otherwise (e.g., medical professionals, members of the military, community members). To reach our shared goal of prevention, breaking down the silos in which we often become stuck and having dialogue without agenda across disciplines is the only way we will ever be successful – and I think NPEIV, as an umbrella partnership of numerous organizations, agencies, and individuals working to end interpersonal violence nationally and internationally, creates a safe venue for these sometimes difficult conversations, yet integral partnerships, to take place, develop and continue to grow.