Monday, May 2, 2016

Q & A with Elizabeth Jeglic on “The Role of Psychopathic Traits in the Development of the Therapeutic Alliance Among Sexual Offenders”

Walton, A.,  Jeglic, E. L., & Blasko, B. L. (2016). The Role of Psychopathic Traits in the Development of the Therapeutic Alliance Among Sexual Offenders. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research & Treatment, first published online March 2016.

There is a growing body of research demonstrating that the therapeutic alliance (TA) affects outcomes among specialized forensic populations, including sexual offenders. Despite this consensus, researchers continue to question whether higher levels of psychopathic traits are conducive to the formation of a therapeutic relationship for high-risk sexual offenders. Thus, the current study adds to the literature by examining the relationship between the TA and levels of psychopathy among a sample of incarcerated sexual offenders participating in sexual offender treatment. Overall, we found no significant relationships between Psychopathy Checklist–Revised (PCL-R) scores and the Working Alliance Inventory (WAI) for either client or therapist ratings. However, when we excluded those offenders who were participating in aftercare, a significant negative relationship was found between client ratings of the Bonds subscale and PCL-R total scores. Next, after controlling for risk and group status (aftercare/non-aftercare), we found no significant differences between either client or therapist total WAI scores when compared by level of psychopathy as measured by the PCL-R (low, >20; moderate, 20-30; and high, >30). Furthermore, when Factor 1 and Factor 2 scores of the PCL-R were examined individually, neither factor significantly predicted either client or therapist total WAI score after controlling for risk and group status. Findings are discussed as they pertain to the treatment of sexual offenders with elevated levels of psychopathic traits.

Could you talk us through where the idea for the research came from?

My colleague Brandy Blasko and I have been interested in process issues in sex offender treatment for a while now.  We decided to start assessing the therapeutic alliance in the treatment programs she was overseeing to determine what factors influenced the formation of the therapeutic alliance and ultimately how the therapeutic alliance would relate to treatment outcome.  As many of the individuals in the sample were high risk sex offenders they were also given the PCL-R as part of their assessment battery.  I also teach the treatment and rehabilitation of offenders and one of the issues that we discuss is the treatment of offenders who have elevated levels of psychopathy.  The clinical lore still remains that these individuals cannot be treated and thus many are excluded from treatment programs.  I discussed this issue with one of my Master’s students and she was interested in assessing how psychopathy influenced the formation of the therapeutic alliance among those who have committed sexual offenses as part of her Master’s thesis and hence the idea for the study was born.

What kinds of challenges did you face throughout the process?

We struggled as to how to define psychopathy, and the SAJRT reviewers were ultimately very helpful with this issue.  In the literature various cut-offs for psychopathy are used ranging from anywhere from 20 to 30 on the 40 point scale.  The offenders in our sample were not selected based upon psychopathy and thus we had a range of PCL-R scores.  Additionally I believe that there is no specific cut score that makes someone psychopathic but rather that psychopathy is a continuum of traits and behaviors.  Thus with the reviewers’ feedback we conducted the analyses two ways to capture this continuum but still remain true to the existing literature by conducting a separate analysis where we divided the offenders into groups based upon low (under 20) moderate (20-30) and high (greater than 30) scores on the PCL-R.

What kinds of things did you learn about co-authorship as a result of producing this article?

As a professor, I often work with my students to get their manuscripts published.  As this is often the first time that they have ever published anything the manuscripts often require multiple drafts and lots of back and forth.  Dr. Blasko as third author was instrumental in the process as it is nice to have a fresh set of eyes on the manuscript.  I always find that having co-authors makes a paper stronger as you challenge one another to do better work.

What do you believe to be to be the main things that you have learned about Psychopathic Traits in treatment?

I think that our study further adds to the research suggesting that those with elevated levels of psychopathy can participate in treatment.  Before conducting the study I thought psychopathy scores may be inversely correlated with the therapeutic alliance as clients with elevated levels of psychopathy are viewed to be difficult in group.  However, the findings are in line with the more recent research suggesting that those with psychopathy can benefit from treatment and engage in the treatment process.

Now that you’ve published the article, what are some implications for practitioners?

I think that the findings of this study underscore the fact that those with elevated levels of psychopathy can benefit from treatment and they appear to be no less likely to form an alliance than any other client.  It also suggests that elevated levels of psychopathy may not be related to disruptive behaviors in group as it would stand to reason that therapists would rate difficult clients more negatively than non disruptive clients.  Therefore the take home message for therapists is that psychopathic traits may have little bearing on the treatment process.

Elizabeth Jeglic, PhD

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Sex, Politics, Laws, the Courts… and ATSA

 “If we in the judiciary do not have the authority, indeed the responsibility, to right fundamental wrongs left excused by a majority of the electorate, our whole intricate constitutional system of checks and balances, as well as the oaths to which we swore, prove to be nothing but shams.”

Sex educator, Dr. Marty Klein recently published a blog titled, “Politics?  I’m Interested in Sex, not Politics.”  His thesis is that sex and politics are inextricably connected, and if you care about rational public policies regarding the management of sexual behaviors, it helps to have a stomach for politics.

There’s a natural tension between complex social problems, public opinions, and laws – perhaps that’s one definition of “politics.”  In a democracy, laws are frequently driven more by public opinion than sound science or constitutional principles.  Some “sex offender” laws seem to be driven by fear, anger, and misinformation, and resemble moral panic more than informed public policies.  When the lag-time for scientific advances takes too long to engender best practices or influence public policies, or when a compelling public interest can no longer justify laws that breach the boundaries of constitutional safeguards, often the courts step in.  Beyond the illustrations that Dr. Klein offers in his blog, there are many examples of laws that are (or were) unwarranted, overreaching, or unreasonably intrusive, and the courts intervened.  Consider these “sexual offenses” of yesteryear.

In 1967, SCOTUS struck down laws that banned both interracial marriage and interracial sex (Loving v. Virginia).   Until 1965 it was against the law in some US states for married couples to obtain prescription birth control (Griswold v. Connecticut).  It took seven more years for that right to be extended to unmarried individuals (Eisenstadt v. Baird).  In 1962, sodomy was considered so offensive that it was illegal in every US state, in some cases even between married partners.  Sodomy laws were reaffirmed by SCOTUS in 1986 (Bowers v. Hardwick), before finally being struck down in 2003 (Lawrence v. Texas).  In 2008, the US Court of Appeals (Fifth Circuit) decriminalized the sale of sex toys (binding in three states).  By 2015, 37 US states had legalized same-sex marriage before SCOTUS determined that neither race nor gender were material to the civil controls of marriage.   Same-sex marriage became legal in the US, ten years after Canada.

In each of the cases above, before they were eventually overturned by the courts, public opinion had at one time supported these laws.  Some would argue that the courts stepped in too soon – others, like Margaret Sanger or Frank Kameny might have said both the tide of public opinion and relief through the courts took too long.  History also reveals that even when courts overturn antiquated laws, controversies remain, and there can still be stubborn pockets of social resistance, or widespread cultural repression tenaciously anchored in historical roots.  Homosexual acts are illegal in more than 70 countries, still actively enforced, and in perhaps a dozen countries, punishable by death.  If not for a 2008 SCOTUS ruling (Kennedy v. Louisiana), some sex crimes in the US might still be subject to capital punishment.

Sometimes, social change makes laws obsolete, and they just fade away, but it is likely that there are still laws on the books criminalizing sexual behaviors (e.g., sodomy, fornication, adultery), which today are unenforced, but leave historical records of public efforts to control interpersonal sex.  Sexual violence will always be intolerable, but sexual violations are a broad category of unacceptable sexual conduct. 

Every US state, and countries worldwide, struggle with civil controls of marriage and age of consent.  In the US and Canada, citizens must generally be 18 to marry, but in Mississippi parties must be 21.  In several states, with parental/judicial approval, kids under 18 can marry - as young as 13 or 14 in New Hampshire, and in five other states there is no minimum age.  Much to the detriment of teenagers, the age of consent for sex is a minefield - around the world.  In the US and Canada, the age of consent is 16-18, with a confusing matrix of exceptions for age differences or factors related to penetration.  In most of Europe, it’s even more difficult to navigate age of consent laws that generally range between 14 and 16.  In China, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, and the Philippines, the age of consent is 12-14. 

Controlling sex has been vexing civilization since prostitution was described as the world’s oldest profession.   While sex trafficking and child prostitution is abhorrent throughout most of the world, tolerance for prostitution around the world varies considerably.  Depending on one’s role in prostitution, penalties in the US carry fines from as little as $100 to as much as $750,000, and from 15 days in jail to 20 years in prison.  Prostitution is legal (regulated) in several counties in Nevada, and some foreign countries.    Around the world, and throughout the US, consensual sex, legal in one jurisdiction, can create a “sex offender” in another.

There is a long history of society’s efforts to control interpersonal sex through criminal laws, but now a proliferation of civil laws have made it easier than ever for one to become a “sex offender.”  With public angst about “sexual offenders,” the courts are playing a pivotal role in trying to maintain balance between veritable public safety and constitutional safeguards around civil regulations.  Competing concerns cannot always be resolved by the courts, but sound science can always help guide the process.  It is noteworthy that numerous ATSA members contributed to much of the research noted below, and/or helped to inform policymakers.  Informed policymaking does not guarantee an outcome of good public policies; but most assuredly, misguided public policies are the product of misinformed policymaking.    

A 2016 decision by the Washington Supreme Court opens the state registry to public view, apparently even for registered juveniles.  Washington has strong public-access-to-data laws, and in 2012, the Ninth Circuit ruled that juveniles can be publicly identified on sex offender registries.  Laws intended for adults have migrated into the juvenile system, with counterproductive outcomes.  The registry has devastating consequences for juveniles.  The registry’s “irreparable harm to youth and their families” has been extensively researched and articulately described in a 2013 report by the Human Rights Watch.  

There is a growing awareness and substantial research that the sex offender registry is overreaching, ineffective, fails communities, and is counterproductive for those in recovery.  There are numerous, ongoing court challenges to the registry, particularly as it applies to juveniles.  In 2012 the Supreme Court of Ohio struck down automatic lifetime registration of juveniles, and in 2014 there was a similar ruling in Pennsylvania.   As the foundation erodes for the 2003 SCOTUS decision (Smith v. Doe) that upheld SORNA, it is likely that the courts will continue to reconsider registration requirements.

Another popular civil control for “sex offenders” is regulating where they can live or go.  While residence or zone restrictions have historical appearances of banishment, about half the US states have statewide residency or zone restrictions.  Research is becoming conclusive:  residency laws are not only ineffective but counterproductive. The media is beginning to recognize the problems with residence restrictions, and laws are continuously undergoing review by the courts

In February, 2016 Congress passed International Megan’s Law, which will make international travel for registered sex offenders profoundly difficult, and requires US passports to identify citizens with certain sexual offenses.  The public law was challenged in Federal Court in California.  ATSA filed an affidavit supporting a motion for preliminary injunction; the US Attorney’s Office opposed the motion.  In April, 2016, the motion was denied as premature, but the lawsuit continues.  

Perhaps the most onerous civil regulation that “sex offenders” are subject to is civil commitment.  There have been thousands of lawsuits filed in US courts challenging civil commitment laws.  In 2015, two separate federal courts found SVP programs to be unconstitutional:  MSOP in Minnesota, and SORTS in Missouri.  The state of Minnesota appealed the District Court ruling and Judge Frank’s remedies to the Eighth Circuit.  In April, 2016, the US Court of Appeals in St. Louis heard oral arguments.  A decision from the Eighth Circuit is expected in the summer of 2016, however further appeals are expected.

What do all these criminal and civil laws, past and present, have in common?  Social controls around interpersonal sexual behavior.  The truth is, there has never been a time in history when “sex” could be separated from “politics.”  What does ATSA have to add to sex, politics, laws, and the courts? More informed public policies.

Jon Brandt, MSW, LICSW

Author’s note: The large number of links embedded in this blog are in lieu of a long list of references, and intended to both provide empirical support for assertions, and offer readers an easy opportunity for more information.  Links to court cases are intended to inform readers only about the nature of certain court cases.  Links to research or articles are only a sampling of the voluminous information available on the topics herein.  I would also like to add that, beyond ATSA, there are innumerable professionals, concerned citizens, and organizations, which have contributed immeasurably to the common quest for informed social policies, safer communities, and better lives.  It takes a village.  Comments or corrections welcomed.

Monday, April 18, 2016

PRISM: Promoting Restorative Initiatives for Sexual Misconduct on College Campuses

Sexual violence has been a topic of considerable community and legislative focus for several decades now; however, only recently has its existence on college campuses elicited such attention. Indeed, in 2015 the Obama administration’s Education Department took aggressive steps to address concerns about sexual violence and harassment on campuses, spurring the enactment of “Yes Means Yes” laws in such states as New York, California, and Michigan (with many post-secondary institutions adopting similar standards without legislative mandate).

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.  

The original intent of this legislation was to ensure that girls and women in educational arenas would be protected from discrimination and other differential treatment based on gender. An early focus of Title IX was discrimination in athletics, in which female students rarely received the same opportunities to participate and benefit; however, the recent focus of Title IX has been incidents of sexual violence on campus.

As someone who has worked in sexual violence prevention for nearly 32 years, I have been privy to the case descriptions of thousands of incidents of abuse, harassment, and other forms of sexual misconduct; however, almost all within the traditional criminal justice domain. When stories of sexual violence on college and university campuses started to become the subject of high profile media focus, I had to admit that I had never considered those environments as in need of specific attention. It’s not that I somehow didn’t think it was happening on campuses (I had known women who had been sexually assaulted when I was in school), I just assumed that it was being managed like sexual violence in any other environment. Turns out I was wrong, and I needed to do something about that.

Through my work with Circles of Support and Accountability, I’ve attended a variety of restorative justice (RJ) conferences and workshops and met many RJ theorists and practitioners, including David Karp of the Project on Restorative Justice at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. Together with Co-Chair Kaaren Williamsen of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, David has pulled together a large group concerned academics and practitioners from around the US and Canada – all of whom are concerned about how academic institutions are responding to sexual violence. This month, that group – known as Campus PRISM – released a comprehensive report promoting restorative initiatives for sexual misconduct (PRISM) on college campuses (authored principally by Karp, Julie Shackford-Bradley, myself, and Williamsen). According to the report:

Restorative justice encompasses a range of processes, programs, practices, and policies as well as a philosophical perspective that offers a new approach to addressing the problem of sexual and gender-biased misconduct on college campuses.

It is our belief that restorative interventions can be used for community building to establish appropriate standards of sexual conduct on campus, in addition to reducing fear and counteracting the hostile climate sometimes characterized as “rape culture.” While we do not believe that restorative approaches are appropriate for all instances, we are deeply invested in reducing sexual and gender-based violence by exploring how such approaches could foster healing and provide for greater accountability. To that end:

Campus PRISM promotes restorative justice processes that…
-          Encourage true accountability through a collaborative rather than adversarial process;
-          Reduce risk of reoffending and provide greater reassurance of safety to survivors/harmed parties and the community;
-          Meet survivors’/harmed parties’ needs for safety, support, and justice; and
-          Create meaningful forums for the examination of hostile campus climates and the development of community-building interventions.

Goals of the Campus PRISM Project:
-      Create space for scholars and practitioners to explore the use of RJ for campus sexual and gender-based misconduct (which includes sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other forms of gender-based misconduct) as an alternative or complement to current practices.
-          Consider the potential and challenges of RJ in light of the national concern about campus sexual assault.
-          Apply lessons learned from the use of RJ in criminal justice sex offenses, e.g. Circles of Support and Accountability, restorative conferencing, and other trauma-informed practices.
-          Gather and disseminate knowledge about RJ practice and research.
-          Explore the potential for multi-campus RJ pilots.

A fundamental aspect of Campus PRISM is the belief that restorative justice – including various circle practices – can further a prevention agenda through the intersection of information sharing, education, reflection, and community building. Specific to the issue at hand, circle practices encourage people with various perspectives to sit together in a circle and explore issues related to sexuality. One such circle practice suggested in the PRISM report is the aforementioned Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA), an RJ-informed initiative in the greater sexual offender risk management domain in which perpetrators have been paired with 4-6 community volunteers who support them in their efforts to remain offense-free and accountable to the community. According to the PRISM report, CoSA could provide opportunities for reintegration following an event of sexual violence on campus:

After an incident has been officially resolved, even when a student has been found in violation and suspended, a restorative approach takes into account the long-lasting impact on the individuals involved and the wider community. Although some students who violate campus sexual and gender-based misconduct policies will require criminal prosecution and/or expulsion from the institution, others will remain enrolled or be allowed to reenter after some period of suspension. Implementation of a restorative approach would provide opportunities for student offenders who return to address their issues in a meaningful and socially accountable manner while providing for enhanced monitoring and service provision.

At present, many colleges and universities are grappling with new mandates and responsibilities handed down by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the Department of Education’s division responsible for Title IX enforcement. The consideration of RJ options may not have been a particular area of focus as yet; nonetheless, the report suggests that the following list of next steps could be considered by campuses interested in pursuing a restorative approach:

-          Adopt a restorative lens
-          Create a restorative justice study group/steering committee
-          Develop capacity in RJ through training and facilitation
-          Review and update policies to include restorative justice
-          Promote community awareness
-          Engage in restorative justice research
-          Pilot a restorative approach

In conclusion, the members of Campus PRISM firmly believe that a restorative justice approach to sexual and gender-based violence offers hopeful opportunities to address the concerns of victims, offenders, and the broader educational community. We believe that simple adherence to compliance standards will not be enough to address issues related to healing, student development, and community growth; nor will simple compliance sufficiently promote new perspectives such as those resultant from a comprehensive implementation of restorative principles with attention to prevention, response, and reintegration. Understandably, broad application of RJ principles and practices will take time; however, as capacity grows, campuses can aspire to and reach a goal of true community transformation.

Robin J. Wilson, Ph.D., ABPP
Wilson Psychological Services LLC, Sarasota, FL
McMaster University, Hamilton, ON

Saturday, April 9, 2016

What the Maori can teach us about prevention

For years I have heard the term “cultural competency,” but I have finally seen this in action when I met with Joy Te Wiata and Russell Smith in Auckland New Zealand.   I also saw and felt for the first time, the connection between cultural competency and prevention.    Let me explain. 


On a trip to New Zealand I had the good fortune to meet with Joy and Russell and learn from them about their clinical practice focusing on Maori who have sexually abused.  They both are Maori and they explained that while they integrate evidence-based approaches to treatment (e.g., CBT, MST, Good Lives, and narrative therapy) the core of their practice is spiritual. 

Their Approach

We began our journey with a visit to a Marae, a spiritual gathering place where Russell and Joy will often hold their weekend retreats.  They explained the traditional welcoming ceremony where no one may enter the Marae until the female elder invites them in.  The invitation is sung and it is sung to the individual, his (or her) family and to all of their ancestors.  If sexual violence thrives in isolation, the process of invitation immediately provides a protective factor, joining the offenders to all of the people around him/her who care about him/her and to all of the previous generations.  No one enters the Marae alone.  These traditions and specifically, the invitation begin the process of setting clear boundaries and expectations for each person entering into treatment.  Over the course of the weekend, as the traditions and treatment weave together, Joy mentioned that when the weekend is over, it is hard to tell which men have been in treatment for a few days or for the complete cycle – each has learned the most important lessons about respect, boundaries, consent, and responsibility.  When I asked how they do this, Russell told me, “This is difficult work but we sing, we laugh, and we hold each other accountable.”  ‘Waiata’ or singing is a way of calibrating and synchronizing the clients to each other and others, while at the same time lifts their countenance to a place where the challenges and treatment can be heard and retained. Gentle ‘laughter’ is a place where learning and awareness becomes enjoyable and like waiata (singing) reinforced.


Throughout my conversation with Joy and Russell, I was struck with how their deep investment in their traditions only enhances the treatment practice.  For example, on college campuses today in the USA, we are talking a lot about consent.  A great video, popular in the UK talks about consent -- consent is like offering someone a cup of tea.  Consent seems so straightforward when it is placed within a tradition we can all understand.  And yet, Joy and Russell are offering even more by also offering a spiritual connection.  When the men are invited into the Marae, they are not only taking on the responsibility for their safety and the safety of the community, they are also offered a gift, right at the beginning of treatment,  the promise that they can become whole again in their family and their community.  It is no surprise then that the programs that Russell and Joy run have the highest retention rates in the country.   It is also no surprise that they had to add in aftercare groups because many of the men wanted to continue with groups even after they had completed the treatment group.  The contrast to the enforced participation within the prison setting was palpable.   

Each man who enters into treatment with Joy and Russell must also have a support person so that the closing ceremonies may involve up to 50 people for a small group as their families and support people join with them in their responsibility to safety and healing.  Joy and Russell support the voices of each of the family members, including the victims of sexual abuse.  They incorporate the wishes of the victim, and when a victim wrote how she loved her stepfather but was not ready for him to come home, they worked with that family and that decision. 

Connection to Prevention

I grew up in a tradition which highly valued learning.  And I had always heard, more often than not, that knowledge is power.  So I was struck by Russell’s and the Maori’s belief that knowledge is responsibility.  When Joy and Russell educate their clients as well as their families, they are also inviting each of them to take responsibility for each other’s safety.  Like the concept of circles of support and safety, the responsibility of the treatment within the Marae encourages people to watch out for each other, to confront behaviors, and to ensure that everyone in the extended family is safe.  In prevention, we all talk about the importance of educating each other about sexual violence.  More recently, I have heard that expanded to educating people about preventing the perpetration of sexual abuse.  However, we know that the one-time only education programs offered in many schools or communities is not enough to change behaviors.  Imagine if each of these education sessions also meant that people were accepting responsible for changing their behaviors, confronting the behaviors of others, and seeking help when that was needed.  This invitation to the treatment within the Marae and to responsibility is one pathway to safety and, ultimately, to prevention. 

Joan Tabachnick

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Evolution does not mandate revolution: the role of evaluation and developing an evidence base.

One of the biggest debates that we have in the field of social science research is the role of evaluation (e.g., evaluation of a policy, the completion of treatment goals or of the program itself) and where independence sits within it. Should organisations and governments conduct their own evaluations, or does that create a conflict of interest? Is all independent research really independent, or is it just independent of the organization/provider? How independent is it of the researcher’s own biases? It is important to consider these factors when deciding to do research, validate programmes, conduct evaluation and implement change.

The place to start is asking the right questions: What is the purpose of evaluation, research, and development of an evidence base; is it to justify what is being done, a required part of a larger grant or project, to see if what is being done is working, to justify an existing programme/venture or to implement something new in a broader fashion? Is it about “evidence based policy” [research driven] or “policy based evidence” [ideologically driven]? On the other hand, is an organisation implementing an evidence-based practice or developing practice-based evidence in earnest?

The reasoning behind the purpose of the research is as important as the research being conducted, especially if the research is being used to justify or implement something; therefore, is the research question trying to see if something is working or if something is going to work in a different setting. This means that evaluation can often usher in change to policies and programmes, which can be minor or major but often seen as significant by people on the ground. This can, in turn, bring about new questions: Should an organisation implement a top-down approach or method, or integrate it in accordance with the unique characteristics and contributions of those who work and benefit from it? It is important that everyone involved in the process recognizes the importance of evaluation in the evolution of our research and working; it’s not a threat but rather an opportunity to see if something works, to identify good practice and identify bad practice. Therefore, who should conduct evaluation research; organisations themselves or external organisations/researchers?

It is generally viewed that good research is independent research as organisations are often considered to be biased in how they evaluate their own programmes and practices. The notion that organisations cannot conduct their own critical, methodologically sound and unbiased research is outdated, problematic and questionable. The issue is not with research or methodology, but rather with how organisations understand, priorities and train their staff in research. If staff do not fully understand research and its impact, then their ability to develop, conduct, justify and roll out research becomes problematic. This is a training issue and investment issue, not an independence issue. This is reinforced by the fact that not all research and researchers are independent with the same researchers being used by the same organisations frequently and/or with research tending processes being subjective.  Which means that so called independent research can be as subjective and biased as research conducted by the organisation itself; particularly, if the organisations do not have their own in house understanding of research, their own critical reflection of research and how to process it.

The processes involved in research involve interaction between the researcher and the organisation, regardless of whether the research is independent or not, with both needing to be able to work together to collect the data and implement change. A decision not to engage in the research process or implement changes is problematic regardless of who conducts the evaluation and has nothing to do with independence, but rather it’s about quality control.

The most important part of doing evaluation research is the process and methodology, it is about accepting the good and the bad on both fronts [researcher and organisation]; it’s about us and us, not them and us. Evaluation is about change and evolution, not revolution and condemnation. Evaluation is about maintaining funding, generating funding, maintaining good practice and eliminating bad practice. It’s a process, not an end point.

Kieran McCartan, PhD, & David Prescott, LICSW 

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Adam Johnson Trial: Talking healthy and appropriate sexual relationships with youth.

UPDATED: This blog ties to two previous blogs Age of consent in the UK &  Celebrity, Sexual Abuse and Societal Reaction. Kieran 

The recent Adam Johnson trial in the UK has raised lots of questions about how we think and talk about sexual relationships with youths and teenagers, especially what they perceive an appropriate sexual relationships to be and why. Are we having the correct conversations with the correct people and the right time? Also, how do we react to youths when they ask about sex, talk about relationships or disclose sexually harmful behaviours?

Adam Johnson [28 years of age] is a premier League footballer who played for Sunderland and the English national team, he was a local and national celebrity who was held in high regard; yesterday he was sentenced to 6 years for grooming, kissing and having sexual activity with a 15 year old girl. The victim was a supporter of Sunderland Football Club and a fan of Johnson, they came into contact via social media where she friended him via Facebook and conversed via whatsapp. During the time that the abuse was occurring Johnson and his victim exchanged over 800 whatsapp messages [on a second whatsapp account that he created to converse with the victim only and keep these conversations a secret] which clearly demonstrated Johnson’s grooming behaviour, including attempts to silence the victim, cover up the abuse and a conversation about her age. In addition, Johnson’s phone records and internet records showed that he searched for the age of consent in the UK, checked teen sites [nice young teens] and looked at extreme pornography [mainly linked to bestiality]. A psychologist involved in the case stated that they did not think that Johnson was a paedophile or sexually interested in children, but rather that his offence was an extension of a sexually promiscuous lifestyle and the opportunities, as well as attitudes that accompanied being a high profile footballer.

The Adam Johnson, while problematic, is not the only high profile one relating to celebrity that has emerged in recent months and years; the surprising aspect of the case is our [societies] reaction to it and its acceptability in some quarters. In respect to the Johnson trial we have seen;

1.     Victim blaming and abuse, with the internet and social media targeting the victim
2.     The story being about his football career and his careless in throwing it away
3.     The reaction to the story by the club, which was highly criticised  
4.    A misunderstanding of the nature of what sexual abuse is, its impact and the terminology [especially the phase paedophile] by the public and media
5.     Public misperceptions of how judges sentence in these cases and what it means in real terms.

The real stories at the heart of the Johnson trial are [1] how we talk to our children and teenagers about sex, healthy sexual relationships and appropriate behaviour; [2] abuse by people in positions of respect, trust and the safeguards in place to prevent the abuse occurring; and [3] how we understand and respond to inappropriate sexual behaviour between youths and adults.

The real story here is about a teenager who got to meet, was groomed by and taken advantage of by a celebrity that she idolised. The real story here is about how youths [children and teenagers] know how to identify sexually problematic situations, how they react in these situations and where they can go for help. The real story here is about an adult who made inappropriate and problematic decisions without any thought for the victim, only for themselves.

In the Johnson case the court of public opinion was split, but vocal on both sides with some members of the public supporting him, stating that the teenager lead him on and that she knew what she was doing, that she was “old enough to know better” [they created a facebook page “Justice for Johnson” which has since been removed because of inappropriate comments and content]; but given the victims statement, that is not true – it was a perfect storm. It is clear that Johnson groomed his victim and people surrounding him. The public discussion of the Johnson case does clearly demonstrate the need for greater public education and discussion regarding sexual activity in and with youths; it has become clear that sections of the public did not see the abuse as ‘abuse’ or even problematic ignoring the abuse of trust and the responsibility of the perpetrator to act appropriately. As we know abuse of any kind can have a lasting and significant effect upon the victim, as is demonstrated in this case, and that there are not degrees of acceptability in sexual harm.

What this case does reinforce is the need for better sexual education, better relationship advice, better safeguarding advice and a need for a range of responsible citizens (parents, teachers, etc) to deliver a consistent message. The conversation about healthily sexual relationships is a difficult for families and the state to navigate, who is responsible for having the conversation in the first place [especially when we have a paradoxical mind-set to talking to our youths about sex, in that we try to protect them by not really discussing sex and relationships but this may result in them being in risky situations and making poorer decisions], the parents, the school, peers, the internet, all or none? We do know that in the UK the state, via schools, are not providing a consistent response as they believe that sexual education [including what is an appropriate sexual relationship and behaviours] is a not compulsory part of the national curriculum that should be taught the same in all schools nationally; therefore sexual education is inconsistent and incomplete nationally. Hence reinforcing an air of confusion and ambiguity, for whose responsibility is it [schools, parents, peers, the media or all?], are we surprised that our youths look elsewhere for answers [media, celebrity, pornography] and do not feel comfortable disclosing sexual issues that they face with families as well as friends if they receive no response or a negative backlash? The learning curve in the Adam Johnson trial is not just limited to him, his behaviour and celebrity culture; but it is also linked to us as a society and our responses to victims of sexual harm, their disclosures and how we discuss healthily sexual relationships with youths. The Adam Johnson trial makes us question how far we have moved forward in discussing sexual harm and society’s response it; do we fully understand sexual harm, what it looks like, its causes and consequences?  

Kieran McCartan, PhD 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Talking prevention with Maia Christopher – from prison to prevention in 12 easy badges

Maia Christopher is ATSA’s executive director, most people will recognise her from conference, those who have had the chance to speak and meet with her will recognise that the majority of the work she does on a daily basis supports ATSA’s mission in the field of sexual harm prevention. Maia has many roles which include sitting on national and international committees, speaking at conferences and other events, as well as helping to frame the sexual harm agenda. I talked to Maia about her work, where she came from, how she got to where she is today and where she sees herself in the future. We also spoke about the field of sexual harm moving into the future.

Given Maia’s expertise and experiences from her criminal justice and treatment days in Canada, to taking over and managing ATSA, to the high level collaborative work she is involved in now, it was hard to identify how to ground this narrative. Then she gave me an example, an unconventional piece of prevention work that she had recently been involved with and everything slotted together.  Maia told me of a recent experience that she and Kelly McGrath, Associate Director of ATSA, had when they attended a conference.

Every year ATSA has a conference and every year Maia and the ATSA staff assist in the development of the programme around it. From arranging book sellers to sorting out finances and planning everything else that needs to happen over the main 5 days of the conference.

Maia told me that herself and Kelly recently attended an event planning conference, the aim of which was to give conference organisers insights, ideas and new approaches to better plan and streamline large conferences. The night before they left for the conference they were deciding what to bring with them to promote ATSA and the work that, as an organisation, is presented at ATSA’s annual conference.  They items they took included  twenty-four prevention badges emblazoned with slogans promoting ATSA’s work. Maia and Kelly distributed these badges across the event planning conference venue the night before the conference, out of the sight of other attendees. The simple distribution of the prevention badges had a massive impact during and beyond the life of the conference. Attendees began having conversations with each other and with Maia about sexual abuse, victims, policy, prevention, how people are impacted by sexual harm, what treatment looks like, whether offenders are mad or bad and related news coverage.

People picked up the badges and thought about how sexual harm had affected their lives and/or the lives of people close to them. Seeing the badges promoted people to talk, some of whom were uncomfortable about the conversation, but they all felt the conversation was one that needed to be had. The reason why this is important is because these individuals where not representatives from the arena of sexual harm or related professions like police, probation or prisons— “outsiders” not ”insiders”. This meant that Maia, Kelly and the badges were not preaching to the converted, but people from a range of different, unrelated and everyday professions who were more representative of the public at large.

Although, the debate and discussion among the delegates was important it was not the only significant thing that happened. Across the life of the conference the attendees started to think about how conferences, as an entity, could be more productively used to highlight and discuss issues of sexual harm; including information about safeguarding attendees, local support service on sexual harm matters and how an increase in awareness of sexual harm issues for hotel staff could be provided. Maia felt that a door had been opened on to the topic of sexual harm by people not working in the field who wanted to discuss and promote it in the areas in which they worked.

Maia felt that the badges had a massive impact, that they were an ice breaker, a mechanism through which people could discuss sexual harm and relate it back to their lives and experiences while also thinking about how they could incorporate it into their daily workings. Interestingly, Maia felt that the real success here was in stepping out of the field, going to non-sexual harm related conferences and talking about the issue. She feels that this is part of her, and every ATSA member’s job. Although, she did recognise that she would have felt it was a massive leap of faith when she was working in the criminal justice system as opposed to the smaller leap of faith that she has to take in the role she has now. Maia closed the conversation with some pertinent advice to us all when talking to people who do not work in the sexual harm field about the main issues – “keep it simple, keep it to the point, listen and respond”. 

Kieran McCartan, PhD