The Herald on Sunday
‘Potential child abusers deserve our help to stop’
Sexual abuse of children evokes revulsion and anger. What if potential abusers were given help instead? Experts at a conference in Glasgow argued a change in mindset could lead to fewer victims
I would rather people got help than get to the stage when they’re offending and we have a victim
THE ability to predict crime before it happens was first imagined by writer Philip K Dick in dystopian short story The Minority Report, which later became a Hollywood blockbuster featuring Tom Cruise who plays the Chief of PreCrime.
Much of the film remains the stuff of science fiction but it is hoped a new approach to identifying and counselling potential child sex offenders could protect more children and save the public purse thousands of pounds.
That was the overarching theme of an international conference which took place in Glasgow this week. More than 250 members of the National Organisation for the Treatment of Abusers (NOTA) participated in the three-day event, including police officers, prison staff, probation officers, social workers, psychologists, counsellors and academics. Some experts who attended the conference believe that many crimes could be prevented by encouraging men with a sexual attraction to children to seek help from mental health services. Currently, the majority are only identified after they offend and are then dealt with by the criminal justice system.
NOTA spokesman Kieran McCartan, who is a professor of criminology at the University of the West of England, said: “Over the last few years we’ve started to move towards prevention. One of the big ideas is that maybe a criminal justice approach isn’t enough. It’s after the fact.
“Someone has been abused. Someone has committed an offence. Actually, that doesn’t help us stop it.
“What we know is that the majority of people who are caught for sexual abuse weren’t necessarily known to the police beforehand. The percentage would be in the high 70s.
“What happens is they get arrested, go to court, then we put them on treatment programmes, keep an eye on them, and what we see is a majority desist from offending. So, we need to look at what we do at the front end, to identify some of these individuals earlier.”
Stuart Allardyce, the chairman of NOTA Scotland, runs a charity which works to prevent child sex offences. Stop It Now offers a confidential helpline and an anonymous online course for people who are concerned about urges to look at sexual images of children.
More than 2,500 people used the online resource last year, and around 700 people called the helpline.
Allardyce said: “There are some people who are clearly motivated to commit crimes and will go on and do that. Some sex offenders are highly dangerous, and custody is the right thing.
“But for those individuals who are starting to either have sexual thoughts and feelings towards children or their behaviour is starting to go in a certain direction which might be suggestive that they are at risk of committing sexual offences, such as looking at sexual images of children, it’s about how those individuals get support in a positive way that will nudge them away from offending behaviour.
“It’s about helping people have the right kind of skills and knowledge to make better choices. People need to know the consequences of future behaviour and indeed what the implications will be if they commit an offence and are charged and convicted.
“But we also need to help people with the emotional sexual and regulation skills that they need in those kind of situations.”
He used the hypothetical example of a school teacher in his early 20s who has never had sexual thoughts and feelings towards children but who is teaching a 14-year-old girl who has a “crush on him” and he is considering acting on it.
Allardyce said: “The helpline can allow people a space to explore the implications of different actions,” he said.
“It may be just that getting this off their chest may be enough to allow them to begin to change their behaviour but at the end of the day making sure that individual knows they don’t need to act on their feelings is critically important.”
Like McCartan, Allardyce is in favour of a “public health model” which allows people with a sexual attraction to children to come forward before offending.
He added: “We need to create networks where we have local mental health professionals who feel comfortable and able to provide support in these
cases. There are some remarkable mental health professionals already doing that work in Scotland, but we need to see a lot more of that that and we need to see it strategically implemented.”
Clinical psychologist Dr Lisa Reynolds, who leads the Psychological Trauma Service at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, was a keynote speaker at the NOTA conference.
She said: “You would hope that NHS services would respond appropriately to people like that and see it for what it was – someone who wants help before offending.
“I think that’s how mental health services have to start thinking because we are all strapped for cash and demand outweighs capacity, absolutely, but early intervention actually saves time and resources down the line.
“There are forensic mental health services and clinicians out there that would want to do this.”
Graham Goulden, who also spoke at the conference, was a police officer for 30 years, and spent the last eight years of his career as a chief inspector working with the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit.
He said: “I would rather people got help than get to the stage when they’re offending and we have a victim.
“Any response where we try to shift attitudes and shift behaviours will have some success, but it will be limited success I would suspect. My understanding of sex offenders is that they’re manipulative. With young men I think there are opportunities.
“There are a lot of young boys out there just now watching quite extreme pornography and their brain is being rewired. It’s creating an addiction. And young girls find themselves on the receiving end of harmful sexual acts. But there’s such a stigma around sex offending that many of these young men are scared to come forward.”
The conference also heard from an Australian expert on sexual violence prevention who believes extreme pornography can have an influence on whether boys go on to commit sexual offences. “It’s shaping their neural pathways,” said Maree Crabbe, who co-ordinates the violence prevention project Reality and Risk: Pornography, young people and sexuality. “We do know that there is a reliable association between porn consumption and aggressive attitudes and behaviours towards women.
“Young people themselves described porn as shaping their sexual tastes, meaning that boys are initiating practices that are likely to be painful for girls and young women.”
A UK study of boys aged 11 to 16, published in 2016, found that 56 per cent watched online pornography and that 88 per cent of scenes included physical aggression, 48 per cent included verbal aggression, and 94 per cent of that aggression was directed towards women.
Crabbe said young boys are subsequently developing an interest in “coercive and painful heterosexual sex” meaning young girls are left traumatised by “u n wa nt e d sexual experiences”.
NOTA’s Kieran McCartan said studies have shown that “between one in four and one in eight people” are victims of sexual abuse in their lives. “What we are starting to see now is a clearer picture of the volume of sexual abuse. There’s a lot more there than we ever really wanted to acknowledge. For a long time we were happy to look the other way and not talk about it.”
However, he admitted a proactive approach to identifying and supporting potential sex offenders will be “challenging” for professionals working in the field.
“The problem is sexual abuse prevention research is in its early days, the majority of it is only seven or eight years old,” McCartan said. “It’s quite localised, quite small scale, no massive studies have been done. A lot of research indicates it’s the equivalent of a sticking plaster. However, I think we have to try it to see what happens.
“The next problem is how you measure that. How do you know sexual abuse was going to happen?
“That’s why we need to bring the health services on board and see it from their perspective and use some of their research methodologies.
“The hope is the more educated people become about the realities of sexual abuse the better they are able to prevent it because they can see things coming and say to people they need help. The only way we can get to that is by engaging.”