‘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

The Herald on Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - by Peter Swin­don

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.”

Above: Kieran McCar­tan, pro­fes­sor in crim­i­nol­ogy at the Univer­sity of the West of Eng­land, and, be­low, Stu­art Al­lardyce, chair­man of NOTA Scot­land

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