Both legal and psychological
Many people have felt outrage at a recent judgment in a local court in a case involving child sex abuse. There are many things being said.
I am sure there are facts unknown, and I am sure there are overstatements and exaggerations — even plain gaffes that people wish they had not made.
However, the situation provides an opportunity to revisit a few important issues related to child sex abuse in Bermuda and how it is handled.
So, in what I say that follows I do not mean to attack anyone, as I do not know the facts of the individual case, the total status of the legal sentence imposed, nor the accuseds history (static risk factors) and response to being caught (one of several potential dynamic factors).
Child sex abuse is both a psychological and a legal matter. Sex offending is an area covered under forensic psychology.
Forensic psychology is a discipline that brings together both the fields of jurisprudence and clinical psychology.
Jurisprudence includes the disciplines of investigation — police work; trial, the work of attorneys and judges; and corrections, the work of prison officials.
Clinical psychology includes licensed, registered or chartered psychologists with years of training and supervised experience in assessment and treatment of offending behaviour.
The attorneys and judges have training and experience in legal matters.
Psychologists have training and experience in assessment of psychological disorder.
However, it is not true that a person, simply by virtue of being in one of those professions, can function adequately in a process that requires expertise in both fields.
I doubt that anyone would want a dentist or veterinarian replacing his or her heart valves.
Having an attorney conduct a risk assessment, which is a speciality area within forensic psychology, would not be wise, and that is because at best, the attorney is apt to approach it as a legal question and miss the psychological/actuarial risk factors that influence the potential for a person to reoffend.
Likewise, having a psychologist function as detective and skew the judgment of the court with his or her assessment, as if that were itself evidence, undermines and usurps the role and responsibility of the police and the courts.
How can one understand some of the statements reportedly made in this case?
Take the one in which someone supposedly believed there was a mutual attraction between a 12-year old girl and the adult who offended against her.
The offence is technically a legal matter simply because of the chronological ages of the people involved.
That is straightforward; it is inescapable, but sometimes people feel there is more going on in a situation than that and perhaps a young person has been promiscuous.
By virtue of being sexually active, perhaps the child has contributed to the offence.
I would like to suggest that one of the issues in sex offending is the risk to the community that the person found guilty of a sexual offence will reoffend, and I say categorically that it takes someone with training and experience in such psychological risk assessment to make that evaluation.
You cannot get where you need to go with it by the feel of the situation or by general impressions from listening to the stories presented in the judicial process alone — that is asking the dentist to replace your heart valves.
Furthermore, if a 12-year old girl is sexually promiscuous, that is a picture of a damaged little girl, not of an adult woman consenting to a sexual relationship.
To assume otherwise is to take the posture of paedophilic organisations like the North American Man/Boy Love Association that promotes the repeal of child sex laws and asserts that sex between adults and children is a normal expression of human desire and love.
Continuing on, the picture of a grown man who would see such a girl and take advantage of her is not the picture of a healthy male; only another damaged person would do such a thing.
So, the whole scenario is rife with dysfunction, and to miss this seems to me to be an alarming self-disclosure.
Psychologists need to ascertain risk to reoffend and recommend treatment. Courts need to determine guilt and impose legal sentencing/consequences.
With valid information, courts can decide the most appropriate sentencing. Sentencing, furthermore, needs to be more than legal punishment.
If sex offenders are to be handled wisely, they need to receive treatment to reduce their risk of reoffending, and that treatment needs to be more than an aspiration in some statement of public policy; sex offender treatment programmes need to follow best practices and their effectiveness needs to be evaluated periodically.
Otherwise, after offenders serve their time, there is nothing that has actually changed, and they will remain a high risk to reoffend.
That illustrates that from beginning to end the problem of child sex abuse is not simply a legal matter and not simply a psychological matter.
A comprehensive response to the problem must be the hybrid reflected in the field of forensic psychology.
It must also be a multi-systemic approach that brings together police investigation, jurisprudence, corrections, clinical psychology, and social case management.
In Bermuda that would probably require a coordinated response and partnership between the public and private sectors.
Awareness of the magnitude of child sex abuse in Bermuda has been growing thanks in part to groups like SCARS (Saving Children and Revealing Secrets). For more information visit www.scarsbermuda.com.
Speaking of awareness, there are many factors involved in the treatment of sex abuse, but I point to one — awareness itself.
Sex offenders often act as if on autopilot. When asked how it was that they reoffended, they will say things like, I dont know; it just happened.
Well, it never just happens. There is always a way in which it happens, but the offender is often unawares in regard to his or her offending cycle and the specific ways in which the sex offending occurs.
That is why I have long believed that a gestalt approach to the treatment of sex offending would be effective, because gestalt therapy is all about increasing a persons awareness of what they do and how they do it.
Equipped with increased awareness, the offender becomes more able to get ahead of the wave of deviant arousal than simply becoming washed away with it.
The outrage over any given, single case of child sex abuse, such as with recent events, can be channelled into appropriate public policy. People just need to determine that that will happen.
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