Lecturers critique child sexual abuse prevention policies

By ALYSSA WOODEN | May 4, 2017

Experts gathered to discuss child sexual abuse prevention at the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s fifth annual Child Sexual Abuse Symposium. The Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse hosted the symposium on Thursday, April 27.

The symposium included several lectures, a panel discussion and a documentary screening. It aimed to inform the general public, practitioners and policymakers on the latest research in the field of child sexual abuse prevention.

Director of the Moore Center Elizabeth Letourneau delivered the first lecture of the symposium as well as the closing remarks. She stressed the importance of focusing on effective prevention programs and abandoning inadequate policies.

“I hope [people] will take away that bad policy doesn’t only cost money, it hurts people, and it takes the focus away from developing effective intervention programming,” she said.

Speakers from various areas of expertise discussed topics like youth intimate partner violence, the use of trauma-informed practices in violence prevention and the impact of sex offender registries.

One of the morning lecturers, University of Chicago Senior Fellow Bruce Taylor, explained a program he created called Shifting Boundaries. It is a dating violence prevention program targeted at middle school students. Taylor cited studies showing that 68 percent of teens have experienced dating violence and that 62 percent have reported perpetrating it.

He discussed successes and possible areas of improvement for his program, which introduces dating violence and sexual harassment curricula to schools.

“We’ve developed a number of really good... primary prevention interventions that have been shown to be effective,” Taylor said. “But in terms of schools actually implementing it, that is very low... We probably still need to continue thinking about modifications to the existing programs or other new programs that could be developed.”

Taylor is currently focusing on raising awareness about the program and demonstrating its effectiveness to schools so that it can be more widely implemented. He also stressed the importance of early intervention.

“I had done work in the area of looking at social service interventions and their effects on victims... and it suggested that these reactive approaches to working with adults who were already offenders was not effective,” he said. “We needed to start thinking about the theme of primary intervention.”

According to Taylor, an additional barrier to effective sexual violence prevention in schools is the emphasis placed on test scores and academic achievement.

“Standardized testing... is how the schools are evaluated in a lot of ways,” he said. “So it’s kind of hard to then ask them to take on another criterion [with] which to be measured, which is the level of violence in schools.”

Barry University Professor of Social Work Jill Levenson gave a lecture on the issues facing adult victims of childhood trauma. Like Taylor, she also stressed the need to invest more resources into early intervention.

“We must commit to ensuring that every child can have access to opportunities and nurturing adults that provide correct experience and counteract the negative impacts of poverty, community violence, discrimination, child maltreatment and household dysfunction,” she wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

Levenson believes that current prevention practices are problematic because they focus too much on reacting to abuse rather than preventing it.

“We spend lots of resources on incarceration, sex offender registries and foster care placements after abuse takes place rather than investing more on reducing social problems and reshaping cultural messaging,” she wrote.

According to Levenson, one social problem is the failure to provide proper care to victims of abuse, who often become perpetrators themselves. She cited research which found that criminal offenders have much higher rates of adverse childhood experiences than the general population.

“People convicted of sex crimes inspire little sympathy, but the reality is that most of them were victims of various child maltreatments,” she wrote. ”There is never an excuse for assaultive behavior, of course, but it is important for us to understand how interpersonal violence develops, so that we can inform our intervention strategies accordingly.”

Levenson advocates for trauma-informed care (TIC), which integrates knowledge about the neuropsychological effects of childhood trauma into therapy and prevention policies.

In addition to listening to lectures, symposium attendees also watched a screening of the documentary Untouchable, directed by lawyer and author David Feige. The film focused on the personal stories of victims, offenders and advocates for sexual abuse prevention. It discussed problems with current policies on sex offender registration.

Fred Berlin, a professor of psychiatry at the Hopkins School of Medicine and the moderator of the discussion panel, said he enjoyed the variety of perspectives present in the film.

“The documentary gave folks a chance to actually see persons who are on the registry... to get a sense of how folks were affected by all of this,” Berlin said. “It was both informative and it also allowed people the opportunity to see actual human beings who are affected by these issues.”

Director of the Child Abuse Research Education and Service Institute Esther Deblinger was impressed with the quality of the documentary.

“[It was] very powerful,” she said. “It’s a reminder of how good filmmaking can have a tremendous impact.”

Levenson enjoyed the variety of topics presented at the symposium and believes that it will be effective in furthering child sexual abuse prevention.

“I thought the symposium was terrific, focusing on a range of issues that help us understand sexual abuse and prevent harm across the spectrum of people affected by it,” she wrote.

Berlin brought up some of the challenges raised during the symposium such as the excessive punishment of registered sex offenders.

“We all have very strong feelings when it comes to wanting to protect children,” he said. “If there’s some sense they’re in jeopardy or being harmed, we tend to demonize many of the people on the registry. We have to try to bring out their humanity, and it’s not always an easy thing to do in the face of all the emotion that this topic generates.”

Taylor appreciated the opportunity to learn about topics outside his area of expertise but suggested that the symposium could be made even longer in the future.

“There’s a lot more to talk about, so it seems like maybe down the road [they] could consider having like a day and a half symposium,” he said.

Berlin agreed, noting that while the symposium was a good first step, more action must be taken to effect change regarding the policy and prevention of child sexual abuse.

“I think there’s always much more to be addressed,” he said. “It’s going to take time, but it’s a very worthy goal of trying to protect children and have a more enlightened approach to the whole issue.”

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