He talks about managing child sex abuse within a public health framework and the need to focus on prevention strategies and policy before the abuse happens.

UK expert speaks on why focus should be on preventing child abuse not just punishing offenders
Voices Interview Thursday, October 26, 2017 - 17:17
Written by  Divya Chandrababu

Donald Findlater, a child safeguarding consultant from the United Kingdom, is in India to train stakeholders from different cities to help protect children against sexual abuse. He speaks to Divya Chandrababu about managing child sex abuse within a public health framework, focusing on prevention strategies and policy before the abuse happens, and says that a publicly accessible sex offenders’ database can cause more harm than good. In November, he will deliver the annual lecture for Tulir - Centre for The Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse in Chennai. 

What are the challenges that limit us form preventing child sex abuse?

The biggest challenge is resignation. We assume that it’s a problem that’s always been and always will be. Politicians and the media tend to be very vocal about the issue after the abuse has happened, but we don’t have a concept of what we could do before the abuse happens. There is also a level of ignorance about the scale of the problem, and therefore most nations are not thinking about what prevention might look like. We narrowly follow this criminal justice sanctioned response to abuse, and assume that’s the best thing for children and forget that it’s not. It’s best for children not to be abused in the first place. 

 What would prevention look like?

We need to base prevention on theoretical underpinnings. We also need to think of the place where abuse can take place — it can be online or at home or public places or school. If we are disciplined to understand the nature of the specifics of the problem, then we can start building prevention possibilities. 

Investing in perpetrators is one possibility. We have to make sure there is help available for people who have troubling sexual thoughts about children but have not acted out yet, rather than wait until they do act. That is one of the absurdities of the criminal justice responses in the UK, where sex treatment programs are given to people after they have abused. If it was feasible to offer the service prior to the abuse — where people can confidentially take it — it would be good for them and the children would not have been harmed. Stop It Now (a child sexual abuse prevention initiative and confidential helpline started by Findlater and funded by the UK Government’s Home Office) does that. We run a child pornography deterrence campaign and just in the last two years, we have had 50,000 people visit our online self-help resources looking for help. So, the theory works — some people, not all, are prepared to take help to stop themselves from viewing child abuse images if we send the message that it harms children.

There is also a notion of perpetrators manipulating or grooming the adults around the child so the parents or the teachers are not alert to what’s going on and don’t assume anything adverse. So, prevention would look like educating parents, grandparents, neighbours, teachers and other people in the institution as to what sexually offensive behaviour looks like and the signs to notice. Perpetrators typically rely on children being ignorant, naïve, unclear about boundaries. Instead of leaving them vulnerable, if we can educate children about their privacy, rights, good and bad touch, and if they know they have safe adults in whom they can confide, then we have children who are clear and less vulnerable. Part of the public health approach is about educating them all.

If child sex abuse is recognised as a public health problem, do you think it will attain more leverage to put safeguards in place and bring in more budgetary allocations to deal with the issue?

We have to see this problem through different lenses instead of viewing it as a problem of criminal justice. We have to see it as a public health problem because of the scale of it and because of the adverse effects it has on the victim. Malaria was not largely eradicated by just treating those affected. We gave people protective mechanisms such as providing nets and better sanitation. It is about taking that mentality when faced with a major social epidemic where we do not just wait to treat victims, but create public prevention and apply that to child sexual abuse.

Every school, whether UK or India, needs to recognize that there is a significant problem of at least one in every six children being sexually abused.

In the UK, we are lucky we have several charitable foundations who continue to invest in us if we produce results. We engage with media a lot because it’s important for the public to realise that people are seeking help if provided – and it’s better than just branding everyone a paedophile. So, it’s a perpetual cycle of securing funding, trying to evidence impact and use that with politicians, media and the public to create more money for future prevention preparations.

The online industry is enabling the problem of child sex abuse, so it ought to be part of the solution. In India, I’m in interested to know about industries which make money out of mobile phones, internet and social media, and what they are bringing to the table to make children safer. India is a very connected place, and entrepreneurs need to figure out solutions to this problem rather than leave it to someone else. Internet service providers and Google deploy our messages if people are found doing certain searches online, and warns them that the material is illegal and harms children. If they can do that in the UK, they can do it here. There is scepticism about what we do, but there is growing acceptance.

Though India has strong deterrents through legislation, the response from individuals, organisations and communities to abuse is problematic. How do you educate societies to respond appropriately in a formal and informal setting?

When we know good behaviour, we can be alert to risky behaviour even in a domestic setting. It’s not just about what the criminal law can do. We have to intervene before anything happens. We need to know it’s also our job. In the Stop It Now helpline, we not only talk to perpetrators but also to mothers who are just worried about their son’s behaviour with his peer, or worried when a relative comes over. People need a place to confidentially talk when they are worried.

There has to be a trust in the system that it will work. There is usually a lot of chaos and hysteria around the problem. In that scenario, as a parent, I need to be able to trust the professionals involved and be confident that the child’s well-being will be enhanced by this matter being reported. If they think that it’s going to do their child harm, then of course they will not be interested in coming forward. In the UK, when we do studies of victims who have been through the criminal justice system, over half of them would say that the system has bruised them so badly and regretted reporting. We have to get better in being sensitive to children and family’s needs and that the child’s well-being is the dominant issue.

Legislations have to sensibly-thought out. I do hear some rather reactive response to abuse in India — whether it is to do with registration, or over what schools need to do. They don’t seem to be based on sensible thinking or a serious understanding of the nature of the problem.

There is a controversial exercise ongoing in India to crowdsource a list through social media of those in academia who have sexually harassed their students. India has also proposed a sexual offenders list which could include juveniles. While empirical evidence from countries which began this practice decades ago has shown that it has not reduced crimes against children, how do you think this will be helpful?

It depends on how it is done. The United States has a state-by-state public registry, where offenders are utterly exposed. The consequence of that is that between 55-60% of them have disappeared, and their whereabouts are not known. In my view, they are more dangerous now than they would have been before. The notion was that if this information was made public, the public would responsibly deal with it. We know there have been a number of vigilante attacks against offenders. I understand public anger and outrage, but if we isolate them and make them more vulnerable, then we make them more dangerous. The models that have the most promise for managing and reducing sex offences is where we rehabilitate and reintegrate sex offenders. Not all of them will do well — we have to assess them — but we know there are mechanisms where we integrate them back into the society to lead good lives and not harm children. But public registries tend to be the opposite of that. They ostracise, humiliate and isolate.

Whereas, if sex offenders are managed professionally, they have to still account for when things go wrong. That is a sensible way of registry, but it costs money. For example, in Surrey, the population is 1.1. million people where there are 600 registered sex offenders, and there are 16 local police officers whose fulltime job is to simply to manage them.

The UK police have been operating a sex offenders’ registry since 1997, and have 52,000 registered sex offenders across the country.  The registries are not public, and offenders are accountable to the police and they have to notify where they live, work, bank account details, car registrations, online accounts — a range of different requirements. 95-97% of offenders in the UK are where they are supposed to be, which means a surveillance team can keep an eye on them as they are very dangerous individuals. So, registration is done responsibly and not done in a way to humiliate individuals except in the case of those who are assessed to pose a great risk to children while living in a community. There, local people will be notified. 

An open registry is well-intentioned, but it doesn’t equip adults with the information they need. Telling a parent there is a sex offender in their street means they are going to worry about that one person but what about the rest of them who have not been registered possibly because a child may not have reported. I think parents need to know behaviours to watch out for, whether or not they are on a register.

How can educational institutions minimise abuse? Are there methods for safer recruitment in schools and other organisations that deal with children?

If we apply our understanding of sex offending and situational prevention, then institutions should be able to make themselves utterly safe. Broadly we can carefully screen and select the people working and volunteering in schools. It won’t be foolproof, but we can be sure we haven’t chosen people with a criminal conviction, someone who isn’t barred from working with children. Since India doesn’t have these checks, schools can expect references that will clarify suitable behaviour. They can make sure that the person is not just good for the job but also respects children, adheres to rules and follows policy. The UK mandates schools to train all staff and volunteers in their child protection policy — a code of conduct which talks about touch, restrictions from being alone with children, keeping the doors open, and not allowing any social media relationship. If we clarify these rules, not only does a potential offender realise how he is expected to behave, we also help other colleagues to notice if someone misbehaves.

Schools also need to take the responsibility of listening to children and be interested in their views and concerns they raise. In refugee camps, we tell children how they should expect staff to behave with them so that everyone is clear about the boundaries.

There was a case of a nursery worker, Paul Wilson, in the UK who worked in two nurseries. He abused children in one nursery while he didn’t commit the crime in another. He told us that he abused the children in the nursery which was informal, friendly and relaxed, and no one bothered about rules so he could get away. In the other, he was given training and a code of conduct. So, the system minimized the opportunity where even if he tried to do anything, the risk of getting caught was massive. These mechanisms can be a huge difference to whether the children are safe or not.