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Where prevention may be better than cure

05 August 2016

There are measures that can be taken to prevent child abuse, argues Donald Findlater, and the Church should be giving them consideration


White van: the nursery worker Vanessa George is driven away from Plymouth Magistrates Court after being charged with sexual assault and making and distributing child-abuse images (2009)

White van: the nursery worker Vanessa George is driven away from Plymouth Magistrates Court after being charged with sexual assault and making and dis...

AT THE outset of this article, may I ask you, the reader, to consider what it might take to prevent the sexual abuse of a 15-year-old female pupil by her 28-year-old male teacher on school premises? If we could turn back the clock, what circumstances might we make different to prevent the abuse’s happening in the first place: different for the pupil herself; or for her friends; or for her parents; or perhaps for the teacher, his colleagues, and bosses; or for the very physical layout of the school where the abuse will take place?

Now consider how to prevent the re-abuse of a seven-year-old male child by a 16-year-old female who regularly babysits him while his parents attend the cinema. And now the two-year-old male or female child abused and photographed on a digital camera in a nursery setting by a female volunteer.

The scenarios are many and varied. The impact on the different children will likewise vary. The prevention of these and other examples of abuse requires a range of approaches involving diverse people. And, typically, there is no social or health care professional already on the scene.


I HAVE been working in the area of child sexual abuse and its prevention since the 1980s. Over these 30 years, we have come to understand a great deal about sexual abuse and sexual abusers; about the “who” and the “how” of abuse. This knowledge informs the support and treatment of victims and their families, as well as the treatment of per­petrators. But what does it contribute to the prevention of the abuse of tomorrow’s chil­dren, in our churches and elsewhere?

I do not believe we are making the most effective use of what we know. Any strategies to protect children typically address part, but not all, of the problem. Many politicians, professionals, members of the public, and media commentators seem to believe that concentrating efforts on expensive criminal-justice responses after abuse will reap vast rewards, ignoring the evidence that only a small minority of offenders are ever con­victed; that those convicted are not, typically, the most risky; and that desistance is actually the norm for this offender group.

The predisposed, determined, repeat offen­ders are in the minority; yet often policy and practice assume the opposite, with devastating consequences in terms of children being less rather than better protected.


WITHIN both sex offender and criminology literature there has long been a recognition that offenders vary in their determination to commit crimes. This has resulted in differ­entiating between the predisposed (and deter­mined) sex offender, the opportunistic sex offender, and the situational sex offender. The environment often plays a significant part in the commission of an offence; indeed, some researchers have described how environ­mental features might “provoke” offending, suggesting that without these features the crime might never have been committed.

As the reader might guess, diverting a “situational” offender from committing a crime is likely to be an easier task than pre­vent­ing the same crime by a determined offender. Research has found only one third of sex offenders to be “predisposed and deter­mined”.

For the present purposes, I must also mention developmental crime prevention, which seeks “essentially to reduce criminal propensity by intervening early to forestall the negative effects of certain developmental circumstances and experiences”. Problematic sexual outcomes have been linked to ind­iv­idual impulsivity and poor problem-solving, as well as to family adversity, including domestic violence and parental substance mis­­use. For some boys, their experience of sexual abuse in childhood is coming to be recognised as a risk factor for sexual offend­ing.

Early interventions to ameliorate these childhood experiences would seem to offer the prospect of a reduced risk of future sexual offending as well as a pos­itive impact on other potential problems. It is of interest that these and related features are at last becoming targets in some intervention programmes for convicted adolescent and adult offenders. What might be the outcome if we offered such interventions sooner?

The combination of theoretical per­spectives from criminology and sex-offender theory has led to the development of a com­pre­­hensive framework for the prevention of child sexual abuse, which distinguishes be­­tween primary (or universal), secondary (or selected), and tertiary (or indicated) preven­tion. The crucial insight is the possibility that interventions may be directed to preventing sexual violence before it would otherwise first occur (primary or secondary prevention), as well as after its occurrence, to prevent further offending and victimisation (tertiary preven­tion).

In addition, the framework locates risk and protective factors at various levels of the ecological systems in which the victims, offenders, and their families live their lives.

The resulting framework invites us to consider targets for interventions that:

  • prevent offending or re-offending by offenders;
  • prevent victimisation or re-victimisation of children;
  • prevent an offence or further offence within a specific family or community (ecological system); and
  • prevent an incident or recurrence of child sexual abuse in a specific situation or place.


MY OWN work in the Probation Service and with The Lucy Faithfull Foundation (a child-protection charity) initially involved tertiary interventions with convicted as well as suspected sex offenders, but also with families and victims who had experienced abuse. These interventions were designed to prevent those who had already offended from re-offending, and to prevent victims’ and families’ being further abused.

For past perpetrators, this involved design­ing and delivering treatment programmes that featured acceptance of responsibility, development of victim empathy and aware­ness; and learning the skills for future self-management to avoid further offending (just as the alcoholic or drug addict learns relapse- prevention skills). The goal of treatment was that past offenders learn to lead “ good lives”.

But in doing this work we recognised that some individuals had additional needs if their risk was to be reduced. For example, the more socially isolated offenders remained at heightened risk owing to this very isolation. So, from 2002, we have been involved in the development of Circles of Support and Accountability across the UK and into Europe, a project originally designed and implemented in Canada by the Mennonite Church. Such Circles “surround” the past offender with trained, adult volunteers who take an involvement in the offender’s day-to-day life — hobbies, work, shopping, company — but who are also alert to deteriorating attitudes and behaviour, and can challenge the individual directly or involve statutory author­ities in order to reduce risk (Wilson, Cortoni and McWhinnie, 2009).

For the growing population of offenders convicted for accessing sexual images of children online, their ability to resist the temptation offered via their work or home computer varies. Covenant Eyes is a computer-accountability programme dev­eloped within the Church in the USA which sends a report about website visits to an “accountability partner” (it was originally designed to support desistance from adult pornography).

Securus Offender Monitoring is tailor-made software incorporating key words and phrases associated with illegal sexual images which utilises a “back door” on a home computer and stores “violations” on a separate server that can be accessed by an agreed monitor. Besides supporting offenders who are worried about their own ability to resist temptation, such software offers re­­assurance to supportive family members, as well as to statutory agencies, that the online behaviour of their loved one or client is no longer illegal.

These tertiary interventions are, of course, vital to preventing further abuse. But if we are serious about preventing children from being abused in the first place, we need to focus more than we have done so far on primary and secondary prevention work. Only then do we get to an individual before they abuse or before they are harmed; only then do we equip other individuals to prevent abuse.


WHAT information do parents or grand­parents need to help them better protect their children and grandchildren from sexual abuse? In its 2007 Child Sex Offender Review, the Home Office announced the creation of resources precisely for this population of protectors, now available in seminars and as an online resource, “Parents Protect” (www.parentsprotect.co.uk).

What is the risk? What are the warning signs in children? What are the warning signs in adults who may represent a risk? What is normal sexual behaviour in children and young people, and when should we worry? Where can I get help and support in respond­ing to a situation? If, in our churches, we are genuinely concerned to keep children safe,
do all parents and grandparents know the answers to the above? What about those who work or volunteer with children and young people? Should they?

While we might all agree that it should be for adults to keep children safe, an under­standing of the process of abuse ought to tell us that sex offenders target vulnerability in children. That vulnerability may result from learning difficulties, being very young, being lonely and emotionally isolated, or living in a household where there is domestic violence.

But vulnerability can have less obvious causes, including lacking knowledge about boundaries and touch, or lacking age-appropriate information about relationships and sex; wanting to be treated as more “grown up”; not being confident to talk with parents or other protective adults about issues to do with, or simply curiosity about, personal sexuality; and awk­ward­­ness to do with involvement (along­side at least one quarter of their teenage peers) in “sexting” (the taking and sending of intimate photographs or videos via smart­phone).

While parents need to be alert and responsive to these issues, children and young people are less vulnerable if they, too, are given the information that they need to keep themselves safe; to help keep their friends safe; and to know where to get support and help. Do children and young people attending activities at our churches receive information on these and related matters? Can they look to us for support, guidance, understanding, and help? Whether risks are at home, at church, in the community, or online, are we doing as much as we reasonably can to protect them? Sadly, for me the answer is “No, we are not.”


WE MUST also remember that tomorrow’s sex offenders are today’s children. Jimmy Savile, Ian Huntley, and Vanessa George were all children once. What happened in their childhoods which prompted them to behave as they did as adults (perhaps also as adol­escents)? What signs should we be looking for in our children and young people that might give us cause for concern about unhealthy sexual attitudes or behaviour? And how should we best respond? When do we need to involve professionals, and what can we deal with ourselves? I don’t have the space in this article to answer these questions. But we should be asking them of ourselves and each other. The Parents Protect and Stop it Now! (www.stopitnow.org.uk) websites give an­­swers to these questions and more. And for those with children under five or six years, the excellent book An Exceptional Children’s Guide to Touch helps us to begin some important conversations with them that help us to talk about tricky issues with confidence (Manasco, 2012).

The Bichard Inquiry, which was set up after the murder of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman by Huntley, a school caretaker, recommended that senior school staff ought to receive training on how to recruit safely, since Huntley’s past record ought to have alerted those who recruited him as to his unsuitability.

Safer Recruitment in Education training is the expected training for recruiters in schools across England. It educates senior school staff about the scale of the problem of child sexual abuse; the process of abuse (using Finkelhor’s pre-conditions, as shown in the accompany­ing diagram); the elements of vigilance which can inform all procedural steps (from advertising and crafting person specifications to scrut­inis­ing applications, taking up ref­erences, conducting interviews, and using criminal back­ground checks); and the essentials of staff induction and training.

These “essentials” include a “code of practice” within the job role which serves to help staff know how they should behave around children, but also how they in turn should expect colleagues to behave. If this training and code of practice are deemed essential for all schools, should we be doing any less in our churches? So, what are we doing?


Child-sexual-abuse prevention: a church strategy?
THERE appear to be ways to reduce the development of the motivation to abuse in some young people and adults. There are also ways to increase the internal inhibitors in potential offenders, so that their resolve to refrain from harm and their ability to exercise self-control are increased. Adults can be armed with information and support that enhance their abilities as “external inhib­itors” to offending. And children and young people can be helped to be more resistant and resilient in the face of possible abuse. In criminological terms, we can “target-harden” children, require more effort from potential offenders, reduce the potential “rewards” from offending, and increase the risk of de­­tection and sanction. We can put in place strategies that create more “capable guard­ians”, that equip relevant adults to act as effective “handlers” of risky individuals, and that provide for greater safety in “at-risk” places.

Peter Brierley’s research for the Evangelical Alliance (2013) suggests that as many as ten per cent of the adult population in the UK attend church occasionally or frequently; as do a rather larger percentage of the UK’s 12 million youngsters. Reflecting on the report from the Office for the Children’s Commis­sioner — that 11.3 per cent of young people reported having been sexually abused before 18 — imagine what impact our churches could have across the whole of society if all adults, all children, and all young people who came through our doors were equipped to play their (informed) part in child-sexual-abuse prevention; and if the “place” of the church was made safer through the develop­ment and implementation of a range of situational prevention activities.

I have no doubt that such a strategy would make the Church safer. It would also help all who attend church to be safer in their homes and within their families, where we know the biggest risk to be.

Child sexual abuse is preventable, not inevitable.


Donald Findlater is the Director of Research and Development at the child-protection charity The Lucy Faithfull Foundation.


A fuller version of this article appeared in Crucible’s volume on Safeguarding (July 2016). www.cruciblejournal.co.uk.

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