Monday, November 28, 2011

Defusing the Powder Keg of Sexual Abuse

I recently received this inquiry from a person in a well-established community wrestling with the explosive issue of sexual abuse:

Our community has recently had an experience of having a sexual assault predator living here who was arrested on charges. We were completely caught off guard in regards to this endemic social issue entering our community. We’ve done lots of healing and brought in a sexual assault prevention educator—all of which has been good. Now we’re at a crossroads, needing to make decisions about how to be responsible gatekeepers and guardians of our community. In other words, what proactive prevention do we put in place? I’m curious if you have had any experience with communities setting agreements for proactive prevention? And what have other communities done to provide a forum for that “uh-oh”/gut feeling that someone isn’t a good fit (could be around this issue or anything, really)?

This is a tough issue, mainly because it brings into play several complex challenges all at the same time:
o A wide range of societal views about what constitutes healthy sexuality
o Widespread disagreement about how much it's advisable (or even acceptable) to openly discuss sexual matters
o The boundary between private matters and group matters
o How the group works with intuition and gut feelings
o The group's responsibility to be a safe environment to raise children
o How to work constructively with strong emotions

It can be overwhelming knowing where to begin and how to proceed.

While I am not a sexual abuse expert, I am a group dynamics expert and I've been involved with a handful of instances where groups have had to handle this hot potato. Here is framing that I've assembled for setting the stage when charges of sexual abuse arise:

1. Sexual misconduct is common. According to statistics from the Eugene OR Police Dept, 30% of all females are sexually assaulted by the age of 13; 25% of all males are sexually assaulted at some point in their life; 45% of all children are sexually assaulted by the age of 18. This means
it is a statistical certainty that in a group of 30 that a significant number of the adult members have personally experienced sexual abuse in some form and that they are looking at current events through that lens.

2. Sexual abuse covers a lot of territory—all the way from a single incidence of inappropriate touch between adults who had a bit too much to drink, to repeated sodomizing of a child. I'm not implying that any abuse is OK, only that the damage and severity can vary widely.

3. It is not possible to create 100% safety from abuse (or 100% safety from anything). No matter how much we desire to minimize risk, we can never eliminate it. Parents and the community must wrestle with what is acceptable risk.

4. It is often difficult to know the full story, or to agree on what actually happened. While it's obviously beneficial to narrow the area of disagreement about the "facts" to the extent possible, the group may need to develop a response without clarity about how bad a particular incident was. On the plus side, it may be possible to agree that the alleged actions are unacceptable, and the group needs to be less naive and more vigilant about watching for potential abuse—even if you cannot reach agreement on whether the alleged actions occurred.

5. Lack of information degrades trust. To the extent that trust has been eroded
and relationships have been damaged—either with individuals or with the group—it's important to open up lines of communication among members.

6. This work is made difficult because of the tension between: a)
the need to share as a prelude to healing; and b) the desire for privacy—both about sexual matters in general (which tend to be outside the scope of the group's business), and about the specifics of an incident (or incidents) that are likely to be embarrassing and possibly humiliating.

It is generally not fruitful to attempt to rebuild trust or to discuss constructive steps until there has been a thorough opportunity to share pain, anger, fear, and other emotional responses to events. As you might imagine, this can be highly volatile and difficult to handle in a way that creates an opening for authentic expression while at the same time protecting people from getting psychically lynched.

8. In the community context there are aspects of creating safety from sexual predation that are private (for example, what parents decide about educating their children regarding abuse), and there are aspects where the community is a clear stakeholder—by virtue of having made an explicit commitment to being a safe place to raise children. Understandably, it can be dicey knowing where to draw the line between private and public, and it's very hard to get motivated to have this conversation without in issue driving it. Unfortunately, once there is an issue, it is much harder to navigate the uncertainties with sure footing and even-handedness.

9. Combining points 1, 3, & 8, this means the group may be discussing the nuances of acceptable risk in an environment where people may feel freshly betrayed, are uncertain of the line between private and public, and where some members are probably seeing the issues through a lens of past abuse that may not have been disclosed and may not have been worked through by the individual. That's about as thermonuclear as it gets.

10. On the matter of how much information about incidents of sexual misconduct is shared, there is a direct clash between two strongly held principles that make it delicate and awkward to know how to proceed: on the one hand sharing information about allegations and evidence as fully as possible would aid individuals in making their own assessment of risk, and honors a deep tradition in our culture that the accused has the right to full access to the evidence upon which the accusation is based; on the other, there is strong agreement among abuse professionals that where there is a question of a minor's safety you should err on the side of protecting the child. Now what?

11. Polarized dynamics do not get better on their own; the group needs to take active steps to turn things around.

12. After the group has worked through the trauma of the alleged events and the aftermath of the revelations, plus reached decisions about how to proceed more wisely in the future, there remains the delicate question of how to tell the story. What constitutes fair notice to prospective members, and how will the community respond to media inquiries? How important is it that group members offer a consistent story? What can and should be done to protect the privacy of affected individuals?

• • •
Getting back to the query that triggered this blog, I offered this advice about how a group might approach the question of examining "uh-oh" feelings that residents might have when they encounter a new person on the property that someone doesn't feel is safe:

Many groups create a standing committee whose job it is to be of assistance if there arises interpersonal tensions between members that the protagonists are unable to resolve directly or informally. Building on this general concept, I advocate creating a special version of this—a committee of 2-3 people whose sole job it would be to assist residents explore uneasy feelings about anything happening on campus. Thus, if someone had an "uh-oh" feeling they could go to this special committee (or any single member of it, if that felt more accessible) and explore it.

The committee's job would to to take every instance of this seriously. They'd listen carefully, and help the observer figure out where the discomfort arouse and what the appropriate response should be. This committee would use guidelines that the community had established ahead of time about the boundaries of safe and appropriate behavior, and would have the authority to discreetly inquire about what was happening if they felt that was warranted.

While the committee would be expected to operate with a high degree of discretion and confidentiality, they would also, in extreme circumstances, have the authority to call in legal authorities if they discovered something sufficiently serious or alarming. (The conditions necessary to invoke this power would need to be spelled out by the community.)

Once the committee was made aware of an uneasy feeling, they'd stay with it until all parties felt it was resolved. This could include (but is not limited to):
o Reaching resolution simply by talking through the initiator's ill feelings.
o Finding an innocent and satisfactory explanation by collecting more information about what was observed.
o Discovering background about the person
who triggered the uneasy feeling (perhaps information about cultural habits) such that their behavior made more sense and was no longer threatening.
o Moderating a conversation between the observer and the trigger person such that both reached an understanding about how the trigger person might change their behavior and the observer would be more accepting.
o Uncovering information about the triggering person (perhaps an undisclosed felony record) such that there might need to be a community-wide conversation about how to respond.

If the committee felt that there was sufficient cause for concern, they could recommend that the community have a meeting to discus the information available and what to do about it, if anything.

For their part, community members would need to agree that if the committee approached a member to discuss what they did or what they observed, that they would be expected to make themselves available for such a conversation. No ducking. (This is not about admitting guilt; it's about committing to a good faith effort to understand and resolve concerns.)

For this to work well, considerable care should be taken to select the right people to fill the committee slots. As individuals, these people will need to be highly trusted, excellent listeners, good communicators, possess good judgment, capable of keeping confidences, and be available. As a collection, these folks will need to deemed accessible to everyone in the community, and able to work well together. While you hope that this committee will not have a lot of work, you'll want them to do it well when there's a knock on the door, or a niggle in someone's belly.

This is my attempt to create a clear pathway for honoring intuitions about discomfort while protecting people from witch hunts; it's a middle way that balances the right to privacy with the responsibility to protect the group; it offers troubled people a sympathetic forum without leaping to conclusions or reaching for a bullhorn.

Sexual abuse is a tough issue, and communities are not exempt from it. The good news is that there are nonetheless tools and sensibilities available in community to handle it compassion and determination.

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