Critical thinking is the key to protecting children from child sexual exploitation.
It sounds so deceptively simple. Too simple. Parsimonious in fact.
The law of parsimony is from science – the principle that something: an event, a behaviour or a problem can usually be explained with the simplest solution which makes the least amount of assumptions or inferences.
Parsimony = The simplest answer which makes the least assumptions is the most powerful.
Why does this relate to children being sexually exploited? Why does this relate to strategy, policy and protecting children?
I am going to give you 4 brief examples of how parsimonious solutions and critical thinking would immediately improve the outcomes for children who are being or have been sexually exploited.
1. Trauma after sexual violence
As demonstrated by numerous serious case reviews, inquiries, reports and research in CSE, children’s trauma is not only misunderstood but in many cases it is completely ignored. Professionals are seemingly baffled by children showing aggressive, violent, ambivalent, withdrawn or anxious behaviours after sexual trauma. Children are hauled off to doctors and psychiatrists for assessment and diagnoses. Children are informed they have disorders, mental health issues and are referred for therapy to alter their behaviours and thoughts. Some children are even medicated for their newly developed psychiatric disorders.
Organisations, companies and authorities sell us complicated therapies, frameworks and assessments to keep these troubled children under control. We attend training about these disorders and behavioural issues and we hear horror stories of children who will never recover and never be able to form ‘healthy attachments’ ever again.
We have somehow become so wrapped up in the pseudo-complexity – telling ourselves and each other that these behaviours are so complex that we cannot solve them or help these children.
The reality is nothing like this. The reality is that those behaviours have a very simple explanation, that makes no assumptions, that makes no great leaps to mental disorders or neuropsychological deficits – the child is traumatised by something horrible.
For this field to move forward and improve its responses to children – it MUST embrace and advocate for trauma-informed responses in which the CSE is seen as the criminal act of committing extreme and life threatening injuries and crimes against a minor who then displays equally extreme – but perfectly logical – trauma responses.
And how would this improve the outcomes for children?
– they would learn about trauma responses and their own experiences, which would equip them with knowledge to understand their own feelings and experiences for the rest of their lives
– they would not feel broken or disordered
– they would not have a psychiatric diagnosis for life
– they would be seen as a whole human being and not a collection of negative issues
– they would be seen for their potential not their abuse
2. The use of CSE resources with children
There is now a large selection of CSE resources, varying in quality and content but all based on the same set of assumptions: (a) that showing a child videos of child abuse will enable the child to identify abuse quicker or escape a sex offender who is already abusing them and (b) that showing a child videos of child abuse will ‘educate’ the child so that they can become ‘more resilient’ and ‘reduce their chances’ of being sexually abused. A lot of this is just marketing waffle to sell DVDs of child rape that would be illegal in any other context.
So how can we apply critical thinking and the law of parsimony to this issue?
At present, these resources are being used with thousands of children in the UK based on a set of assumptions and a complex set of anecdotal theories whereby the more the child ‘sees’ and ‘understands’ abuse, the less likely they are to be abused. But the law of parsimony would eliminate these assumptions. And it is only these assumptions that keep professionals using them.
The reality is that the resources are not evidence based and this practice amounts to the mass showing of child abuse to children in large and small groups. If we remove the assumptions from this issue, we are left with a DVD that shows child rape with no evidence it works.
Not only this, but we have ample evidence in psychology that showing children sexually violent materials has a negative not educative effect on them. Add this to the fact that, statistically, a sizeable proportion of a year group, class group or even a smaller group would have experienced child abuse: the risk of retraumatising victims and traumatising others is so real that if we were ever sued for this practice, the complainant would probably win. And so they should.
Simple answer: stop using them. They don’t work, we have no evidence to back them up and there is already emerging evidence that they traumatise children.
And how would this improve outcomes for children?
– the children who have never been abused wouldn’t be traumatised by a shock tactic film
– the children who have been abused wouldn’t be retraumatised by a shock tactic film
– the culture of responsibility would reduce whereby children would not be held responsible for identifying and escaping sex offenders
– the myths about education protecting children from sex offenders would disappear
– resources would be developed and tested empirically by psychologists through ethical processes with peer review to keep children safe
– professionals would be reempowered to talk to children about important issues and build human relationships whilst talking about the negative things in society instead of putting on a DVD
3. Assessing children as ‘low, medium and high risk’ of CSE
This is a clear example of a simple concept that has been over complicated to the point where it no longer makes a jot of sense. I’m talking about labelling children who are already being abused ‘high risk of CSE’ and calling children who professionals suspect are being groomed as ‘low risk’. ‘Medium risk’ is redundant. It’s mind-numbingly stupid.
Children are being assessed all over the UK with over 110 ‘CSE indicators’ of which only two have any evidence base whatsoever and we aren’t even sure which (if any) the correlational direction moves in. Does the indicator increase the likelihood of being sexually exploited or does being sexually exploited increase the likelihood of that indicator? Or does being sexually exploited lead to trauma behaviours that look like that indicator? We don’t know – but we use them anyway.
The other 108 indicators are completely anecdotal and some are even based on rape myths and misogyny such as ‘overtly sexualised dress’, which is virtually impossible for boys to be labelled with.
The CSE toolkits, screening tools or whatever buzzword is being used to describe them – are based on a pseudo-theory that the more indicators that are present, the higher the risk of the child and the more urgent and intensive the intervention must be. Whilst that sounds pretty logical, the entire procedure is flawed because the tools have no evidence base. If the tool we are using doesn’t work, the rest of the process is problematic.
So how do we apply the law of parsimony to this problem?
Well, first of all, bin the toolkits. They don’t work on boys, they don’t work on younger children, they don’t work for disabled children and they don’t work for children being solely abused online. That’s a LOT of children they don’t work for. In science we call that ‘poor validity’ and we scrub it all out and we start again. It is not ethical or even adequate to use or distribute a tool that has not been scientifically validated and knowingly misses huge chunks of the child population.
Second, look for a solution that is simple and makes the least assumptions and used the least anecdotal evidence. The solution is surprisingly simple: we reempower our frontline workers, remind them that they are ALWAYS a thousand times more accurate than a knocked-up toolkit with no validity and we ask them to make a referral and conduct a needs assessment like they would for any other issue. Ask them to record their concerns and their evidence so far, ask them about this in context to the child’s whole life and history and then ask them what they think the best course of action is and what the child has expressed themselves. Done.
Simple answer: listen to the child and listen to the frontline professionals who know the child and bin the pseudo-risk-assessments
And how would this improve the outcomes of children?
– they would not be assigned a redundant label that slows down response to abuse
– they would not be assessed using a bogus tool with no evidence base
– girls would not be tested against sexist indicators
– boys would not be systematically missed or ignored by female-centric tools
– cases of online sexual harm would be responded to quicker and with more resources
– professionals would regain their expertise and sense of mastery that has been taken away by these tools
– professional judgement and knowledge of the child would come first, meaning that the child would be treated as a whole human and not a CSE case
– professionals would regain the confidence to escalate cases and challenge the processes that are failing children, thereby increasing positive outcomes for children
4. Removing children from non-abusive familial homes
One of the benefits of being a national specialist and consultant is that I have not only discussed, advised or worked with thousands of cases myself but I can see national patterns in the caseloads of hundreds of areas. I can see strategies, procedures, screening tools, commissioning processes and even worker morale – all over the UK. And one of the things that just won’t stop bothering me is the removal of children from non-abusive families where the sexual exploitation of the child by an external sex offender is becoming so dangerous and so serious that the local authority make the decision to take the child from their family and plop them in a residential or secure unit anywhere from one county away to half the country away.
This is usually done when the sex offender has such a hold over the child that the parents are struggling to keep them safe and conversation eventually turns to ‘failure to protect’ and parenting issues. Not only is this a pristine example of victim blaming but it is unethical and dishonest of professionals to ignore the control and power of the sex offender and tell a non-abusive family that they are not good enough whilst simultaneously failing to protect the child and the family from a sex offender, themselves.
The child is then placed wherever they are placed where they repeatedly tell us in research and reports that they feel they were punished and isolated from their loved ones as a consequence for being sexually abused and raped. The families are then put under unnecessary scrutiny whilst workers convince each other that the family home was too unsafe and the residential/secure unit is in the best interests of the child who now keeps going missing and cutting themselves because all they want to do is go home to their families or go home to the sex offender (who they still think loves them). The sex offender has these magic tools called a car and a smartphone which means the exploitation continues or evolves. Their behaviour is reported to escalate and the placement ‘breaks down’. The child is moved somewhere else. The behaviours escalate and the placement ‘breaks down’. 10 months and 5 placements later and the child is now showing serious trauma responses – not from the sexual violence because they haven’t even psychologically processed that yet – but from our practice. We have moved them from pillar to post for months because no one will accept that removing them from their family was the wrong thing to do and now this child is showing extremely disturbed behaviours and everyone is sat around scratching their heads as to why that might be.
So what would we do if we applied the law of parsimony and the skill of critical thinking to this issue? Well, the answer is always the most simple one that makes the least assumptions: keep the child at home.
If we have no evidence that the family are dangerous or harmful, that child should stay put and we should support the entire family unit as a group of victims of serious sexual violence and crime cause by an external sex offender. Even if the parents are struggling and are begging us for help because they don’t feel they can keep their child safe from the sex offenders – the answer is to dig in and to hold that family together and teach them how to support their child with sexual trauma.
Simple: keep the children at home with their safe family and invest the massive amounts of money and resources that would have been used to put the child into care, into therapy, coaching, advice and practical support for the whole family including siblings.
And how would this improve outcomes for the children?
– they would not feel punished by removal from their families
– their relationships with primary caregivers would not be destroyed
– their families would learn all about trauma and sex offending to better support their children
– the siblings would not experience the grief of losing a child from the home
– the family would have access to wraparound, non-judgemental support
– the child and family would not feel blamed or judged for the harm done by a sex offender
– the recovery from sexual trauma will be better when supported by the primary caregiver
The reason CSE feels so complicated and so difficult to address is because we have created a monster. We created CSE. We pulled it away from CSA and we convinced ourselves it was different and special. We have overcomplicated it. We have developed tools that don’t work. We have disempowered experienced and skilful workers. We have ignored decades of research on sexual trauma and sex offenders. We have made up models and theories and constructs that make no sense. We have sold resources that will never do what we say they do. We have told parents it is their fault that their child was raped by someone they never knew existed. We have sold and trained each other in institutionalised practice and ‘best practice’ with no evidence base.
It’s time to bump back down to earth, colleagues.
You’re working with children who have been sexually abused and will spend years processing their trauma.
They need your help, your empathy, your role modelling, your patience, your compassion, your wisdom and your full commitment to their journey through trauma and towards a happy, healthy life.
That’s it. They just need you.
Simple but true.
Specialist researcher, writer and public speaker in forensic psychology, sexual violence and victim blaming