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Lost in the Mix: The Voice of the Families of Adolescents Who Have Abused

By Guest Blogger David S. Prescott, Clinical Supervisor; & NEARI Parent 2 Parent consultant

About 15 years ago, a colleague asked, “If we don’t work with the families of people who have sexually abused, who will?” It was an important question. All too often, we forget the important roles of all who work to prevent sexual violence and reduce its harm. Those providing assessments are often experts at assessing risks. Those providing treatment are often highly competent. Indeed, we have scientific studies to back these points up. But everything we know also points to a similar conclusion: Only the family can ever be the true experts on themselves. After all, all the research with youth who have abused points in the same direction: Family involvement is critical to reduced risk, healthier lives, and safer communities.

How is it possible that we so rarely involve families meaningfully in stopping sexual violence? One possible answer is that we are all so busy living our lives and making ends meet that we simply don’t think that much about abuse until after it’s occurred. By then, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the “flashbulb moment”: that instance when people see the effects of abuse vividly, but not necessarily the voices, wishes, hopes, or aspirations of the people who have experienced or perpetrated the abuse.

Let’s face it: Even a quick scan of the media suggests that when abuse occurs, most people want to make the abuse just go away… along with the abuser. It can take a lot of work to realize the often-complex wishes and needs of those who have been abused; all too often, they are in the same family as the person who has caused harm. We all know that abuse can cause harm to loved ones and the broader community. It’s never as simple as punishment-only approaches, and in many cases, simplistic responses to abuse can actually make matters worse.

Decades of research have found that any kind of service (whether in psychotherapy, the criminal justice system, health care, and even the business world) improves when those affected most by it are able to provide feedback without fear of retribution and with the hope of having an impact. For all of these reasons, it is crucial that society privilege the voices of family members of those who have abused as well as those who have experienced abuse. After all, we all have the same goal: We all want to stop abuse.

Of course, the real challenge is in reaching people before abuse occurs. Questions abound: What would have helped you prevent this? What information would you have needed? What would have made the difference in your busy life? Who would you have trusted to tell the truth? These are not easy questions to answer, especially for families who have had their share of hard times already. The hardest part of the “flashbulb moment” is how easy it is to point fingers and place blame after the fact. This kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking is not only unhelpful, but it actually makes matters worse by driving good families underground and into silence.

Where do we go from here? My suggestion is that all professionals need to work together to return to the basics: Just as no one asks to be abused, no one makes the truly informed choice to become a person who abuses, and no family truly desires for one of their own to abuse or to have abuse occur within their family. The question is no longer what we can do to punish those who abuse (we’re already effective at that) or how to assign blame (after all, judgments are easier to come by than solutions or methods for prevention). A central question that we should all ask is how professionals can come together to discuss the myriad problems of preventing sexual abuse. In this way, the families who are experts about themselves are our best ally. Indeed, the question asked so many years ago, “If we don’t work with families, who will?” is even more important today.

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