Ending child sex abuse in five generations

Helen Mills
Tuesday, 25 November 2014

'There is a real issue here about how was it that in the past, but continuing today, the very institutions of the state that should be protecting children were not doing so. Why was it these abuses were able to take place and nobody was brought to justice as a result of that? […] We must, as a society... get to the truth of that and because I think what we’ve already seen revealed is the tip of the iceberg on this issue.' Theresa May

It’s hard to believe anyone needs convincing that current responses to child sexual abuse are inadequate and failing. Theresa May’s comments last Sunday indicate the critical reflection recent child abuse revelations have rightly caused about current approaches to child sexual abuse. The above raises two concerning aspects regarding these responses:

People know. As a society our disturbance about child abuse isn’t matched by our willingness to confront it in our personal and professional lives. Many people knowing about the sexual abuse of children, we now know, may do nothing to stop abuse from continuing, sometimes for decades.

The meaning of justice. There is often an assumption that ‘getting justice’ in terms of criminal justice convictions necessarily brings an encompassing solution to survivors of abuse. Leaving aside that it is only a small minority of cases which result in convictions, as my colleague Roger Grimshaw has described, what justice means to those who have survived childhood abuse is about more than convictions and long prison sentences.

The desire to reach for greater enforcement in the face of abhorrent acts is understandable. But even advocates of such approaches would probably agree, criminal justice offers child abuse survivors far from a comprehensive framework for reparation and coming to terms with their experiences. There are also significant limitations to what criminal justice can reasonably be expected to achieve regarding addressing the systemic causes of abuse.

Confronting these failures inevitably leads to the question: how can we as a society do better?

This comment piece responds to this by focusing on one practical example of an initiative which attempts to better address the causes and consequences of child sex abuse: generationFIVE.

generationFIVE is one of a number of organisations which has applied the principles of transformative justice. As part of our Justice Matters work at the Centre, I and colleagues are interested in exploring the potential of initiatives such as this to better address entrenched social problems.

About generationFIVE

Based in America, generationFIVE’s name reflects its ultimate ambition: to end child sexual abuse within five generations. It provides:

  • A framework for prevention by unpacking sexual abuse, its prevalence, and even when it is recognised and acknowledged, its often devastating impact on those involved.
  • Guidance on interventions when sexual abuse has taken place. It particularly focuses on abuse within the family or when those involved are known to each other (reflecting where the majority of child sexual abuse occurs).

generationFIVE is informed by the principles of transformative justice. Transformative justice has nothing to do with the similar sounding transitional justice, which intends to aid societies’ progression to stability following large scale human rights abuses. Rather transformative justice is an attempt to redefine and resituate how we respond to harm outside a criminal justice framework.

Sarah Lamble, a speaker at last week’s ‘From prevention to intervention’ roundtable, provides more information about transformative justice in these slides or you can access this thorough (622 page(!)) guide to transformative justice.

In a foundational document on its website, generationFIVE sets out the key principles of its approach. At nearly 80 pages, it’s a detailed account of the concepts, practices and ways of organising that underpin their interventions. It also responds to some of the concerns a fundamentally different approach to child sex abuse can raise.

In the form of an online toolkit, this resources provides a number of useful ways forward regarding better responding to child sexual abuse.

Solutions do not lie ‘out there’

According to generationFIVE bystanders play a potentially crucial role in recognising and responding to abuse. To paraphrase Mimi Kim, founder of Creative Interventions, another organisation working within a transformative justice framework, it’s not the job of children to get better at telling us about sexual abuse. It’s the job of adults to be better at listening.

The key site of generationFIVE’s intervention is to empower bystanders to confront child sex abuse. It proposes enabling this by pre-emptive education about abuse and about accountability. In a series of question guides in its foundational document, generationFIVE seeks to begin a process of dialogue about harmful behaviours, what justice means and safety plans. In a very practical way, these guides begin to address the literal silence that can greet child abuse survivors by providing guidance about what to say, as well as vitally, how to listen to what’s being said. Such an approach is quite a contrast to proposals here to criminalise non-reporting of abuse. Both are serious attempts to wrestle with the culture of silence which surrounds abuse. Which is likely to be more effective when responding to an issue which raises disbelief, denial and stigma - threatening people or empowering them?

Addressing the conditions in which sexual abuse takes place

generationFIVE applies a social justice analysis whereby accountability is broadened beyond individuals to the wider communities and institutions responsible for the conditions within which harms took place. By providing tools to address what justice means on both an individual and a community level, this approach offers a potential avenue to better hold organisations and structures to account in our responses to abuse. This is an aspect often, at best, side-lined in more mainstream responses to abuse.

Concretely ambitious

generationFIVE is not a self-proclaiming simple solution to child sexual abuse. Indeed the aforementioned article by Mimi Kim sets out some of the tensions and problems transformative justice interventions have raised in her work. But, unusually, it is attempting to respond to the need for safety now with toolkits for practical, community based application (albeit these interventions are small scale), within a more ambitious framework of working to stop harm from occurring in the first place.

Toward Transformative Justice is a good place to start if you’re interested in learning more about generationFIVE. But the possibilities and challenges of this type of approach most come alive when listening to the accounts of people who have taken part in these interventions. This website features audio stories of people who have been involved in transformative justice responses to harm and violence (including one example of sexual violence).

generationFIVE invites a profoundly personal challenge.

If child sexual abuse takes place on anything like the scale it is estimated then as one participant at our roundtable event last week said, we know it is happening in our communities and social circles. We know we are going to have to deal with it. As individuals we need to be asking ourselves how we will do this. The resources provided by the generationFIVE website are an informative place to start developing your responses.