Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people

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‘Contextual Prevention’ in Australia

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We had the pleasure of meeting Dr Firmin during her visit to Australia last year, with an opportunity to discuss our shared ideas about preventing peer-to-peer sexual abuse. Through these discussions, we discovered much overlap between the ‘place-based’ (contextual) prevention work we had been leading in Northern Australia, and the contextual safeguarding work undertaken in the UK.  

Griffith University’s Neighbourhoods Project, funded by the Australian and Queensland Governments, is a comprehensive project aimed at preventing youth sexual violence and abuse in two communities in Queensland, Australia, where higher than usual prevalence rates of peer-to-peer abuse had been identified. Distinguishing this project from others in Australia was a focus on contextual influences on youth behaviour and risk, and thus a focus for prevention on making “places” safer. This stands in contrast to the more traditional focus on problem individuals. Regular readers of this blog will notice obvious parallels between the Neighbourhoods Project and contextual safeguarding efforts in the UK.  

The two communities we work with each share higher than usual prevalence of peer-to-peer abuse and related concerns, yet the problem manifests locally in unique ways. In one community, the problem mostly involves peer-to-peer sexual assaults when youth gather socially in local parks, late at night.  This co-occurs with other concerning behaviours such as substance misuse, general violence and property crime. In the other community, the problem extends to younger children engaged in problem sexualised behaviour in the school context. In both communities, most peer-to-peer assaults is not reported to police.

The Neighbourhoods Project adopted a “knowing before doing” approach (Wikstrom, 2007).  Initial efforts centred on developing a comprehensive understanding of the problem at a local level. This involved systematic analysis of the dimensions and dynamics of the problem, including who was involved, when and where abuse occurred, and the circumstances that enabled this behaviour (how). Next we brought together academics from around the world (with expertise in sexual violence and abuse, crime prevention and evaluation); experienced practitioners in the field; and local community leaders and advisors. In collaboration, this group developed locally tailored prevention plans for each community, based on our comprehensive understanding of the problem. Integrating knowledge from these three groups was essential for ensuring prevention plans were evidence informed, culturally relevant and effective, and achievable within each community. Prevention plans were finalised once consensus was reached within the group.  

Informed by these shared plans, numerous prevention activities were designed, developed and implemented in each community. Collaboration with community leaders, elders, and key stakeholders continued throughout implementation (see Rayment-McHugh, Adams, Wortley & Tilley, 2015, for more information [DOI 10.1186/s40163‑015‑0035‑4]).In fact, community involvement, guidance, consultation and assistance were critical to each step of the project.  

For this blog we will highlight just a few of the prevention activities that have been implemented to date.   

Targeted Police Patrols:

The aim of this activity was to enhance formal guardianship in public spaces where peer-to-peer abuse was known to occur.  In collaboration with local police, time-limited, nightly foot patrols were established in locations of greatest concern e.g. parks. Patrols were undertaken at random, during key risk times, to reduce opportunities for abuse, promote the prosocial use of these spaces through changed dynamics, and to increase overall guardianship of the space. Police engaged with youth and other community members during patrols, to disrupt potential abuse and other antisocial behaviour, and promote awareness of enhanced surveillance.  The key focus of these patrols was enhanced guardianship, not arrests. The patrols provided a new role for police in primary and secondary prevention of youth sexual violence and abuse.

Crime Prevention through Environmental Design:

Safety can also be enhanced through modifications to the physical design of places.  Led by the local Councils, a range of modifications were made to increase surveillance and reduce opportunity for abuse.  These included the installation of CCTV and increased lighting in key areas of concern, and the removal or pruning of dense vegetation to improve visibility.

Teachers Protect:

In recognition of the crucial role that teachers play in keeping children and youth safe in school environments, we developed a training program for teachers to build their capacity to understand and respond effectively to concerning sexualised behaviour and abuse.  In addition, classroom and whole of school prevention plans were developed. Strategies were also implemented to improve safety in this setting through modifications to physical structures and practices, such as removing posters from windows to increase visibility, and introducing new systems to account for children needing to leave the classroom. 

Targeted parenting programs:

Parent education programs (‘Parents Protect’) were developed specifically to focus on safety and guardianship issues with respect to sexual violence and abuse. Programs focused on local risk awareness, supervision and guardianship, boundary setting, help seeking, and communication about these sensitive issues.  

Bystander interventions:

Given risks for peer-to-peer abuse were highest in social settings, a bystander intervention program was designed specifically for local youth, to enhance their capacity to provide guardianship for their peers. Known as ‘Friends Protect’, this program provided important information to youth on the laws about sexual behaviour and taught skills to intervene safely during risky social situations.  

Preventing re-victimisation:

Some youth are at greater risk of peer-to-peer abuse due to challenges such as homelessness or prior abuse victimisation. ‘Protect Me’ was a brief program specifically designed to provide these youth with additional support and practical skills to reduce risk of abuse. In collaboration with a local homeless service agency, ‘Protect Me’ was offered to youth sleeping rough in identified parks. Focused on risk detection, safety planning, and help seeking, this program aimed to help the most at-risk youth to create safer environments for themselves and their friends.  

Community mobilisation:

A process of community mobilisation was also commenced, to build community awareness of, and engagement with, safety and prevention activities in their local neighbourhoods.  The overall aim of this activity, known as ‘Communities Protect’, was to re-establish community led controls over concerning behaviour.  Addressing these issues on a whole of community basis, however, is a challenging initiative, requiring a longer-term time-frame.  Success depends on the identification of community leaders to drive this process on a longer term basis.  

It is hoped these examples provide useful ideas about the range of contextual strategies that could be adopted to prevent peer-to-peer abuse.  Promising pilot evaluation outcomes are available for some of these activities. Evaluation for others is ongoing.

Sue Rayment-McHugh is a Lecturer in Criminology and Justice at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, an Adjunct Research Fellow with the Griffith Criminology Institute at Griffith University, and a consultant to the Griffith Neighbourhoods Project.

Dimity Adamsis a Psychologist and currently leads the Griffith Neighbourhoods Project, Griffith University.  

Importantly, the Project relied on advice, guidance, collaboration and participation from key community leaders, elders and interested community members. 

Other colleagues also contributed to this project:  Prof Stephen Smallbone, Prof Nick Tilley, Prof Richard Wortley, Donald Findlater, Snr Sgt Brendon McMahon, Marni Manning, Troy Allard, Prof Anna Stewart, Prof Ross Homel, Saga Selsby, James Edney.

Posted: 11 Apr 2018

Author: Delphine Peace

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