It has been 13 years since ATSA launched its formal commitment to analyzing and informing public policy as it relates to the prevention of sexual abuse and the treatment and management of sexual offenders. It was in 1996 that ATSA issued its first public policy statement, “Reducing Sexual Abuse through Treatment and Intervention with Abusers (found on the ATSA website at: http://www.atsa.com/pptreatment.html). And, it was in 1999 that the organization launched its Public Policy Committee tasked with keeping the organization abreast of relevant political and legislative developments and influencing how policymakers address public safety as it pertains to sexual abuse.
The thoughtful and innovative members of the newly-formed ATSA Public Policy Committee knew that in order to be maximally effective, it would be necessary to address public policy issues not just at the federal level, but locally and within State government as well. So much of sexual violence public policy and how our society responds to sexual offenders is crafted within State legislatures and smaller community entities such as towns, cities, and counties. One of the first tasks of the ATSA Public Policy Committee was to create a body of State-based public policy “foot soldiers” within ATSA – now referred to as the ATSA State Public Policy Representatives (SPPRs). SPPRs were identified for nearly all of the 50 States and attempts were made to train them in the art of public policy analysis and advocacy, so they could work within their States to gather information about sexual abuse prevention and sexual offender policy. They were also tasked to serve as expert consultants to the local policymakers who shape community and State response to sexual abuse, and to assist one another and the national ATSA office and Public Policy Committee to influence public policy across the United States and within the federal government.
Almost 11 years later, the SPPRs continue to serve as ATSA’s “arms and legs” at the State public policy level. In fact, just this year, a new ATSA member, Julie Wesenberg, has stepped forward as a volunteer to coordinate their activation, training, and interaction with one another and the ATSA Public Policy Committee. And over the last couple of years, in addition to the efforts of the SPPRs, ATSA has seen a remarkable emergence of other local and State-based public policy advocacy endeavors that have been initiated by individual ATSA members, groups of concerned ATSA members, and ATSA State Chapters across the United States.
Over the coming year, here in the virtual pages of the Forum, we will showcase some of these creative, State-based public policy efforts. It is our hope that in reading about the work of others who are concerned about the direction that sexual abuse prevention and sexual offender management policy has taken over the past decade, you will be inspired to initiate similar efforts within your communities and States. At this point in ATSA’s public policy development, the organization is positioned to offer you assistance. ATSA’s Public Policy Committee, Public Policy Consultant, State Public Policy Representatives, State Chapters, and other members who are developing and “working” public policy advocacy plans can all serve as valuable resources. Beginning with this edition of the Forum, we present the experiences of two ATSA State Chapters – Illinois ATSA (IL-ATSA) and Massachusetts ATSA (MATSA) – that with the assistance of other individuals and organizations, have undertaken proactive processes to influence the direction their State governments are taking to shape sexual abuse prevention and sexual offender-related public policy.
We welcome all comments, questions, and requests for assistance in developing a public policy advocacy plan for your community and/or State. Please contact ATSA’s Public Policy Consultant, Alisa Klein, at email@example.com, or the other authors of this article, Robin McGinnis (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Joan Tabachnick (email@example.com.)
Politics in Illinois? No, I’m Not Kidding!
Now that I have you chuckling about the infamous politics of the State of Illinois – the State with the largest number of federally incarcerated governors – I would like to share information with you about a positive development on the Illinois political scene: advocacy for evidence-based sexual offender policy within the State government, the Illinois General Assembly.
My introduction to the field of Adolescent Sexual Offending (ASO) was in 1986 while attending my first National Adolescent Perpetration Network (NAPN) Conference in Keystone, Colorado. There were approximately 75 attendees at the conference that year. I was inspired and motivated to get more training and begin working with those kids. I returned to Illinois and talked about treatment for juvenile sexual perpetrators and networking with other professionals. I remember having a meeting with the Chief Judge of Juvenile Court to talk about “those kids who acted out sexually.” He told me that I was a bleeding-heart social worker, that “boys will be boys,” and that “there was no such thing as child rapists!”
In 1987, a group of us formed our first networking organization, the Illinois Network for the Management of Abusive Sexuality (INMAS) which later became IL-ATSA. Public policy was nowhere on our radar screen. The majority of INMAS members were treatment providers and probation/parole officers and staff from around the State; we were just trying to figure out how to work together and what common themes we shared. Sexual offender policies? Public safety from sexual offenders? Sexual offender registration? Residency rules? All of those terms are now part of our permanent vocabulary as we try to advocate for community safety and treatment compliance with our clients but, back then, no one was talking about these sexual offender management and public policy concerns. The pendulum has certainly swung to the other side.
So, what have WE done? I think that we, as treatment providers, all worked so hard to establish the importance of specialized sexual offender treatment that we scared everyone into thinking “once a sexual offender, always a sexual offender,” and that sexual offender recidivism is so high that we need to mark sexual offenders for life, throw away the key and never, ever let a sexual offender out of our sight. (Except, that is, when we want to legislate them into the hinterlands where there is no housing, no monitoring and no treatment…but wait, I am getting ahead of myself.)
Since retiring from ATSA’s national board, I have returned to my roots to reinvest my energy into Illinois policy and to work once again with the State chapter board. IL-ATSA’s board has invested time and money into educating State lawmakers by hiring two policy consultants, Bridget Helmholtz and Liz Brown, both Policy Advocates with established and respected reputations in our State capital – real “insiders.” Liz is our contact person. She has facilitated meetings with key policymakers on both sides of the aisle and in both the Senate and the House. Lawmakers have graciously welcomed us into their offices to talk about the hundreds of sexual offender laws that are introduced every session of the General Assembly. They have professed their lack of expertise on sexual abuse prevention and sexual offender-related policy and even asked us “where have you been?” Lawmakers are eager to have experts to turn to for help in managing the onslaught of bills and understanding their implications. Of course, even though no lawmaker wants to seem “soft” on sexual offenders and crime, they are willing to listen, inform themselves, and bring their new knowledge to the consideration and analysis of proposed legislation.
In fact, our message, as follows, has been very clear and well-received by our policymakers:
- Is NOT here to advocate for sexual offenders;
- Wants to help create community safety;
- Wants “No More Victims;”
- Is available to assist lawmakers to craft bills that make sense based upon solid research and evidence-based treatment;
- Wants Illinoisans to understand that not all sexual offenders will recidivate and that juvenile offenders are different than adult offenders; and
- As an organization, IL-ATSA can and does work well with others from rape crisis centers and child advocacy centers. We are part of the solution!
With the help of our Policy Advocates, we have created a strategic plan for the coming year. First, we were invited by the Chair of the House Criminal Justice Committee, the committee that vets all sexual offender laws in our State, to hold a series of legislative hearings. We have invited IL-ATSA members, child advocacy center staff, and some clients (adult and juvenile sexual offenders) to testify before the committee on September 9, 2009. Next, we are holding a series of “educational breakfasts” around the State for local lawmakers to talk with IL-ATSA members about issues specific to their regions. By doing so, we aim to establish our members as the experts and “go-to people” throughout the different regions of Illinois. Finally, we will be holding a Lobby Day during the spring legislative session to help IL-ATSA members understand the legislative process in the State and further establish them as the experts to be called upon for all things related to sexual abuse prevention and sexual offender treatment and risk management.
This is a very exciting time politically in Illinois. Our field has come a long way since 1986. Yes, we still have questions about treatment and recidivism, and that is okay. But, meanwhile, we need to share what we have learned with lawmakers and the public. ATSA has an important message: Keeping Communities Safe. That is what we are doing in Illinois.
The Massachusetts Story
Massachusetts is unique, but probably every State would say that. So, what makes us different?
- Solid Organizations: MA has an active, committed ATSA chapter – MATSA. Additionally, 20 years ago, treatment providers working with adolescents in MA created the Massachusetts Adolescent Sex Offender Coalition (MASOC) as a loose coalition for those working with children and teens who have sexually abused;
- Annual Conference and Income: Each year, MATSA and MASOC hold an annual joint conference of nearly 800 professionals from around the country. This conference also generates a small annual income for the two organizations; and
- History of Cooperation: MATSA and MASOC have been working together with a coalition of organizations and public agencies to encourage evidence-based policies in MA.
A turning point for our public policy work in MA occurred in the earlier part of this decade. MASOC and MATSA heard that the rape crisis centers in the State were experiencing severe budget cuts. A simple letter was sent out to our members and, in just two weeks, over $5,000 was raised as a donation for the support of the rape crisis centers. This act demonstrated the commitment of both organizations (and their memberships) to supporting work with victims. The donation also helped to build trust among the many individuals and organizations working to stop sexual violence in MA.
What We Have Learned
From these beginnings, MASOC and MATSA began to participate more actively in a variety of coalitions including the Massachusetts Coalition for Sex Offender Management and the Statewide Sexual Violence Prevention Task Force. In addition, MASOC and MATSA helped to organize a number of forums that brought together rape crisis centers, child advocacy organizations, probation/parole, public defenders, and many others concerned with the issues of sexual violence. From these forums we learned some key lessons:
- Speak along with victims and survivors of sexual violence. If we want to be heard in a public forum, we have to stand and speak with victim-based organizations. This partnership presents an unusual alliance to the media, so that victim’s voices are also heard when they speak with us;
- We can’t do this work alone. MASOC and MATSA have neither the experience nor the resources to understand and effectively navigate the complexities of public policy –making happen or keeping abreast of all that is unfolding within the legislative and administrative branches of government. For example, the policy director from the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (MSPCC) offered her own time to be our coach so that we can better understand policy change in MA;
- Creating a consistent, persuasive, and emotionally-evocative message. Steve Bengis, the president of MASOC, has consistently spoken about the need for a message that resonates with legislators, victims, and the public. The core of this message is that we want to keep our communities safe and that we will not do that until we effectively address and stop the small percentage of truly violent sexual predators who cause us all to live in fear. When we speak to the public’s valid fear of this group, only then can we talk about evidence-based policy that looks at the broader issue of sexual violence and the wider population of those who sexually abuse;
- Every crisis is also an opportunity. In many ways, the Adam Walsh Act has been good for us in MA. It has proven to be the catalyst we needed to activate our memberships and bring various constituencies together. The broad brush it applies to adolescents has engaged and enraged many groups to ask for separation in legislation between the very different populations of adults who sexually abuse and adolescents who have sexually abused. The absence from the Adam Walsh Act of an empirically-based actuarial approach to determining risk level among sexual offenders has served to fuel the argument – amongst diverse professional communities – for the application of evidence-based practices in the effective management of sexual offenders, adolescent and adult alike;
- Six degrees of separation. We all know someone who can lead us to, or help us with, our public policy efforts. When Suzanne Brown McBride came to MA to speak at our annual conference, she challenged our membership to pick up the phone and call someone. In doing so, we found that we had connections to the Governor’s Office, a number of legislators, and more unfolding each day;
- Expert advice. It does help to have a lobbyist or policy consultant to articulate what is possible and to provide guidance in creating a strategic plan and negotiating the less-than-familiar and sometimes overwhelming world of lawmaking and public policy; and
- It all takes time… MASOC and MATSA are trying to turn the tide on a highly emotionally-charged issue. We are introducing legislation and actively working towards change. But we also recognize that substantive change is a long-term goal and is understood as part of our 10-year plan.
This year, the MA Public Defender’s Office gave us our biggest wake up call. They told us that “we have all been asleep at the wheel. We have never separated teens and children from adults in MA.” So, all of our laws, including public notification, GPS, and others can be applied to kids. MA is one of only 17 States that include kids in sexual offender legislation that targets adults. MATSA and MASOC have agreed that we need to at least begin to change that – to separate policies for children and teens from those that apply to adults.
We have also needed to learn a new language. In creating our alliances, we often forget that the humor and the short hand we use within the context of the sexual offender field can be alienating to others. One example: We often talked about the growing body of legislation (e.g., notification, civil commitment, GPS, residency restrictions, etc.) as a “witch hunt” for sexual offenders. It is a powerful metaphor here in our State as MA is the home of the Salem Witch Trials of the 17th Century. Unfortunately, victim organizations heard this metaphor as a way to minimize the guilt of sexual offenders – as if we were saying that like the so-called witches, the sexual offenders were “not really guilty.” As a result, we have changed our messages to be more palatable to our partners, and more convincing to policymakers. Listening to our allies has become an important element of moving forward.
Both MASOC and MATSA have recognized that we can no longer keep our heads in the sand and we have become heavily invested in educating policymakers in MA. Both organizations hired a part time staff person to coordinate policy activities. Both organizations also worked together to find a lobbyist willing to work with us, in large part, because she cared deeply about this issue. With assistance from a staff person and lobbyist, MASOC and MATSA have put together a policy plan for our organizations and we have begun to implement that plan. This is what we have accomplished thus far:
- Conducted annual workshops by MASOC and MATSA presidents on policy change at the annual MASOC/MATSA conference to help educate our membership about the importance of understanding policy in order to do our work better;
- Conducted annual membership meetings to talk about the policy changes we hope to achieve in the coming year;
- Delivered regular email updates to our memberships about policy changes; sent out reports to keep members current with the evolving issues;
- Engaged the local media: we have submitted letters to the editor and spoken with reporters – including the local Fox News affiliate;
- Submitted comment on policy matters such as proposed changes to Massachusetts’ Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) regulations; offered public comment in hearings on proposed legislation;
- Submitted comment on legislation that asks legislators to consider voting for effective policy rather than just “get tough” but ineffective policy;
- Under the leadership of current President Laurie Guidry, MATSA developed and submitted an Amicus Brief for a MA Supreme Court case on GPS tracking; the brief detailed the current evidence regarding GPS, as well as best practices in the field; and
- Conducted our first legislative briefing at the State House in collaboration with Andrea Casanova of the Ally Foundation and Sarah Hammond from the National Council of State Legislatures, and sponsored by a State senator.
The legislative briefing was a landmark event for MATSA and MASOC. For the first time, we were able to craft our own message, rather than just respond to the latest crisis. We were also able to bring together three distinct voices that echoed the same messages: look at what is effective, look at who is affected, look at the costs and the benefits, and the bottom line – does this make our communities a safer place?
This fall, we are working with the Judicial Institute, a body that provides education, skills training, and professional development to Massachusetts’ judicial personnel, to hold specialized training for Judges who preside over both juveniles and adults. The training will provide an overview of best practices, and will help to facilitate a stronger connection between the judicial system and emerging resources in our State. We are also planning to meet with the chairs of key committees of the State legislature to talk about proposed legislation and to continue to establish MATSA and MASOC as the “go-to” organizations when there is a question about adult sexual offenders or sexually abusive adolescents.
We know that we could not do any of this alone. Just as we often tell our clients that they cannot change their lives without the help of others, we have learned this same lesson as we begin to create the policy change that is so desperately needed in MA.
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