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Dialogue Project Breaks New Ground

Stop It Now! is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to create a public health response to child sexual abuse. Organized in 1992, it develops public policy, research and public education programmes. One programme brings survivors of child sexual abuse and recovering offenders together to talk about the impact of child sexual abuse. Joan Tabachnick, the director of public education for Stop It Now! describes the dialogue programme.

"The Stop It Now! dialogue between victims, perpetrators, and therapists was done so professionally with openness and honesty-it blew me away!" said one observer of a recent Stop It Now! dia­logue held in Richmond, VA. Another observer claimed, "This event was the first time in 10 years of this work that l have listened to a perpetrator speak out. It was eye opening!" 

Through our research over the last 10 years, Stop It Now! has learned that although the public is aware of child sex­ual abuse, most people simply do not know how to talk about the issue. Typical "conversations" about abuse in the media or on the streets usually begin and end in the same futile ways: "Child sexual abuse is a horrendous crime. We all agree with that. What else is there to talk about?" The Stop It Now! dialogues grew out of the desire to create deeper conver­sations at the community level about how to prevent abuse. Our concept is to go straight to the people who have been most affected--survivors, recovering sex of­fenders, and family members of both­--and let them model what it means to truly talk together about the sexual abuse of a child. As one survivor described, hav­ing an authentic conversation about abuse requires the "courage to disturb the sur­face, to let go of appearances, and to dis­rupt the normal social relations."

 First Dialogue

Our first dialogue was held in 1997, in Burlington, VT, between two Stop It Now! board members: Fran Henry, a sur­vivor of child sexual abuse and the founder of Stop It Now!, and Wayne Bowers, a recovering sex offender and the executive director of Sexual Abuse Treatment Alliance. The response was overwhelmingly positive. One attendee wrote:

“Hearing the honest sharing of a sur­vivor of sexual abuse along with the heartfelt words of a perpetrator in recovery was a powerful and inspir­ing convergence. Stop It Now!'s dia­logue was a courageous, ground­breaking step in the fight to end child sexual abuse.”

We immediately recognized the need for more of this kind of authentic con­versation. In order to build our own understanding and capacity, we followed this initial success with a two-day, facili­tated retreat between four recovering sex offenders and four survivors of child sex­ual abuse to learn from those who might know best. From this retreat, Stop It Now! developed the necessary tone of respect critical to an honest conversation about this deeply emotional issue. We also cre­ated the format that we still use today. 

Most Abuse Happens in Families 

When we introduced the concept more broadly, most people were shocked or over­whelmed by the idea that survivors, recov­ering sex offenders, and family members would meet in the same room or sit at the same table. To move people beyond this shock, we often remind them that most abuse happens in families. In reality, abusers and victims sit together daily at their kitchen tables and talk about everything but the pain and tragedy in their lives. Many peo­ple call our helpline primarily because they have no idea how to talk about what they are facing in their families. That ordinary people on all sides of the issue will choose to sit together and open themselves pub­licly to help prevent future sexual abuse is what makes the Stop It Now! dialogues both bold and challenging. 

Over the past six years we have con­ducted over 40 dialogues with participants from all over the country. We have pre­sented in church basements in Vermont, in a town meeting format in Philadelphia, as part of professional training in Virginia, and as a plenary of a national conference in Minnesota for male survivors of sexu­al abuse. Over the years, the courage and authenticity of each and every participant has been inspiring to the audience and to the staff of Stop It Now!. One mother talked about the strength of her 11-year­old daughter to tell someone about the very thing her husband, the perpetrator, could not speak out loud. One recover­ing sex offender said, "It took the courage of one person to break my cycle of humil­iation by confronting me honestly, hold­ing me accountable, and still approach­ing me with love." Survivors have talked about the healing that happens when they tell their experience and it is heard-and believed-by both the audience and the recovering sex offender. 

As part of our advocacy work, we are seeking new ways to have the voices of those affected by sexual abuse make a greater impact and be heard in new ways. In addition to finding more national forums in which to present our dialogues, Stop It Now! is also considering making a documentary film about this process with Geoff Stephens Productions, Inc., a New York production company.

Lastly, we are creating a manual and possibly a training program to help oth­ers bring these forums to their own com­munities. 

Authentic Stories Make a Difference 

If there is any doubt remaining, authentic stories told honestly and with our best perceptions of truth can and do make a difference. Stop It Now! encourages anyone who has been affect­ed by sexual abuse to talk about the issue. We know how difficult these con­versations can be. But we have seen, in every day of our work, the difference it can make when survivors, recovering offenders, and family members or friends talk about their experiences. One of our dialogue participants said it best. The mother of a 12-year-old son who sexually abused a younger child told us, "Even 10 years later, I was surprised at how difficult it was to describe what happened in our family. The dialogue brought up so many feelings that I thought I had processed years ago. But it felt like a very important thing to do today." And from a professional in the audience we heard: "What I thought was so powerful was the energy in the room...If we can do some of these events more often, we are fulfilling an impor­tant responsibility."

 

This article was originally published in The Crime Victims Report, 2004 Civic Research Institute, Inc., 4478 US Route 27, Kingston NJ 08528, and is reprinted here with express permission.  All rights reserved.  The Crime Victims Report is a report letter devoted exclusively to innovative programs, developments and trends in victim advocacy, law, compensation, counseling and support services. For subscriptions, write CRI at the address above, or call 609-683-4450 or visit the CRI web site at www.civicresearchinstitute.com.


April 2005

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