#APSB2015: Aftercare for Online Child Abuse Victims

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Simultaneous Sessions 7 and 8 of the Ako Para Sa Bata: Cyberprotection of Children conference, both held on Day Two, were extensions of Session 1 from the day before: Online Child Abuse. While SS1 provided a general overview of the definitions, laws, reporting and investigation of online child abuse, SS7 and SS8 delved deeper into the finer points.

For SS7, the focus was on “Effective Aftercare of Survivors of Abuse.” Dolores Rubia, the Director of Aftercare for the International Justice Mission, served as the moderator for the discussion. She outlined the main objectives of the session in terms of describing promising practices from traditional trafficking and abuse, and how they apply to survivors of online sexual exploitation. She also mentioned the need to describe the short-and long-term emotional and psychosocial impact of online sexual exploitation.

The first speaker of SS7 was Dr. Clara Antipala, the Director of Aftercare for the Cebu division of the International Justice Mission. She did a recap of SS1, and then discussed the major impact of online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC) in Cebu. One essential point that she brought up was that even though rescuers have the best of intentions when rescuing victims, sometimes the act of the rescue can itself be trauma-causing behavior. There is a need, she explained, to have proper protocols in place so that victims are supported and carefully sheltered throughout the process.

The next speaker, Ann Steffen-Knapp, was a former Director of Aftercare Development herself for the Philippine sector of the IJM. Her topic was “Applying Lessons Learned from Working with Survivors of Traditional Trafficking and Abuse.” The key points she explored during her talk included comparing traditional trafficking and OSEC, a review of best practices working with survivors of traditional trafficking, and a discussion of steps in preparing to apply lessons with survivors of OSEC.

Knapp explained that traditional trafficking and OSEC are two distinct crimes, each with distinct products, consumers, providers/abusers, and victims. She said that the IJM has worked 20 cases in the Philippines, with a rescue count of about 99 victims. The promising aftercare practices for survivors of OSEC would revolve around trauma-informed approaches that apply throughout the rescue process, victim-friendly processing centers, holistic assessment, outcomes-based case management, and strong community-based services.

When preparing to work with survivors of OSEC, there is a need to developing certain core competencies. These include trauma-informed care, comprehensive context assessment, forensic interviewing, child development, trauma-informed therapy, family therapy, case management, and the management of challenging behaviors. These aspects all involve proper resource mapping, as well as a supporting forum for shared learning to adapt approaches.

Anamabel Garcia, the Director of Aftercare Development of the Pampanga field office of the IJM, spoke next. Her talk, “Emotional and Psychosocial Impact of Online Sexual Exploitation of Children,” looked into the various forms of OSEC, the “push” factors that create vulnerability to OSEC, the unique challenges of providing care to survivors of OSEC, and the emotional and psychological impact of OSEC.

The forms of OSEC are divided in terms of instigator and of types of abuse. Instigators may be child-arranged, family-run, or professionally run. The types of abuse fall under the “show-show” method, individual sexual behaviors, and outright sex acts with others. In turn, the push factors of OSEC include poverty/financial problems, the child’s sense of duty to family, a history of abuse/neglect, negative peer influence, and a lack of information about the negative impact of the crime.

There are unique challenges for providing care to survivors of OSEC: insufficient empirical research, familial involvement, community compliance, the potential of survivors having also perpetrated against other children, and the continual risk of re-traumatization. In order to address these challenges, there must be a holistic approach similar to what Ann Knapp had mentioned earlier.

Garcia spoke next about traumagenics in the Filipino context, and how the cases they have evaluated highlight four particular areas of duress: stigmatization, betrayal, powerlessness, and traumatic sexualization. She went into further detail regarding that fourth aspect, as it involves the inappropriate nature of what the child learned about sex because of how the abuse was enacted, leading to later misuse of sex for love or attention, or engaging in sex with violence.

The two main areas of impact for OSEC are emotional and psychosocial. The emotional aspects include post-traumatic stress, complex trauma, feelings of guilt and shame, feeling “dirty,” and hyper-arousal. The psychosocial aspects are even more complicated, as they cover confusion over “right” and “wrong,” rationalization of abuse and numbing of feelings, distorted view of sexuality, sexualized behaviors, self-destructive behaviors, isolation/withdrawal, corrupted relationships and attachments, lost sense of safety and home, and delays in proper education.

Taken all together, the long-term impact of OSEC evolves into increased vulnerability to abuse later in life, psychological consequences, and the development of unhealthy attachments that mirror the childhood trauma.

Dr. Jose Andrés Sotto, a consultant for aftercare for IJM and a practicing trauma therapist and pastoral counselor, explored the importance of trauma-informed approaches. His key points were on the foundations of trauma-informed care, the challenges in serving survivors of OSEC, the domains of restoring attachment, and examples of trauma-informed approaches.

According to Dr. Sotto, restoring trust in people is important for victims of OSEC. He asked: what are the competencies that these children need in order to restore them to the original state of wholeness?

The foundations of trauma-informed care can be found in several core lessons: Know that healing begins in relationships. Recognize that all behavior has meaning. Understand that symptoms are adaptations. Seek to comfort, not to control. Build on strengths, not weaknesses. These principles are the ideas to return to whenever deciding on rescue strategies, interaction with survivors and setting up new, healthier environments for their care.

Dr. Sotto went on to discuss the aspects of complex trauma, polyvictimization, and case studies in Cebu that highlight the need for proper trauma-informed approaches. He mentioned the need for capacity building for aftercare service providers, such as the National Trauma Training Program. There is also the importance of inter-agency partnerships, such as those between DSWD, the Consuelo Zobel Alger Foundation, Child Protection Network, Inc., and the IJM. As a particular aside, Dr. Sotto also pointed out the need for caregivers to not burn out. “To insure that we are good trauma stewards, we have to be involved in self-care as well.”

The material for SS8, “Effective Investigation, Prosecution and International Collaboration,” will be added into this article as a future update, pending evaluation of sensitive legal information appropriate for sharing with the online public.

Learn more about APSB2015 on its website and Facebook page. For details on the topics discussed in the conference, check out this program.

Check out photos from the event on Facebook and live social media coverage on Twitter!

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