The Royal and Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse receive US$10.3M grant to prevent child sexual abuse perpetration worldwide

Global Perpetration Prevention initiative seeks to find, evaluate and share programs that do the best job of keeping children safe

It is estimated that one out of every twelve boys and one out of every five girls experience some form of child sexual exploitation or abuse. Recent research indicates only one in three child sexual abuse incidents are reported to a parent or trusted adult, and only one in five are reported to police.

The Royal and its partner, the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, have received a US $10.3M grant to help prevent it from happening in the first place. 

The new initiative is called “Global Perpetration Prevention: Translating Knowledge to Action.” The goal is to identify, evaluate, and share information about new and existing perpetration prevention programs worldwide. 

“Child sexual abuse is a very prevalent problem and most programs that address it are reactive, not proactive,” says Dr. Michael Seto. “Only a fraction of resources are invested in prevention.”

The support for this five-year endeavour, which is expected to roll out in January 2021, comes from The Oak Foundation, a private foundation based in Geneva, Switzerland.

“Forensic mental health research at The Royal is a flagship program that generates knowledge with real world impact. In line with their position as international leaders in this area, Dr. Seto and Dr. Letourneau are proposing a game changing approach to the critical issue of child sexual abuse perpetration,” says Dr. Florence Dzierszinski, president of The Royal’s Institute of Mental Health Research (IMHR), affiliated with the University of Ottawa, and vice-president of research at The Royal. “We deeply thank the Oak Foundation for their support and confidence, and very much look forward to our collaboration to address related mental health and addictions issues.”

Dr. Michael Seto
Dr. Michael Seto, Director, Forensic Mental Health Research Unit, The Royal

Seto is the director of the Forensic Mental Health Research Unit at IMHR, within the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group. He’s co-principal investigator of the project, with Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"We are so grateful for this transformative grant from the Oak Foundation and we are excited to partner with Oak and with our colleague Dr. Michael Seto and his team at The Royal Ottawa Healthcare Group," says Elizabeth Letourneau, Ph.D., director of the Moore Center and Principal Investigator for the award. "With this remarkable grant, we are one step closer to creating a world free of child sexual abuse."

Seto says child sexual abuse should not be seen as a “niche” issue, specific to law enforcement, child protection, and forensic services. In fact, its tentacles have a broad reach. Child sexual abuse and exploitation is a known risk factor for many mental health and addiction problems. 

“It's associated with depression, anxiety, and suicidality, and traumatic stress, and substance misuse, struggles in school, and relationship problems. It has ripple effects, it can blow families apart,” describes Seto. “Child sexual abuse in and of itself is a serious problem, and it affects a significant number of people in countless ways.”

One of the first steps in the Global Perpetration Prevention project is to conduct a systematic review of the most promising perpetration prevention programs. Seto is leading this aspect of the initiative and co-leading the evaluations.

The Oak Foundation grant also supports the creation of an online capacity-building hub that will highlight effective perpetration prevention programs and the empirical evidence needed for governments, policymakers, practitioners, and other stakeholders and decision-makers.

The selected programs will take into consideration the different ways they are designed to reach their intended audience. For example, the curated collection may include a school-based prevention program, a confidential helpline, or a clinician-guided online therapy platform.  

Seto and his colleagues see the capacity-building hub becoming a trusted resource and a foundation of scientific evidence that will drive policymaking and funding decisions around the world.

When the hub is ready, any group, organization, or government will be able to select a vetted, evidence-based program, adapt it to their local and cultural needs, and get the information and support they need to implement it to help children in their area.

Seto’s ultimate goal is to see child sexual abuse on governmental agendas everywhere. 

“We really want to drive change... this project is not just research. It translates to action, and action means that people get that leg up,” says Seto.

What is a child sexual abuse prevention program? 

There are different types of child sexual abuse prevention programs. They may be geared to people in general (such as education and awareness programs aimed at caregivers), or those who are at risk of perpetrating. Dr. Michael Seto gives the example of a Swedish program called “Prevent It,” which is currently being pilot tested. Participants are randomly assigned to one of two groups: treatment or comparison. Individuals in the treatment condition watch videos, read some materials, and are assigned homework based on that material. Using a secure and confidential online chat, trained clinicians give feedback on each individual’s assignments. The comparison group receives education without the assignments and feedback. The pilot testing will help determine whether support of a psychotherapist over the Internet is an effective treatment model​.

Seto says he's excited about this aspect of the program. “The key thing about feedback is that what the person thinks might work or help them might not actually be a good idea, it's the professional knowledge and coaching that will make the difference,” he says.

Of course, the benefit of online perpetration prevention websites is that they can reach more people over a wider geographic distance. 

“Some people are really keen to get help but they don't know where to turn to, and they're scared,” says Seto, who points out that free online services are not just accessible from a cost perspective, but because there’s generally less of a wait than for in-person services, people can get help when they need it. They’re also scalable. A single clinician can help multiple people at once.