When someone is arrested and charged with downloading indecent images of children it has a devastating effect, not just on the person concerned but their family as a whole. This is a brief account of what happened when the equivalent of a nuclear bomb exploded in our home.
I was enjoying my favourite programme when I heard the phone ring. Two minutes later my husband came into the room, turned the television off and told me it had been the police on the phone and our son had been arrested and charged with an offence. He was being kept overnight in police custody and would appear in court the next day.
We were out of our minds with worry as the Police would not tell us the nature of the offence and we couldn’t imagine what it was.
He had always been a gentle, good natured but anxious boy. He had always found it difficult to make friends and was bullied throughout his school life (which had caused us great concern) but he had never been in any trouble. He passed all his exams, worked part time to fund himself through university and was now in full-time, well paid employment and in a long term relationship. We thought the difficulties he had faced throughout childhood were behind him and we could relax a little and look forward to retirement. Neither of us could have imagined what was just around the corner.
We discovered from his partner that the police had raided their flat and discovered indecent images of children on his computer.
The following day in court he was advised by his solicitor to make “no plea” and was released on bail. His partner asked us to remove his belongings from the flat that night and has refused to speak to him ever since.
He admitted to us that he had been introduced to internet pornography in his early teens by a friend at school and had become addicted to it over the years, using it as a way to control stress. This resulted in him eventually committing a criminal offence by downloading illegal images.
He was so traumatised by his experience that our hearts went out to him. We knew better than anyone that there was not an ounce of badness in him but we were aware he had an obsessive personality which would result in him accumulating specialist knowledge in any subject which took his interest. Childhood interests such as dinosaurs had eventually been replaced by computers and was the reason he was so good at his job in the IT industry.
We researched the subject until we had a better understanding of the problem. It was a sharp learning curve and we still learn something new every day. We then set about finding the professional help he needed.
Mary Sharpe from The Reward Foundation recommended an experienced psychotherapist who was a tremendous help to him for the next 9 months while we awaited the outcome of the forensic report on his computer. During this time he moved back home with us, was prescribed anti-depressant and anxiety medication and continued to work.
Once the forensic report finally arrived, after an excruciating wait which affected the health of the entire family, we were told by his solicitor that as a first offender he would probably receive a Community Payback Order. He was sent to the Criminal Justice Social Workers who were expected to evaluate him in an interview which lasted only two hours. The Report which they sent to the Sheriff not only had the wrong name but it said he had no mental health issues and lacked empathy for his victims.
Despite the Report from his psychotherapist (who had been seeing him every week for 9 months) disagreeing with everything they said, he was given a prison sentence by the Sheriff. Words cannot express the horror we all felt that day. We knew it was not just a matter of surviving prison but the long term effect it would have on his future. At that point we didn’t even know about the restrictions which would be imposed by social workers and police, the impact it would have on house and car insurance premiums and worst of all the number of employers who refuse to consider employing anyone with a criminal record.
Thankfully his stay in prison was relatively short lived. After submitting an appeal, he was released pending the outcome of a Hearing.
On advice from his therapist, we took the opportunity to arrange to have him tested for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) which is a developmental condition present from birth that cannot be treated or improved by medication. It is usually accompanied by common traits such as social anxiety leading to isolation, obsessional behaviour and often severe depression. People with ASD have difficulty reading facial expressions, body language and understanding tone of voice which often makes them appear to lack empathy.
It is classified as a ‘mental disorder’ within the Mental Health Act and falls within the remit of the Equality Act.
From early childhood, health professionals had expressed concerns about his lack of social interaction and repetitive and obsessional behaviour but all decided no further investigation was necessary and no formal diagnosis was ever made.
As waiting times on the NHS can run into years, we arranged a private assessment.
He was assessed by an expert team and diagnosed with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder, (known as Asperger’s Syndrome to many.)
He showed enduring and prominent anomalies in the development of reciprocal social interaction and in areas such as empathy and socio-emotional reciprocity.
It was noted his offending behaviour is something we do encounter not infrequently in males with high functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and this has been a subject of study in the academic literature, which is increasingly recognising the patterns of offending to which this group seems particularly susceptible.
The following week his sentence was quashed and replaced with a community payback order, the original decision by the Sheriff being considered excessive even without knowledge of the autism diagnosis. Unfortunately the damage had been done and the job he loved had been lost even though it was not in a regulated profession.
Despite his excellent work record, his chance of getting another job when he has a disability and a criminal record is slim, unless a sympathetic employer can be found.
It seems to us that he has been let down all his life, by:
- Health professionals who expressed concerns but decided no further investigation was necessary.
- Ourselves, because we didn’t pursue the matter and accepted his odd behaviour as part of his personality. We now know he had also been struggling with depression and anxiety for a large part of his life. His good abilities had helped him to mask some of the more immediately manifest signs of autism.
- His partner who walked out of his life without question or any thought for his wellbeing. Like so many people on the Spectrum he is considered vulnerable to exploitation.
- The criminal justice social workers who didn’t have enough time or expertise to recognise what they were dealing with and as we have since discovered, are probably using risk assessment tools that are not suitable for individuals with autistic spectrum disorder.
- The Sheriff who, by giving him an excessive sentence and sending him to prison when other options were available to him, contributed to a further decline in his mental health and the loss of his job, the one thing in life which gave him self esteem.
Like the majority of people convicted for downloading illegal images, he is not a contact offender and being on the Autistic Spectrum he is unlikely to ever become one. Autistic offenders are unlikely to go on to commit more serious physical offences. They are usually too afraid to have such physical contact and are unlikely to be dangerous. (Mahoney et al 2009, p45-46).
Many don’t understand what they have done or why until therapy reveals those answers and have no concept of risks, rights/wrongs or consequences yet our legal system and the public in general treat people who possess indecent images of children, with the same contempt as those who actually seek out and have sexual contact with them. This is obviously wrong and for a vulnerable Autistic person who has enough problems to overcome in life, particularly devastating should the story receive media coverage.
Recognition of autistic vulnerability is essential in order to get help for these people. Their differences place them at risk in some situations and this is certainly one of them.
I will end with the conclusion of Michael Mahoney et al writing about American law in Asperger’s Syndrome and the Criminal Law: The Special Case of Child Pornography
There is no tragedy without hope. Individuals with AS and their families hope for a “normal” life, but they have great difficulties in achieving that dream. In part this is due not to the inherent nature of the disability, but the misunderstanding of the individual by those who cannot understand how a person with apparently normal intelligence could not appreciate the oddness, or the apparently deviant appearance of their behaviour. There cannot be a more tragic example of this than the AS individual who, because of his greater skill and comfort and trust in the world of his computer and the internet, and because of his obliviousness to legally-created taboos, wanders into child pornography. He is a victim of a marketing scheme to which his disability makes him the most susceptible and he is at the same time most easily caught because of his naivete as to how his computer has been opened to the world. At that point he is exposed to criminal conviction and the harshest civil disabilities devised which can literally ruin his entire life.
While prosecutors and judges “have heard it all before” when it comes to people “excusing” misbehaviour, including the possession of child pornography, the unique features predominant in AS, together with the backdrop of hysteria, sentiment, and fervour concerning child pornography, create a “perfect storm” in which AS individuals and their families are engulfed. This unique diagnosis calls upon prosecutors and courts to draw distinctions between dangerous and non-dangerous offenders and between those who may access offending depictions because they need to as opposed to those who simply do not know better. Generally the AS individual should not be charged at all, it is totally unnecessary. If they are charged every effort should be expended to avoid civil disabilities or incarceration, and to ensure treatment suitable to the AS diagnosis. In order to avoid such “perfect storms” the “experts” and advocates in the field, trying to bring hope to these individuals, need to help inform the legislators, prosecutors, and judges, so that they can make informed decisions in this area so ripe for tragedy.
See our other articles about autism:
New research about how ASD offenders are treated in UK courts
A video of an American lawyer who defends people with ASD.
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