Exhibition shines a spotlight on the experiences of family members and their children affected by online sexual offending
28 September 2023
One evening in August 2023, at the offices of Stop It Now! Scotland, the gut-wrenching stories and traumatic experiences of family members whose loved ones had been arrested for online sexual offences against children were bravely on display, offering a window into their lives.
Titled “Knock NOC: the lived experiences of non-offending partners and children”, the exhibition, curated by volunteer and doctoral researcher Naomi McGookin at Glasgow Caledonian University, was a collection of images, poetry, drawings and prose – including a short dramatic piece played by actors.
Naomi, as part of her PhD for the past year, has been working with family members to creatively document their personal experiences as they navigate their lives after ‘the Knock’ – a term used by families to describe the initial visit from police that changes their lives forever. She explains the reason for the exhibition: “Family members will find themselves in contact with statutory agencies following allegations of child sexual abuse. The aim of the event was for these statutory agencies to gain a deeper insight into their experiences, lives, and hopes for the future.”
Photography on display included inanimate objects that held value in one contributor’s past before The Knock and how their value was now tarnished. Other contributors’ images were of their homes – once a place of safety, but now subject to vandalism or being discovered.
“I think the exhibition went really well, and we were pleased to communicate the experiences of family members to so many professionals. It is our hope that they reflect on what they were told and continue to develop their practices to be focused on support, compassion, and a joint goal of protecting children,” adds Naomi.
The exhibition was attended by 35 people, including family members, representatives from the Scottish government, statutory services, charity CEOs, and academics. Liberal Democrat MSP Willie Rennie who became aware of the Stop It Now! Scotland’s services following a constituent matter spoke at the event. Willie said after: “The event was raw and emotional but all the more powerful for that. It gave an opportunity for the partners, who are too often silenced, to speak, and they spoke with great clarity. Managing this area of justice and child protection is complex, which is not aided by the stigma and sensationalism that comes with it.”
The research project
Naomi’s PhD research methodology has been adapted from the PhotoVoice method developed by Wang and Burris. It incorporates various creative expressions, including photography, poetry, drama, and narrative. This approach allows the contributors to share their experiences in ways that are meaningful to them.
It’s been important to Naomi, and her research, for the contributors to have full agency in their expression of the diverse and often deeply emotional responses to the Knock. They are, in effect, co-researchers. Decisions are made collectively. For example, it was important for the family members to call the exhibition: ‘Knock NOC’ – the Knock as explained, and NOC meaning ‘non-offending carer’ – a term used by social services.
Naomi said: “My role in my research is to facilitate and ensure my co-researchers are supported throughout the project’s life. I was responsible for organising the exhibition, but this remit was agreed upon by the group beforehand.
Her research findings so far align with existing studies that talk about the devastation of the discovery, the significant impact on their mental well-being, and that the repercussions continue to affect them. This includes our most recent Faithfull Paper based on an evaluation led by Professor Rachel Armitage (University of Huddersfield) to understand the experience of the impact on the family and friends of people who have offended online.
Naomi concludes: “I think what I am trying to demonstrate with this project is that we need to have a more compassionate response to families in this situation. Of all of the family members I have spoken with over the past year, not a single person had any idea about their loved one’s offending behaviours before The Knock. My personal view is that families of sex offenders often experience their own “sentence” of sorts in the form of community isolation, loss of friends, bullying and harassment, as well as being treated with suspicion from services.”
Stop It Now! Scotland’s support for family members
Every year in Scotland, over 700 individuals are investigated for sexual offences related to possessing indecent images of children. Approximately half of these individuals are in relationships at the time of their arrest, and their families, friends, and colleagues are left devastated in the wake of these revelations.
At Stop It Now! Scotland, each year, we provide support services to around 80 family members affected by The Knock to make sense of what has happened and assist them to move on.
Stuart Allardyce, director for Stop It Now! Scotland said: “We were proud to have partnered with Naomi on the exhibition, which served as a powerful testament to the resilience and courage of our family members as they try and rebuild their lives post-Knock.”
Naomi’s research will be complete in the Summer of 2024, and we look forward to her findings. In the meantime, the Knock NOC exhibition will be hosted privately for MSPs at the Scottish Parliament this November.