Working with juvenile sex offenders

I’m a compassionate person by nature, and felt a calling – like a calling to the priesthood or some other religious vocation – to be a psychotherapist. But the limits of my compassion have been tested from time to time throughout my career. I’ve encountered people who did very bad things, not because they were “sick” or mentally ill, but simply because they were evil. When I’ve heard someone utter the cliché that there’s some good in everyone, I’ve been tempted to say “You haven’t met everyone.” I’ve met some violent felons who got off on hurting others, felt no pangs of conscience, and only regretted having been caught. They fantasized about doing more of what earned them hard time in prison, without getting caught.

My first exposure to antisocial juveniles was when I worked at correctional institution for older teenagers serving time for crimes against people (not just  property). During my time in juvenile corrections I co-led sex offender treatment groups. One belief I had confirmed is that, whether you call it rape or molestation, it’s more about power-and-control than about uncontrolled sexual drives. I’ve led or co-led many different kinds of treatment groups over the years, but only once was it what I’d call hard-ass treatment. I was trained to be a treatment team member of the Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP) and was mentored in the sex offender group treatment model by my two co-leaders, two tough, competent female social workers. You have to be both tough and savvy to work with this treatment population, and I especially admire women who have what it takes to do this kind of work.

By the time they’re caught, tried and sentenced, most juvenile sex offenders have already gotten away with a progression of sexual assaults, usually on younger children. The more they’ve gotten away with, the bolder they’ve become. They fantasize about what they’ve done and what they want to do next. With fixated sex offenders, the connection between the thrill of having power-and-control over a person, and sexual gratification, becomes something neurologically akin to addiction. They want more, and their obsessive thoughts feed their sexual compulsions.

There’s a limit to the range of defense mechanisms that sex offenders predictably resort to in an attempt to distance themselves from their sexual violations, and I’ve heard them all. The first is outright denial: “I didn’t do it!” Faced with proof that he did, the next step is minimalization: “It was the only time I ever did anything like that. I never even thought about it before. It’s really not a big deal anyway.” The last defense mechanism to be employed is rationalization: “She led me on./It’s her fault./ I only did what he wanted me to do.”

The goal of sex offender treatment groups was to break through the bullshit barrier and get sex offenders to own up to what they’d done, to understand the harm they’d done, and to acknowledge that they were at risk of re-offending. In this regard it’s similar to the recovery model for substance abusers, in that you can’t recover from a compulsive behavior pattern without first acknowledging the nature of the problem. The next step involves coming up with a risk reduction plan. All we could hope to do in the SOTP was to reduce the risk of recidivism for as many sex offenders as we could reach.

I believe that some sex offenders can be rehabilitated, and that it’s worth the effort and expense to provide treatment opportunities in correctional facilities for those who are sincerely motivated to change. Some fixated sex offenders don’t want to change their ways, and can’t be helped by any treatment that I’m aware of.  That’s why we have life sentences without the possibility of parole.

The sex offenders I worked with weren’t internally motivated to attend group, and the SOTP groups weren’t mandatory. But most eligible boys eventually applied (there was a waiting list), once they learned that if they got honest about their crimes and made progress in the program, they might earn a positive parole recommendation to the Parole Board. The groups were “open,” meaning that new members joined ongoing groups with boys who’d been in the group for months and understood the group process.

This process was characterized by confrontations by both group leaders and peers, and every boy spent time in the “hot seat” – the focus of group attention. Every “old-timer” in the group had already been called out by professionals and peers on his denials, minimizations and rationalizations, and could see through the defenses of his peers. While in the hot seat every group member eventually heard something like this: “Most everyone in this room can see through your bullshit, and we’re waiting for you to get real about what you did, and what you need to do if you’re not going to do it again.”

The only way for a group member to avoid hard-ass confrontation was  to get honest and disclose in detail the circumstances (thoughts, situations, actions) of every sexual violation that led up to the crime for which he was serving time. In time, most of the boys came to understand that full disclosure was just the first step, and understood the phrase “reducing the risk of recidivism.” The boys knew that the Parole Board would be asking the SOTP team members about their relative risk to re-offend. SOTP recommendations might make the difference in the board’s decisions, and sometimes that meant the difference between parole at age eighteen, or transfer to adult corrections to serve the remainder of their sentence.

Working with sex offenders and antisocial criminals was some of the most difficult work I’ve ever done, emotionally, because of my compassion for their victims. (I’ve worked with many more victims of violence and abuse than perpetrators.) I believe that in some instances compassion can be learned. But I’ve encountered people who understood the concept and might be able to mimic it, but have never felt it, or only in a very limited way. I remember asking a boy who had admitted to torturing cats if he’d ever tortured a dog. He look at me like I was stupid and said, “Of course not! I like dogs.” As if that explained everything.


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