The treatment of adolescent sex offenders: Growth promoting premises of residential care
Grant Charles and Jennifer Collins
This is the second article in a three-part series on the treatment of adolescent sex offenders. The first article examined the definitions of sex offending and healthy sexuality needed to work with this high needs population. This second article will look at the basic premises that form the foundation of working with this population in residential settings. The third article will explore the dynamics of working with this population.
There is no doubt that it is very hard to work with adolescent sex offenders. However, a large part of the difficulty is the way in which we see these young men. Many of us have stereotypical views of sex offenders. We see them as monsters and deviants who are beyond help. We create an image of them as untreatable and then treat them as such.
This is not really surprising. Collectively we do not know much about the dynamics of sex offending. However, we do know quite a bit about the suffering caused by offenders. As such it is easy to come to the conclusion that the young men who offend are somehow outside the pale of human experience. It is much easier to reject what we don’t understand.
Hierarchy of abuse?
This view of adolescent offenders is compounded by the way many of us perceive abuse. It seems to us that many of our colleagues have developed what can be labeled as a hierarchy of abuse. In this hierarchy there are different levels of abuse. These levels range from emotional to physical to sexual abuse. Emotional abuse is seen as the least detrimental while sexual abuse is seen as the most harmful. This is a clear-cut model for determining the impact of abuse. It is simple and easy to understand. In our opinion it is incorrect.
There is no hierarchy of abuse. We believe that abuse is subjective. Every person who is abused subjectively interprets the experience. What is devastating to one person can have much less of an impact on another person. We have worked with young people who have been almost destroyed by the experiences of emotional abuse. We have also worked with young people who have been horrifically sexually abused yet who have come through the experience relatively intact.
We strongly believe that abuse isn’t hierarchical but rather it is experiential. If we are correct then there is no need to see offenders as being any different than other kids who bully or batter. Adolescent sex offenders can be difficult to work with but in many ways no more difficult than the many other young people who end up in our care.
Victims and offenders
These kids are not monsters. They are extremely needy young people who have not yet learned how to make appropriate connections with other people. They are often victims of abuse who have learned through their own victimization that it is okay to use others to meet their own needs. They are kids who have taken a different path to deal with their own victimization.
If these young people are seen as victims as well as well as offenders then treatment becomes easier. Child and youth care workers have lots of experience working successfully with victims. We know how to set up effective programs for victims. The basic premises for these programs are really no different than what is needed in an effective program for adolescent sex offenders. Solid child and youth care practice works well with all populations.
We do not mean to downplay the seriousness of the abusive behavior of these young men. However, we do not believe that you can successfully treat them if all your attention is paid to stopping the offending behavior. We believe that the best way to stop the abusive behavior is to help the young people to learn healthier behavior. It seems to us that the following premises are the essential components of effective residential treatment (Sanders, 1997; Charles, Dale & Collins, 1995).
Thought and action
One of the central premises is that thought is not the same as action. While this may appear self-evident, the traditional view in sex offense treatment is that thought highly increases the chance of or necessarily leads to acting on the thought. However, in our experience in the program, this was not so. The traditional idea that thought leads to action is disempowering. This can lead one to giving up to some extent, because if one has a thought about sexual offending supposedly this means that the person will carry it out. Instead of reinforcing this belief, we worked to support the adolescents in their understanding that although they might have had thoughts that would have been inappropriate if acted on, they had the power and choice not to act on the thoughts. So the focus shifted from trying to change the thoughts to inviting the young people to find appropriate ways to handle their thoughts and act respectfully.
Following this first premise is another which indicates the belief that self-stimulation (masturbation) is healthy. Again, a traditional view of sex offense treatment might not support this belief. However, we approached this premise from the stance of encouraging young people to be responsible for their own sexual feelings. Instead of trying to deny and blunt sexual feelings as part of treatment, we wanted to teach the young people to learn how to respond appropriately to their own sexual urges. Rather that forcing themselves on others, we wanted them to have a way to take ownership for their feelings and urges in private.
Another important aspect is the teaching of healthy sexuality. For many of the young people we worked with the boundaries between what was sexually appropriate and inappropriate had become blurred, during their own experiences of abuse. They also confused any genital activity with sex, instead of seeing that sexual assault is not about sex, it is about assault. As described in the last article, we used five words to help the boys understand what healthy sexuality involves. These words are; volition (free choice), mutuality, selfful arousal, mutual vulnerability and trust (Sanders, 1997). In addition we invited the young people to see that one’s (sexual) orientation is not truly about sexual actions, but rather about who one falls in love with. So it has more to do with the heart than the genitals, even though congruent sexuality is part of one’s orientation.
Many of the boys initially had definite, but limited ideas about what violence was. They tended to see violence in only its extreme forms and might not have regarded more subtle actions as being violent. For instance, they might not have seen aggressive language or diminishing views of others as violent, but only fights resulting in physical injury as violent. We invited them to see that violence is defined by the experiential. The experience of the other is what matters. This focus on the experience of people in relation to others encourages empathy and taking the perspective of another, which are important components of sex offense treatment. This premise also helped to create respect of differences within the milieu (i.e., orientation, ethnicity).
Feeling safe or unsafe
Following the idea that violence is defined by the experiential is that the adolescents needed to experience safety in the program. This safety was obviously needed for general well-being and health and also in order for the young people to address painful and difficult issues related to treatment. When a young person was feeling unsafe it was often related to rejecting views and attitudes from others with respect to a difference (i.e., orientation, ethnicity, physical appearance). These disrespectful actions and attitudes needed to be addressed in the context of violence being defined by experience and encouraging the young people into a stance of respect and responsibility for their actions.
Many of the young people in the program had or were experiencing profound loneliness and disconnection, and desired to have safe intimacy with meaningful others. Yet, they did not know how to meet this need appropriately often based on past harmful experiences. Within the milieu we tried to ensure that there was safety and acceptance leading to care and appropriate intimacy. A large part of treatment involved helping the young people become familiar with and create healthy relationships and intimacy.
Separation of behaviour and person
A common premise we used is the separation of the behavior from the person. This meant we needed to look at having clear consequences for inappropriate behavior set out ahead of time. By having consequences set beforehand, the young people were less likely to see consequences as punishing. This opened up space for the young person to still feel valued while the behavior was seen as inappropriate. Along with this premise is another seemingly simple yet extremely effective premise of noticing positive aspects, intent and behaviors of young people, rather than focusing on the negative. Sometimes it can be easy to slip into negative noticing, as is the tradition of many health/social service fields. However, we have found that negative noticing often leads to more of the unwanted behavior, while positive noticing increases times of positive behavior and experience. Positive noticing can involve shifting our perspective to look for positive aspects in a difficult situation or reframing behaviors to see where and how they could be useful. It also involves keeping ourselves open to seeing and commenting on positive moments and actions, no matter how small they may seem.
Lastly, we need to keep in mind the influence of the larger systems that the young person is involved in on them. This means that during treatment the inclusion of family members, social service workers, probation, as well as others, is vital. Without the involvement of the larger systems, treatment gains can unravel once a young person leaves the program. Larger systems and families need to be part of the changes and seeing the changes and growth young people make in order for healthy behaviors to continue after treatment. If a young person goes back to a system that still expects him to act sexually inappropriately, is disbelieving of the growth of the adolescent and is unaware of what he needs to maintain emotional and behavioral health this is a set up for relapse into inappropriate behavior. Larger system awareness also involves helping the young person during treatment to connect with services, people and communities that will be vital to their continued growth and health.
There is nothing magical about working with
adolescents who have sexually offended. However, it is important to be
clear about what constitutes the basic foundations of intervention. In
this article, we have suggested a number of premises upon which
effective treatment can be built.
Charles, G., Dale, K. & Collins, J. (1995). Final report of the difficult to serve adolescent sexual offender project. (Health Canada #4887-09-91-083). Wood’s Homes, Calgary, Alberta.
Sanders, G.L. (1997). Recovering from paraphilia: An adolescent’s journey from despair to hope. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 11, 1. pp. 43-54.