A Fight for Recovery

11 Jun

Jeff Perera is one guy who’s comfortable talking about uncomfortable topics. Sexual assault, gender constrictions, campus shootings, rape: just a small sample of the few subjects we discussed during our Skype conversation last week. As the Community Engagement Manager for the White Ribbon Campaign in Canada, Perera created a blog called Higher Unlearning just for that purpose. It’s an online space that generates conversations about femininity and masculinity, to unravel the strict constructions of gender we learn along with shapes and colors.

“It’s okay to take that moment to be uncomfortable and talk about heavy topics,” he said. “What was inspiring about #yesallwomen was that yes, there were men who typically went with a defensive reaction, but I think there were more men who listened to women who could tell them to go check out this hashtag.” Then came the shock, Perera said. Harassment happens all the time, these men realized.

Wedged between our discussion of Elliot Rodger and potential educational programs that can help decrease violence rates was mention of rehabilitation. Can people like Rodger recover? I had already asked a similar question during my undergraduate research at NYU, and found that many psychologists and social workers believe that convicted sex offenders have the possibility of recovering from abusive behavior patterns.

When sex offenders are released from prison, they are usually enrolled in a state-mandated treatment program. The groups for moderate to high risk offenders typically meet two or three times a week. In addition, each offender meets with a therapist once a month. This framework is based on relapse prevention, modeled after substance abuse treatment.

Dr. Bud Ballinger, a sex offense treatment provider, says that it’s not that this framework is a bad idea, “it just doesn’t fit for everybody.” The model attempts to determine the triggers of sexually abusive behavior, and works on eliminating them. The idea is pretty solid, says Dr. Ballinger, but it misses some elements. In his own treatment plan, he adds in cognitive behavior therapy, which examines the thoughts that allow perpetrators to justify their actions, and some skill-building that teaches abusers new coping mechanisms.

Treatment regimens, however, are not the only issue for ex-offenders. Re-entering society creates another set of challenges. An increasing number of psychologists assert that high recidivism rates can be attributed to the lack of support offered to released prisoners. The sex offender registry not only isolates them but points them out to their frightened and cautious neighbors. And although the registry has been effective as a deterrent, Dr. Ballinger says that a high percentage of sexual offenses are committed by people engaged in these acts for the first time. “Even if it worked optimally,” he said, “it wouldn’t make that much of an impact because most of the people who are going to be sex offenders won’t be on that registry.”

Michele Frank said the difficulty with re-entry is obvious. “Nobody wants them in their community; nobody wants them in their shelter.” Frank was a private service provider for sexual offenders before she became a professor of social work at the New School. She noted a commonality she found in the released prisoners she has treated. “A good percentage of them come out of families of abuse and neglect. There’s abnormal child development, and we see that replicated in their families and we see them acting out in the world. We need to try to reach these individuals and try to understand what makes them tick and give them some power to understand themselves,” she said.

Even though she’s talking about a process that happens during treatment, some specialists believe that it should continue once offenders resume their lives outside. Circles of Support and Accountability, or CoSA, is a prisoner reentry program that hopes to reduce reoffending rates for sexual offenders after they’ve been released. First implemented in 1994 in Ontario, Canada, the program has since spread to the United Kingdom and United States.

CoSA assembles four to six volunteers to form a support network for a released offender, referred to as a core member. The team meets regularly to work through the push back offenders face when trying to settle into society. When the volunteers require professional help, they call on the “outer circle,” composed of psychologists, parole officers, social workers, and other professionals.

Dr. Robin Wilson is a clinical psychologist and researcher who has worked in the field of sexual offense treatment for the past 25 years. He was integral in the beginnings of CoSA in Canada and is now involved in getting it established in the United States. When asked what is most difficult about promoting this program in any region, he answered, “The infatuation with incarceration and marginalization of offenders.”

By that he meant the sensationalization of convicted criminals by the media, which tends to portray them as horrific monsters rather than as recovering human beings. It’s a problem that won’t disappear soon despite early studies that show the CoSA program has resulted in a reduction of 70 percent in the sexual recidivism rate. Psychologists say they require more research to confirm the program’s effectiveness.

The cost benefits of the program however, are not at issue. In 2009, the Correctional Service of Canada found that every dollar spent on treatment for offenders resulted in a savings of five dollars in decreased reoffending. In a 2000 study, the U.S. Center for Sex Offender Management released figures showing that one year of intense treatment and supervision outside prison can cost between $5,000 and $15,000 per offender, depending on the type of treatment. With incarceration, the price goes up to around $22,000 per year, not counting treatment costs.

Dr. Wilson consistently finds that the program appeals to the released prisoners as well. “Once a jurisdiction gets familiar with the fact that CoSA exists, the offenders come out of the woodwork in droves,” he said. They grasp that such a program helps them protect their new status. However, not all offenders can handle the pressures of such a demanding program. “Getting out is not so hard,” he said. “Staying out is a much taller order.”

Dr. Wilson thinks the volunteer structure, as opposed to paid staff, is critical, because it provides “community buy-in” and a set of “ambassadors for truth in regard to sexual abuse and the people who perpetrate it.” Town hall meetings become classrooms and the circle begins to grow.

Further Reading:

Wilson, Robin, & Andrew McWhinnie. (2013). Putting the “Community” Back in Community Risk Management of Persons Who Have Been Sexually Abused. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy 8 (72-79).

Mechtild, Hing, Stefan Bogaerts & Bas Vogelvang. (2013). Circles of Support and Accountability: How and Why They Work for Sex Offenders. Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice 13:4(267-295).


Natascha Yogachandra is a freelance writer and the chairperson of Hope is Life Foundation. Her work can be found at The Atlantic and Narratively.

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