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By Greg Volk, PsyD - Volk Human Services
It may be appropriate to issue a warning that reading this section of the article may challenge your preconceived notions, lead to intense emotions, and cause a great deal of discussion. That is good because talking about sexual perpetrators is difficult and necessary. Most people are of the mindset that society should castrate them (if they are male) and/or ship them off to a remote island somewhere in the middle of the ocean. While this mindset is understandable, it only serves to perpetuate the illusion that offenders are somehow inhuman and can be isolated effectively from society. The reality is that approximately 85 percent of all sexual offenders will be back in the communities from which they came or ones that are similar. Given this number, understanding and treating sexual offenders can be considered to be the number one prevention effort in the area of sexual abuse, particularly when one considers that successful treatment outcomes for sex offenders reduce re-offense rates in the neighborhood of 40 percent for adults and 85 percent for youth. These success rates are higher than many other treatment interventions including that for addictions. Why then is treatment for these offenders so rare?
In many situations, it is because people are so strongly offended themselves by the offenses that it is impossible to be objective and provide the necessary treatment. We prefer to think of sexual offenders as monsters because it makes them so much different than you and I. This is another false belief that can cause individuals to ignore the realities of sexual abuse and miss key warning signs such as those discussed in Part One. There is no profile that categorizes sexual offenders specifically, they come from all walks of life. They are not typically the “dirty old man” down the street.
More commonly, it is a seemingly upstanding person who is already involved in your life. Clergy, partners, school personnel, youth leaders, and others who have a reason to be actively involved in your child’s life are the most likely perpetrators of abuse. Anyone who takes an unusual interest in your child or for whom your child demonstrates some hesitance should be suspect.
Individuals who have adult love interests and seem to gravitate toward children of the same age and gender should be suspect. However, it is awareness, not fear that should guide your understanding.
There are many factors that contribute to the sexual abuse of children. When looking at perpetrators, there are specific factors at which to look.
Pedophiles have a particular sexual attraction to prepubescent children but may also maintain age-appropriate sexual relationships. However, pedophiles are by no means the only perpetrators of sexual offenses, or even sexual offenses toward children. In thinking of pedophiles there are prerequisite factors that combine with other factors to result in child sexual abuse.
These prerequisite factors are sexual arousal to children, distorted thinking, impulse control deficits, diminished capacity, and interpersonal problems.
The other factors which may contribute to abuse occurring include patriarchal attitudes, values regarding sexuality, marital discord, sexual dysfunction in the marriage, inadequate parenting, social isolation, unsupervised access to children, unemployment, substance abuse, poor social skills, low self-esteem, traumatic sexual experience as a child, sexually abusive role models, and a non-nurturing childhood.
Male offenders often fit two broad profiles - regressed or situational offenders and fixated or preferential offenders. Regressed or situational offenders generally have more profound social skill deficits and problematic upbringings that contribute to identification with children. They tend to be opportunistic in offending. They may seek relationships with more age-appropriate individuals but struggle with them. Fixated or preferential offenders have a stronger identification with children that is driven by specific sexual arousal toward children primarily and their pursuit of sexual contact with children is often more aggressive and predatory. Female offenders tend to fall into one of several categories including experimenters who are young and typically offend against 2-4 year old males, teachers/lovers who begin as a caretaker and fails to see the behavior as abusive, predisposed individuals with their own history of abusive (often lengthy) and who pair nurturing behaviors with abuse, and male-coerced offenders who engage in the sexually abusive behavior through the intimidation of a male partner.
From a treatment perspective, we want to intervene with offenders by providing information regarding normal and appropriate sexuality, fostering the development of empathy, decreasing cognitive distortions, reducing access to potential targets, bolstering social skills and self-esteem, and advocating for factors that reduce risk including stable employment, stable housing, and social support. In working with sexual offenders, the primary client is always the community being aware of potential risk to the community is on the forefront of any effort. At times, what decreases risk is counter-intuitive to common thoughts and beliefs and this is why this topic is so important.
For example, the offender registration process and laws such as those which prevent offenders from living within a certain radius of places where children congregate are meant to increase community safety, but in fact do not accomplish this and in many ways actually serve to increase risk to children.
The increased risk results from offenders failing to register and adopting more transitory living arrangements to avoid confinement and the adverse effect of this additional stress on psychosocial functioning. Offenders who have guidelines on their presence in places where children congregate but who do not have a residency restriction tend to be more stable in the community and the overall risk is reduced and the ability to supervise the offenders in the community is increased. Another seemingly counter-intuitive issue is related to incarceration. Particularly with youth and younger adults, incarceration can increase the risk of re-offense for individuals who are primarily driven by social skills deficits rather than antisocial attitudes.
Statistics from North Dakota indicate that low and moderate risk offenders tend to have significantly fewer incidents of re-offense when given probation versus incarceration. The primary distinction for those who evaluate and treat offenders is the determination of risk because high risk offenders do have a profoundly higher risk of reoffending if on probation instead of incarceration. From a societal perspective, it is a difficult issue to know that for many offenders probation can more effectively reduce risk than incarceration when you have children and families who have suffered as a result of the offenders actions and want some type of strong consequence.
In terms of protecting our children, it is important to think of prevention as the deflection of perpetrators getting access to our children rather than detecting perpetrators since detection is nearly impossible. Probably the single most important thing that you can do is to be involved in your child’s life. Do not leave your child at events such as sports practices or other extra-curricular activities. You should attend these events as well in order to monitor the quality of relationships the leaders have with your child, others who may be around and take an interest in the children, and situations in which your child might be unattended. Not only does this provide the protection of your direct observation, it also provides your child with your much needed attention.
Other high risk situations include leaving your children with men who do not have children of their own or at least children of the same age group as your own; leaving your children with men who do not appear to have many or any adult relationships; individuals who provide special gifts to your child or invite them on special outings with them; unsupervised screen time on the internet; and being a single or divorced mother looking for a relationship.
Low risk situations that you can be aware of and further decrease risk include putting pictures of your children in your workspace if the public comes to your office; not having access to a cell phone including while you are sleeping; and not having a security system in your home. You should replace locks when your keys are lost or stolen and you might consider owning a dog.
As a psychologist, I advocate for children and others to be involved in activities such as awareness skills, social development, and the martial arts which are conducive to the development of self-esteem, awareness, and defensive skills. For children in particular, the training can be invaluable in terms of self-confidence, understanding how to protect yourself if attacked, and the development of both discipline and awareness. Predators look for children who will be an easy target. Rather than instilling fear with notions such as stranger danger, it can be of more benefit to have children who exude confidence and have the support and attention of their family. These children are visibly noticing their surroundings, communicate well, and are confident in social environments - all factors that are protective against sexual offenders. Children who are withdrawn or shy, unquestioningly obedient to adults, and who are frequent without direct adult supervision are targets.
If you would like more information about this issue or others related to psychological development, please call Dr. Volk at 662-1911 or toll-free at 1-877-846-4554.
(For a copy of this News story see the Tuesday, May 12, 2009 issue of the Devils Lake Journal) 05/12/09
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