It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. The best of course, fondly and finally attached to efficacy of the work. Credibility, (at last) emerged for the treatment of sex offenders. No more nay saying, “treatment doesn’t work” as positive research outcomes reared their rather attractive heads, demonstrating success for treatment of those who sexually abuse. Yes, since the reality of the sexual abuse problem so obnoxiously awakened the world, it was (for the sex offender f
olks) the best of times.
But it was also the worst of times elsewhere—outside the field. As the sex offender treatment faction busied itself striving for accountability, salivating over each correlation and percentage in efficacy studies, they did so within the proverbial preaching to the choir approach while the rest of the world reflected on the ugly awareness of sexual abuse. No, there were no welcome wagon hostesses for either the emerging problem of what to do with sexual abusers or for the warriors who joined in the honorable mission of trying to fix the problem. And even though inside the field things were looking good, outside the field, things were looking pretty bad.
From every conceivable corner came the backlash and resistance to thinking it was the best of times in sex offender treatment. A raging society danced in concert with the bedfellow of communication advanced with unimaginable speed and perfection. Within minutes of a child abduction, AMBER ALERTS flashed upon reader boards of American highways, reminding motorists to not only watch for a special child in peril, but to also remind the motorists that with the problem of sexual abuse—this is the worst of times.
And everyone knows about Megan—abducted, raped and murdered in her own New Jersey neighborhood with naiveté about safety, shattered when it was learned that Megan’s offender was comfortably living within the vicinity of trust. “Why did this happen, and why didn’t we know?” was the heartbreaking question. And soon, outrage was the posture and action was the outcome. First federal, then state laws, fighting back for Megan were implemented, guaranteeing that everyone would now know. No more gullibility in neighborhoods as sex offender notification allowed good folks to know about bad folks and as they began to know, they were also reminded it is the worst of times.
And then Jacob, on a sweet Sunday afternoon in rural Wisconsin is cruelly chosen for abduction among three possible victims suddenly brought to a prone position in a roadway ditch. “Why Jacob,” his family would cry as the search was organized, implemented and finally abandoned because Jacob was never found. But most appalling for the grieving family was later learning that those first on the scene, to help search for Jacob, were sex offenders! Yes, they were sex offenders, whose status was often known by police but not known by vulnerable others. The cry was again, “How could this be? How could the most vile among them, undetected of course, have the passport of audacity and, unknown and unforgiven permeate the sanctity of searches for their innocent child. “Well then, this must be changed,” became the mantra, and it was.
Through the Jacob Wetterling Act, communities then had the ability—no the right, to know. Sex offender registration, in Jacob’s honor (honorably) became the national effort allowing any concerned citizen to keep track of those who abuse. Sex offender registration, accounted for the who’s who in sexual criminality and as they learned of the whos, they were again reminded this was the worst of times.
And poor Polly. Petaluma, California had never experienced anything like this. Here it was—a slumber party in an upscale neighborhood where an innocent child was abducted in the middle of the night while her two pals watched in horror, similar to Jacob’s friends. Ah, the cruelty. Richard Allen Davis, later discovered to be Polly’s kidnapper and murderer should never have been released from prison. No way—it just shouldn’t have happened.
And in honor of Polly, Three Strikes And You Are Out was implemented by the legislature in not only California, but many other states as well. The underpinning of the effort was a tough on crime mentality so that those bad folks got fewer chances to hurt the good folks or the children of the good folks. Whether it was pandering, pick pocketing or stealing a pizza, as long as there were three of them, you were out, gone, finished. The three bells of three strikes rang clear, making most good folks feel better and again reminding them it was the worst of times.
And on it goes, with the offender folks doing better and better at their work—proving it is the best of times but preaching about this efficacy to their colleagues who already have respect for the field. And on it goes with the victim folks as well, who are constantly reminded that nothing is working, and it is the worst of times. The two factions move forward, but parallel. The lines are drawn with one taking on the retaliation and retribution measure of the sexual abuse problem, while the other (knowing the fallibility of those options) takes a different road to solving the sexual abuse problem—which is treatment of sex offenders. The goals are the same for the offender folks and the victim advocates—protecting society—but the roads are not only different and separate, (avoiding any type of intersection,) but they are unequal in a critically important way.
There is a major difference in favor and power between the two groups. With dramatic changes in communication tools such as the Internet, news and exposure about high profile cases of child abduction, rape and murder may represent only about 1% of sex offenders but those cases garner perhaps 90% of the media coverage. With this limited information, the marketing plan for the victim advocates is clear, intentional and powerful. The victim advocate’s train is driven by outrage and retribution (rightly so for what they know) and the offender folks strive forward claiming success of treatment through correlations and percentages about efficacy, but usually preaching to their own choir. And the sad reality is that offender folks are actually victim advocates - they are just disguised (costumes) as sex offender therapists and that is what makes the efforts of both factions so far apart and why a marriage of the two efforts seems so remote.
And it will probably go on—both groups with the same purpose, miles apart, one with power and the other with clipboards and conferences relating to efficacy, and with nothing but an upward spiral in their thankless workload. Realistically, it is likely to get worse. Expectedly, more children will join the sad but honorable memory of Amber, Megan, Polly and Jacob. Soon there will likely be a Timmie, a Tommy, a Judy or a Jennifer to join the others, fueling more laws, more prisons, and more vengeance. Victim advocates will continue to flirt with (dating) the partners of retribution and retaliation because the great false hope for those in power of the victim advocacy movement is that being tough (really tough) on sex offenders equals honor to victims. And even though good work is still being done in the sex offender field—and it is still the best of times—the rest of the world, brought so sadly to its knees by the tragedy of cases making the headlines, is reluctant to fund, or support or accept anything short of castration before the death penalty.
Even if the data within the field of sex offender treatment and management continues its positive spiral—even if the contribution to a safer society is clear within the field—all could be for naught. What will it matter how astute the risk assessment and treatment outcome studies reveal themselves if the success is not and cannot be sold (yes marketed) to an outraged public, still with tender tears for Amber, Megan, Polly, Jacob?
With the worlds of victim advocates and sex offender specialists so far apart is there an answer to joining forces and facilitating a marriage? Perhaps, so. And perhaps the problem is not so much that the goals are different but that the marketing hasn’t been done from the offender folks (victim advocates in disguise) to convince the victim folks that they are the same—working for the same honorable goals. It may be the missing marketing plan that provides the final nail in the coffin of the excellent work sex offender specialists have toiled so long (and honorably) to achieve.
Marketing may be the only thing that will save the good cause since the disguises of the victim advocates in sex offender costumes may be impossible shed—at least in the view of a society with hearts broken, and with the burden of protecting victims. Perhaps as much work at ATSA conferences and in ATSA committees should be about selling the value of the work (marketing) as there is about making the work better. Sounds good, but how? Marketing is not something typically learned in graduate school for those who end up sex offender therapists. Who within the field of sex offender treatment ever completed course work in the area of sales? Why, some experts in the field suggest that competition among programs and therapists, (the good old capitalist approach) would be unethical. So what would be the plan, in developing a marketing stratagem for the marriage of the victim advocates and sex offender specialists?
Marketing strategies usually involve two steps, with the first beginning with an evaluation of the image. That is, what views the potential customers—(victim advocates with broken hearts) have of the product (sex offender treatment?) This image examination would reveal that for the rest of society, supporting sex offender treatment is not popular or honorable and even though reality screams that most offenders will be released into the community and will need (no, require) treatment, the funders, the supporters, and the legislators (marketing experts) abhor that thought. Considering sex offender treatment reminds them it is the worst of times.
This loathing occurs because the view of the customers is that sex offender treatment (the product) is designed to help the offender, something akin to improving self-esteem or serving strawberry shortcake in group therapy. This isn’t true, but it is truly the image. The idea of therapy for sex offenders is despised for most of those in power because the goods haven’t been sold. Just thinking about Amber, Megan, Jacob & Polly and then considering help for their killers is unthinkable. And even though reality guarantees that the offenders of those precious children only comprise the tiniest percentage of those who abuse—it just doesn’t matter because like it or not, that is the current view. First marketing step completed with sad outcome.
The second step in the marketing strategy, beyond understanding the current image of the customers to the product is to postulate increased exposure (advertising of sorts) to the product. Well then, what would those victim advocates observe if they were brought into the real (not just sensational) world of sex offender treatment? Adopting a victims are watching posture in the marketing test plan might be a good idea. Through more exposure to the product, what would the victim advocates see, learn and understand? What if they were watching during a marketing test process?
If watching the debate about treating denying offenders—what would victim advocates learn? “Well, there is no clear data indicating that those sex offenders in denial do any worse in treatment than admitting offenders. Their social skills are improved—the data is clear.” And the victim advocates, upon hearing this support of treating denying offenders may question what about the victims of those offenders who see their abusers receive treatment without ever admitting. What about the children abused by a family member who denies, but gets help? The worst of times, they would say.
If watching the debate about full disclosure polygraphs what would the victim advocates learn? “Well, there is no data suggesting offenders recidivate less when subjected to these types of polygraphs. Why should they be placed in jeopardy of further prosecution for other crimes through these polygraphs? And by the way, who can prove full disclosure polygraphs ever helps the offender?” Victim advocates, hearing this debate about full-disclosure polygraphs may question, what about the victims that could be discovered, treated and healed if their abuse information was known. How could a tool such as full disclosure polygraphs be omitted if it provided access to damaged children? The worst of times, they would say.
If watching the debate about sex offender evaluations for the criminal court process, what would victim advocates learn? “Well the ATSA standards indicate there is no known test to accurately, (honorably?) contribute to guilt/innocent legal decisions for sex offenders. But there are known correlations with arousal patterns, psychological profiles, physiological prototypes with sex offender etiology. So why not just tell the court what we know, and let them sort it out?” And the victim advocates—the ones who try to support and encourage a Timmie, Tommy, Judy or Jennifer to testify against an adult (who likely attended Thanksgiving dinner) would say, what about the victims? And knowing those evaluations will likely occur in spite of standards, would again bring the sigh; it is the worst of times.
If watching the debate of sex offender program efficacy, what would victim advocates see? “Well yes, we can prove that treatment (usually) is effective in reducing recidivism, although there are some pesky studies out there that suggest recidivism may be much higher. But overall we can be assured that with treatment and intense supervision, offenders do have a chance to live pro-social lives and not re-offend.” And the victim advocates, the ones paying for the trauma suffered by victims, the ones who must fund treatment centers, psychiatric hospitals and mental health services for unhealed, innocent victims may ask what about the victims? They may inquire about why the efficacy of sex offender treatment is defined as for the offender rather than victims, and again, with their confusion they conclude it is the worst of times.
Bleak it seems, the market test of first understanding the image the customer (victim advocates) have of the product (sex offender treatment). Clearly a dim view is held of sex offender treatment—as it is. The second step of the market test, to consider what those advocates would witness if they observed (took a closer look) at the field of sex offender treatment additionally provides a not-so-attractive perspective for those folks, with still fresh tears for the children. The second step market test reveals that the costumes of victim advocates, disguised as sex offender specialists, are far too effective. No one knows they are even wearing them. The care and concern for victims by the offender folks was there, but lost because of marketing failure to those overwhelmed by the pain of innocent victims. If the advocates watched, they would not see a connection to victim needs in sex offender treatment and they would turn away, further convinced that Strawberry Shortcake is more common than not, and that it is the worst of times.
So the marketing test reveals the problem, but is there a solution? Perhaps so. Just maybe in the effort to figuratively take off the costumes and redefine the purpose of sex offender treatment, a marriage between the factions of victim folks and sex offender folks could be considered? Perhaps the answer lies in developing VICTIM-CENTERED sex offender programs, where the same good work would occur (best of times) but the goal would be defined for victims, also the best of times. It would be the same goal, same outcome, but a different sell. This new definition or focus might be successful, but oh, the possible resistance from offender folks, comfortable in their costumes.
“It is unethical for offender therapists to also work with victims.”
“You just can’t be objective and helpful to sex offenders if you have victim advocates in your program or on your mind.”
“I was never trained to work with victims—they have no place, literally or figuratively in my offender program.”
“I just can’t handle the trauma of the children. I just need to move forward with sex offenders and not think about the victim or my heart will break.”
This familiar resistance for the sex offender folks, when contemplation occurs for infusion of victim issues into their programs, is understandable. The trepidation is probably honorable, as they too, feel sad and broken-hearted for victims. The pressure to inculcate a strong victim position into sex offender program is precarious, but the resistance may actually be the death knoll to survival of the field.
Perhaps the new and necessary marketing plan for success, should fashion the costume of purpose—a new frame on and old idea—RESTITUTION. Perhaps sex offender programs could be restructured with the purpose to honor, respect and repair the trauma to victims. Yes, the same good work would occur but with a new spin on why it is done. If victim-centered sex offender programs were implemented, fashioned and marketed, oh, how many problems would be solved with this new frame, perhaps inviting a marriage of all victim advocates, even those in sex offender therapist costumes.
But some would still resist, suggesting, “But we don’t always have access the offender’s victim, and sometimes we don’t even know the child’s name. How can we do victim-centered treatment without the victims?” This will be the battle cry of resistance, understandably. And like any good marketing strategy, the response to the resistance lies in redefining the product’s purpose. If the concept of victim included four levels, perhaps the victim-centered approach could apply to any program—outpatient, prison or residential. But how would this work?
The first level of victim in the redefining process (for product marketability) should always be the child, or the single, innocent person who was robbed of sexual safety and security. That should be enough for good marketing, but it isn’t. The victim’s family must also be considered the second level of victim status, harmed and hurt, never completely whole again when one of theirs is abused. But that is still not enough. In order to be successful with the marketing plan, the community in which the crime was committed must be considered the third level of victim—not just through AMBER ALERTS or registration/notification efforts, but through a RESTITUTION concept of offenders repaying for the privilege of living in the community. And finally society must be considered the fourth level of victim—for it is society that will pick up the tab for the services needed (rightly so) by victims who do not heal in childhood (or in typical sex offender programs) and who limp tragically into their future, needing resources that extract a cost beyond broken hearts. If nothing else in the market plan was successful, it may be the wallet, calculated by cost savings (marketing) if the healing of victims was the primary goal in sex offender treatment.
So there it is—perhaps an idea, perhaps a path to resolution—quieting the battles and bringing peace among the factions of two groups (victim advocates and disguised sex offender therapists) who have the same purpose but one has an image problem (marketing.) If sex offender programs were redefined and restructured to focus on a victim-centered model of RESTITUTION THERAPY then maybe criticisms would lessen, the anger (however unfounded) might subside and a pooling of resources for victim healing could occur. If this honorable idea of restitution for victims was the focus of sex offender treatment, then perhaps there could be a marriage between the victim advocates of society and the victim advocates of sex offender treatment (without of course, their costumes.) Perhaps by focusing efforts on victims, by redefining the purpose of sex offender treatment, the same work could be done, the marketing plan would be successful, and the marriage would take place suggesting that by working together it is the best of times.
But what if, after all is said, the wedding is off, and society decides it just feels better dating others such as retribution and retaliation? What if sex offender treatment is just too controversial and too painful to fathom in light of Amber, Megan, Polly and Jacob? What if it is just too much to ask for their tender tears unable to be consoled? Well then, in considering that sex offender treatment is inevitable, however abhorred by society, perhaps redefining and restructuring should happen anyway. Maybe victim-centered, RESTITUTION based programs should still be implemented—just because it is the right thing to do.
--Editor’s note: Jan Hindman has been working with sex offenders and their victims for the past 31 years. She is an original founder and past president of ATSA. During Jan’s continual work with sex offenders she has always considered that victims were watching.