EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the Sixth in a series on child sexual abuse. The topic may be too sensitive for some readers. The survivors have given the News Press permission to use their identities.
By the end of August, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections had more than 2,000 people incarcerated for sexual crimes against children, ranging from fondling to rape.
In that timeframe, there were 23 inmates from Payne County in DOC custody convicted of child sexual crimes, with several other inmates still being in the Payne County Jail, who haven’t been transferred to DOC after their conviction. There are 10 inmates at the county jail who have been convicted this year.
With so many inmates convicted of sexual violence against children getting in and out of prison every day, one field of thought asks whether these people can be rehabilitated.
There isn’t a clear answer.
Research and recidivism
Some experts suggest it depends on the individual and their sexual preference, as to whether sex offenders can be rehabilitated, and tracking recidivism of child sexual abusers is a challenge for several reasons.
Justin Wolf, the Communications Director at the Department of Corrections, said not every offender is released in the same manner. Some are released on probation, supervised parole or non-supervised parole.
Shawna Cleary, a professor at the University of Central Oklahoma researched sex offenders and has been active in criminal justice reform. She said another challenge with tracking recidivism rates of sex offenders is underreporting.
“The vast majority of sex offenses are not reported. So I think my recidivism rate is really low, but actually my report rate may be really low,” Cleary said. “I tell my students that we never truly know how much sexual abuse we have in our society because the report rate is so low.”
The crime has a low reporting rate, so it is unknown how many sex offenders are released and then commit another sex offense.
The other difficult part is sex offenders can be taken back to prison for breaking the rules of their probation, but that doesn’t always mean it was related to a sexual offense.
Wolf said they don’t track the reason someone returns to DOC after being released, so it could be for any offense.
Sex offender treatment
Brenda Carter, a Clinical Therapist at the Residential Sex Offender Treatment Program at DOC said in her experience it depends on the type of offender. There are preferential offenders, who are only attracted to children and then there are situational offenders, who are also attracted to adults but take advantage of proximity to children.
Treatment is about rewiring the individual to help decrease sexual arousal to children and replace it with adults.
Specifically talking about sex offenders who prey on children, Carter said it is harder to rehabilitate someone if they only have an attraction to children.
“It is a lot more difficult for a preferential offender (pedophile) who only has sexual attraction and arousal to children,” she said.
Carter said it’s challenging to change arousal patterns for preferential offenders because they haven’t developed appropriate arousal patterns in the first place. They are only attracted to children, she said.
“They are very difficult if not impossible to rehabilitate. They just have to learn to control their desires and not act them out on children due to the consequences of the behavior,” she said.
Carter said typically these are the sex offenders who re-offend or see nothing wrong with their actions because to them they are “expressing love.”
Carter said situational offenders aren’t motivated by sexual attraction to children but rather sexual gratification for what they can do.
“The victim is just an object to them, it’s about factors such as anger, resentment, revenge, feelings of inadequacy or fear of rejection just to name a few,” she said. “Sexual crimes aren’t about sex but power and control and a host of many things that are individualized to each offender.”
A cycle of abuse?
Many abusers have themselves experienced some kind of sexual trauma, according to Carter.
“A huge percent of those who are in treatment were sexually abused or exposed to sexual knowledge at a very young age,” Carter said, “but the majority of victims do not ever commit a sexual crime.”
Some families have generational sexual abuse that goes unreported. Cleary said she has had students confide in her about being abused and learned it was a larger scale than just the one child. Carter said in order to stop the generational sexual abuse, families need to know about it and understand the underlying motivation behind the abuse.
Cleary said families with generational abuse tend to cover it up because the “family thinks they can deal with it.”
“It’s bad enough that adult rape victims tend to not be believed, children are believed even less. On top of that so much sexual abuse occurs within the family and you have generations of sexual abuse,” Cleary said.
Treatment programs for sex offenders
Carter said sex offender treatment programs are required in Oklahoma upon release from DOC.
“They are required to attend, submit to polygraphs, make progress and be treatment compliant. Which is to make progress on participation and disclosure,” she said.
Cleary said sex offender treatment is no different than attending Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s a treatment that will need to be continued throughout their entire life, or there is a chance of reoffending.
“You are still a person that has an attraction to children, you have been given the tools to deal with that and you have to use those tools every single day. If you use those tools, recidivism stays low,” Cleary said. “If you stop using those tools then I expect you start going back to those behaviors you did before. Whether it was drinking, or drugs or sexually abusing people, or animals or whatever it is.”
Carter said in the last 16 years of community sex offender treatment, the recidivism rate for those involved in treatment was less than 3% and less than 1% for those who have completed treatment.
Carter said she uses Cognitive Behavior Therapy to change the thinking the sex offender may have.
She was adamant that molestation of children is not a mental health disorder, and is a criminal behavior. By taking away the opportunity to justify their actions, Carter said it can aid in rehabilitation.
“We do life audits, looking at the patterns of development of beliefs, values and deviant behaviors and criminal behaviors,” she said.
Carter said sexual history audits look at the increased depth of understanding and work in cognitive restructuring that deals with sexual deviancy. They also go over the effects of sexual abuse on victims, families and society.
In Oklahoma, it is mandatory for anyone who has been convicted of a sex offense to register as a sex offender. The amount of time they register, and the level at which they register depends on the crime committed.
Carter said the way society views sex offenders can contribute to challenges they face by making it difficult to find jobs and can contribute to a lack of housing.
She also said it can make it harder for the individual to establish a support system, which is “vital for their success.”
Cleary said for recidivism to remain low the offender needs to use the tools each person received while in sex offender treatment.
“Now sex offender treatment is specific, there are specific sex offender treatment for sex offenders. The best practice is to go along a very narrow line of what should be done with them,” she said. “Including polygraphs to determine their baseline for sexual attraction, including admission of guilt, including a lot of different tests that are psychological assessments that are given and there are specific rules.”