Treating sex offenders: Does therapy work? - AmericaNowNews.com

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Treating sex offenders: Does therapy work?

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Stephanie Billingsley is a therapist who began looking into why prostitutes are discriminated against by police and social service agencies when they report being hit or beaten in college. She found she was interested and comfortable dealing with those engaged in what scientists call "sexual deviancy."

Now she treats sex offenders.

When people in her social circle learn what she does, they're often taken aback. How could she feel empathy for someone who's committed one of society's worst crimes? But she points out, 95% of sex offenders are going to be released into the community. She sees her job as giving them the skills they need to think differently and act differently.

But does she worry they might victimize another child after they're out of her care?

"I wouldn't say (I do) anymore," Billingsley said. "I don't own their choices. So it's important that I do the best that I can do while I'm here."

Therapy for sex offenders has changed, too, points out University of Cincinnati researcher and therapist Mindy Schweitzer.

When she first began her career and treated youthful offenders, she says there was "lots of talking about their offense and not really teaching them concrete skills. So I always felt they were leaving but missing some of the core pieces."

Schweitzer and Billingsley now advocate --- and use --- a method of therapy in which the sex offender considers how the victim felt. Some are under the impression that a child "seduced" them and enjoyed the encounter.

"One offender, who was a pedophile, was very upset to learn that his actions were indeed harmful," said Billingsley. "He thought that his actions were wanted by the child victim."

In therapy, sex offenders also learn impulse control, how to build a support network, and what to do when they're feeling an emotion like loneliness. Billingsley has one client for whom loneliness is a trigger that might lead him to victimize another child. She's now gotten him to come up with a list of supportive people (including her) that he can call when he's feeling lonely as well as things he can do to get through those tough moments, including going fishing, exercising, or watching a nonviolent movie.

The UC Corrections Institute, where Schweitzer is the deputy director, is at the forefront of research into sex offenders, including whether therapy is effective for them. In 2010, Schweitzer's colleagues published a study showing that high risk sex offenders were more than twice as likely to stay out of jail if they had gone through intensive therapy in a halfway house after getting out of prison, compared to those who were immediately released into the community.

However, the same study found that low risk sex offenders were made worse by that kind of residential treatment. In fact, according to UC's research, low risk sex offenders were 27% more likely to be re-incarcerated.  

"Because the high risk guys are in those programs, as well," said Schweitzer. "So we're increasing their exposure to anti-social attitudes, values, beliefs, peers --- which are some of the top risk factors."

In addition, putting them in a halfway house takes them away from the positive factors in their life: friends and family, their job, their church. Low and moderate risk sex offenders do better in non-residential therapy, like the kind Billingsley provides.

Overall, UC research has found, 17% of high and low risk sex offenders will be arrested again. That number drops to 12% if the sex offender has gone to therapy.

Numbers are one thing. But Schweitzer will tell you, she's not an academic stuck in some ivory tower. She still gets into the field, trying to implement the latest techniques. And she knows what the stakes are.

"I live in this community," she said. "I work in this community. I certainly want to keep this community safe."

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