It is no accident that Sex Offender Containment is the theme for our 2001 CCOSO conference. The number of registered sex offenders living in California continues to rise. Although most serve some time behind bars, virtually all of them eventually resume living in communities – our communities. How shall we treat them when they do?
Shunning is one option. Reflexively, it may be the option of choice for many Californians, but in reality, it makes a bad situation worse because it drives sex offenders underground, into secret lives. This makes them more dangerous than ever. Instead of watching over them, it puts us in the position of having to watch for them. Shunning makes some people feel safer, because when they drive sex offenders into hiding they feel as if these dangerous individuals really are not there, but they are. Shunning is foolish and wrongful. Instead of reducing risk to potential victims, it actually increases it.
Another option is the “Circles of Support” approach. With this approach, knowledgeable, faith based volunteers organize to welcome sexual offenders into their congregations, communities, and homes, offering them highly visible jobs, living quarters and friendships away from potential victims. The volunteer friends help offenders resume useful, productive, and meaningful lives. They give these men something to live for and a clear message that they can lose it if they even give the appearance of reoffending. They set high but realistic expectations and provide intense, personal support to help offenders meet those expectations. In principle, Circles of Support is a very good option. Canadian Mennonites have set up a small, active program of this kind for some of their highest risk offenders. It seems to work. You can read more about it at http://220.127.116.11/text/pblct/interactive/ia1296e.shtml.
Unfortunately, “Circles of Support” is not realistic on a large scale. Not all sex offenders want this kind of active, day-to-day involvement with helping communities. Even if we had sufficient resources, forcing it on men who don’t want it may be much less effective than offering it to those who do. And let’s face it; there will never be enough capable volunteers to absorb even a small percentage of California’s registered offenders into this kind of personal support program.
Our best realistically available approach lies in the “Containment Model1.” In this model, sexual offenders are “contained” in a triangle of supervision, monitoring and treatment.
**Treatment consists of cognitive-behavioral therapy and supportive social services. When provided by knowledgeable therapists meeting standards promulgated by The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, this kind of treatment produces very significant reoffense reductions.2
**Monitoring consists of community visits, verifying offender self-report whenever possible, chemical screening in appropriate cases, and perhaps most important, periodic polygraph examinations meeting standards promulgated by theAmerican Polygraph Association and California Association of Polygraph Examiners.
**Supervision by Probation or Parole Officers and Child Welfare Social Workers includes referral to appropriate support services, verifying offender self report whenever possible, and seeing that the offender participates in meaningful treatment and education and employment programs, takes scheduled polygraph and chemical screening tests, etc. It also includes taking protective action when offender behavior or tests results point to increasing risk.
States and communities can implement the Containment Model on a time-limited basis or mandate varying degrees of lifelong supervision and monitoring with periodic follow-up treatment. The model always recognizes that no single individual, agency or discipline can maximize community safety in relation to these men and it always includes cooperation, coordination and appropriate communication between treatment, monitoring and supervisory personnel.
Maximizing Containment Model effectiveness takes funding, on-going training and coordinated professional efforts. But even with adequate funding and high quality professional implementation, effective containment also requires community involvement and support. Research shows that stress tends to trigger sexual and other violent reoffenses3. The Containment Model works best when offenders are treated respectfully and humanely and are offered opportunities for meaningful membership in their respective communities. Municipalities, neighborhoods, businesses, congregations and families must realize that, like it or not, they will have registered sexual offenders residing, working, playing and worshiping within their boundaries. When one community drive them away, offenders move to other communities, where they try to avoid further shunning by maintaining secrecy as best they can. In the meantime, other offenders, driven out of their own communities, move in and also try to maintain secrecy. Stressed by fear of discovery by neighbors and employers, these men become more, rather than less, likely to reoffend. In extreme cases, offenders assume new, false identities, making containment activity impossible altogether unless they surface accidentally, perhaps after hurting one or more additional victims.
The Containment Model has been conceptualized as a supervision, monitoring and treatment triangle around the offender. This author proposes that effective containment is better conceptualized as a square with the fourth side of the figure representing an educated, sensible and supportive community offering offenders opportunities for safe and meaningful reintegration. Kris Kristofferson once wrote and sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”4 Do we really want to offer registered sex offenders that kind of freedom?
2 Alexander, M. A. (1999). Sexual offender treatment efficacy revisited. Sexual Abuse: Journal of Research & Treatment, 11(2), 101-116. AND Grossman, L. S., Martis, B., & Fichtner, C. G. (1999). Are sex offenders treatable? A research overview [see comments]. Psychiatr Serv, 50(3), 349-361.