‘Circles of Help,’ Socialization Decrease Intercourse Offender Recidivism

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by Julia Steiny

For most of his career, Dr. Robin Wilson, Ph.D. lied about his profession when asked socially.  He’d say he was an accountant, a pilot, a businessman.  It was easier that way.  Then he decided to man up.  Actually, he’s a psychologist who specializes in sex offenders.  To a person, he marvels, people reacted to his profession with exactly the same response.  Little old ladies making conversation on a plane say:  “Oh, there’s nothing you can do about them.”  (Wilson is a fun, funny speaker.)

Honestly, prior to his speech, I also supposed they were uniquely incurable.  Creepy, dark, victimizing sexual urges just couldn’t be rooted out of a person’s psychology.

Of course, such thinking exemplifies the American kick-out mentality at its most complete.  It’s my core business to work toward embracing “bad” people, especially bad kids, as integral members of their communities.  But I’d never looked twice at my assumption that sex offenders couldn’t be in the mainstream.

Wilson says, “It’s our kneejerk reaction to lock ‘em up.  These guys — 95% are men — come from the community.  We remove them.  Then when they go back, there is no community.  They were never integrated in the first place.”  So we put them in prison, which is itself sexually horrible.  The Courts assure us, with proof, that people in prison really are bad, so prison rape ignites surprisingly little outrage.  In any case, no one learns community-appropriate skills in a prison.  Indeed, I think prison is itself a mental illness.

So instead of helping to integrate these men into a healthy community, we further isolate and stigmatize them.  Laws, policies, and regulations make life nearly impossible for convicted sex offenders — finding housing, work, dignity.

And then they reoffend.  They want connection, but got seriously off track trying to get it.  Early treatment options — like electro-shocking their penises when they see pictures of children — didn’t work.  Those barbaric efforts, back in the 1970s, were the beginning of the “nothing works” movement.

Then Wilson and others began to develop a protocol called “Circles of Support.”  Consider Charlie Taylor’s story.  Taylor had been in foster and institutional care since he was 4.  Already as a young kid, he was a repeat offender.  His offenses got worse with age, which only made it harder for him to build a healthy social group for himself.  Social services didn’t want him.  And in the service of “protecting” the larger community, the media publicized his name and offenses.  A modern leper, Taylor’s risk of re-offending was 100%.

But a Mennonite pastor, Reverend Harry Nigh, took him in.  Nigh was “Charlie’s angel.”  For the record, the Mennonites, particularly Howard Zehr, studied, developed and practiced restorative justice decades ago, when it was a loony fringe idea.  Like most religious groups at their best, the Mennonites are all about the community, specifically its power to heal.  So Nigh set about understanding what sorts of social relationships and supports, called “circles” in Restorative language, could successfully integrate Taylor and others like him.

Wilson explains that in a Circle of Support, a professional case manager helps the offender forge strong relationships with both informal, or “natural” supports, and professionals.  To achieve adequate “dosage,” the natural supports must include at least 4 to 6 people who see the offender often, do stuff with him, and get him involved in work, volunteering, hobbies, keeping house.  Case managers knock themselves out to re-establish broken relationships with ex-wives, estranged siblings, parents, fishing buddies, whomever.  These informal supports need to be reasonably healthy people.  Social contacts, likely weak or non-existent before the offense, are key to bringing the offender out of the isolation that got him into trouble.

Then, professionals — social workers, psychiatrists, and psychologists — help the whole mini-community around the offender keep their collective relationships strong.  After all, Wilson says, “People who have social support do well.  People who don’t, don’t.  Period.  Without my own social circle, I might have problems with alcohol, difficulty adjusting and making relationships.  I might become likely to offend.”

A Circle of Support does not guarantee zero recidivism.  But the data are dramatically positive.  There is something you can do.

And the lesson in all this, a point Wilson made in emphatic theme and variation, is that safety is a community responsibility.  Social isolation triggers all manner of mental illness, including sex disorders.  For everyone at all ages, strong, natural social ties both prevent disorders and aid healing when psycho-social problems happen.  “We can not exclude the community from the risk-management process.  Safety is the standards kept by the people, not the police.”

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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