As the director of sex offender treatment programs for Family Counseling Connection in Charleston, W.Va., Jason Newsome works with a group of clients that can be misunderstood by the public — and even counselors. But Newsome, a member of the American Counseling Association, past president and current treasurer of the West Virginia Counseling Association, firmly believes in the work he is doing and in the necessity of setting aside prior judgments to clearly see the individual sitting in front of him. Only then, he says, can he help the client to make real, positive progress toward stopping the behavior.
Newsome also serves as a guest speaker on sex offender-related issues to a variety of groups, including treatment providers, probation officers and others working with sex offenders. He is a clinical member of both the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers and the National Association of Forensic Counselors, from which he holds the certification of Certified Sex Offender Treatment Specialist. CT Online asked Newsome about his specialty and his experiences working with this sometimes-stigmatized population:
How did you first get involved in sex offender counseling?
Bad (or good) luck! I was trying to complete my master’s degree and had trouble finding an internship placement. Family Counseling Connection was the first place that returned my phone call.
Family Counseling Connection had been doing sex offender treatment since about 1988. I wasn’t sure how I would like doing this type of work, but I figured I could do anything for a few months to complete my internship. Once I got started, I really liked it. Of course, I worked with sexual abuse victims and a wide variety of general counseling clients at the same time.
What is a typical session like with your clients?
We use group therapy as the primary treatment component for most of our sex offender clients. Group allows them the opportunity to give and receive feedback to and from their peers. Using cognitive behavioral therapy as a model, we encourage each group member to challenge each other’s cognitive distortions and [to] present alternatives. Each group is different and has its own personality, so to speak. Some groups are self-starting and self-sustaining in terms of content and discussion. Sometimes, I can’t get a word in! Other groups are led more by the counselor. Again, each one seems to have its own personality. We try to match clients to the various groups as much as possible.
Typically, the group has been heading in a particular direction for a period of time. Group always starts with a “check-in” to give clients [the] opportunity to discuss any problems or successes they have had since the last group meeting. Sometimes this becomes the group topic, depending on how related the issue is to the direction of the group. If not, the facilitator will introduce the topic and, generally, discussion follows from that point. Identifying and correcting cognitive distortions, developing alternatives to problem behaviors, emotional regulation and social interest are the main issues that are discussed within the context of the topics.
Individual and family therapy are also used. The frequency of these services are determined by need. Individual therapy is also conducted within the framework of cognitive behavioral therapy and is used to dig deeper into issues and problems that may not have been discussed in group sessions or to address specific issues that may need to be kept out of the group discussions.
Family sessions are used for a variety of reasons, and it seems those reasons change constantly. Sometimes relationship problems are evident within the family systems; at other times, the offender needs for family members to hold him accountable for his behavior; still at other times, offenders need help discussing what they actually did to victims — it is not uncommon for family members to believe the convicted offender is innocent. This is sometimes a very difficult process.
What is usually the main focus or aim when treating sex offenders?
Andrews and Bonta’s (2007) Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR) model provides us with our treatment targets for sexual offenders. Research on the effectiveness of this model with sexual offenders has shown good outcomes in terms of recidivism, with sexual recidivism being 19.2 percent for the control group as opposed to 10.9 percent for those treated with the RNR approach (Hanson, et al, 2009). Basically, these are the areas that our treatment focuses on:
- Sexual deviancy
- Antisocial personality pattern
- Procriminal attitudes
- Social supports for crime
- Substance abuse
- Family/marital relationships
- Prosocial recreational activities
Other models have helped to inform “how” we address these areas. Specifically, the Good Lives Model (Ward, Prescott & Yates, 2009) provides a framework for helping sex offenders to build a “good life” that is free from offending. Essentially, without getting too complex, the Good Lives Model purports that sexual offending is the result of pursuing appropriate goals (e.g., relatedness, pleasure, happiness, love, etc.) through inappropriate means. The Good Lives Model is a means of helping individuals create a “good life plan” wherein needs are met through prosocial, or at least nonharmful, means.
What interventions do you find to be the most effective?
General cognitive behavioral methods are the most effective interventions. In fact, current research mandates this framework if we expect treatment to work.
I should add here that a warm relationship with the therapist is also critical. We have, in the past, seen criminal justice clients as needing strong confrontation and an in-your-face approach to counseling. In the end, this has little value. Having a good therapeutic relationship is just as (and perhaps even more) important with sex offenders as with any other client population.
How has your knowledge been able to help probation officers?
We [at the Family Counseling Connection] have a strong working relationship with probation officers. We meet regularly and discuss cases, problems and attempt to find solutions. We discuss each case and formulate goals together. We also use polygraph examiners as part of the “management team” to assist in monitoring compliance with probation rules and treatment program standards.
Probation officers monitor behavior, so I gain this information from them. I establish working relationships and therapeutic goals and share this information with probation. We discuss problems as they come about rather than waiting until something happens. I continuously assess and monitor risk and report that information to probation officers. When risk increases, they supervise more closely.
I am happy to say that we are not just a team on paper — we genuinely function as a team. We all help to guide and sometimes push offenders to take positive steps. All members of the team understand that living a prosocial life is the way to avoid future offending. Therefore, we work together to establish positive goals rather than simply focusing on the “Don’t do _______.” We all want to help the individual stop committing sex crimes. When we have the same goal, working together is actually rather easy.
This process of working as a team also allows us to identify, discuss and correct problems on a programmatic level. We are able to identify [not only] gaps and failures but also strengths and successes. We have an open dialogue that respects each position within the team.
What kinds of misconceptions are there concerning the counseling of sex offenders?
That we participate in “hug a thug” as our treatment model. We never validate sexual abuse as acceptable and never agree that antisocial attitudes are OK to maintain. Also, we don’t allow for excuse making; it is the offender’s fault 100 percent of the time. Sometimes, however, we are viewed that way by those who don’t work with offenders.
What steps do you recommend that counseling students who are interested in this field take?
Find a professional doing the work and discuss what it is like.
Assess your own values, morals, preconceptions and stereotypes about sex offenders.
Read a lot of research on the topic. Understanding risk and needs in regard to sex offenders is absolutely necessary. This requires digesting the research, including all of the stats that counselors tend to not enjoy very much!
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Treating sexual offenders requires that I set aside my moral judgments, preconceived ideas and stereotypes and sit with the person in front of me and view him as an individual with the same basic needs that I have. This is not always an easy task. We hear about the worst of the worst sexual assaults sometimes. It is rather easy to look at the perpetrator and say, “He deserves to go to prison” or “He deserves to have that done to him.” Yet, I have to [set] aside my moral judgments and leave it to someone else — God, the judge, the legislature — to decide what the individual deserves. My job is to help him stop.
Our agency serves a large number of victims of sexual assault through our counseling and 24-hour crisis services. We also coordinate primary prevention programs in schools and colleges. We want to end sexual violence. We have recognized that treating offenders is another means of helping to reduce the number of sexual assault victims in our communities. As stated earlier, helping them build a better, offense-free life is the best means to an offense-free end.
Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at email@example.com.