December 31, 2013

Best wishes for the new year

Here's wishing all of my subscribers and followers a happy holiday season and a fun and productive new year.

December 29, 2013

Special journal issue on sex offender treatment available online

Phil Rich
This month's International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy is a special issue on current issues in sex offender treatment. The special issue is edited by Phil Rich (author of several books on juvenile sex offending) and features articles by prominent individuals in the field. The journal is available free online. Click on the links below to either view the entire issue, or to read, download or save individual articles.

To view or download the full issue, click the button below:

To view an individual article, click the green button to the left of its title:

Introduction to the Special Issue- Phil Rich

Lessons Learned from History and Experience: Five Simple Ways to Improve the Efficacy of Sexual Offender Treatment- Deirdre M. D’Orazio

Some Essential Environmental Ingredients for Sex Offender Reintegration- Douglas P. Boer

Taking a Developmental Approach to Treating Juvenile Sexual Behavior Problems- Kevin Creeden

Using Mindfulness in the Treatment of Adolescent Sexual Abusers: Contributing Common Factor or a Primary Modality?- Jerry L. Jennings, Jack A. Apsche, Paige Blossom, & Corliss Bayles

Expensive, Harmful Policies that Don’t Work or How Juvenile Sexual Offending is Addressed in the U.S.- Elizabeth J. Letourneau & Michael F. Caldwell

The Risk Need Responsivity Model of Offender Rehabilitation: Is There Really a Need For a Paradigm Shift?- Jan Looman & Jeffrey Abracen

A Community Treatment Model for Adolescents Who Sexually Harm: Diverting Youth from Criminal Justice to Therapeutic Responses- Russ Pratt

The Rashomon Dilemma: Perspectives on and Dilemmas in Evidence-Based Practice- David S. Prescott

Youth Sexual Offending: Context, Good-Enough Lives, and Engaging With a Wider Prevention Agenda- Stephen Smallbone, Susan Rayment-Mchugh, & Dimity Smith

Why Prevention? Why Now?- Joan Tabachnick

Implications of our Developing Understanding of Risk and Protective Factors in the Treatment of Adult Male Sexual Offenders- David Thornton

Altruism, Empathy, and Sex Offender Treatment- Tony Ward & Russil Durrant

Putting the “Community” Back in Community Risk Management of Persons Who Have Sexually Abused- Robin J. Wilson & Andrew J. McWhinnie

What were we thinking? Five erroneous assumptions that have fueled specialized interventions for adolescents who have sexually offended- James R. Worling

Treatment of Sexual Offenders: Research, Best Practices, and Emerging Models- Pamela M. Yates 

December 24, 2013

Legal challenge may force changes to Minnesota civil commitment

Guest post by Jon Brandt, MSW, LICSW

It has been 16 years since the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly upheld the constitutionality of controversial preventive detention schemes for dangerous sex offenders. Now, with 20 U.S. states incarcerating many thousands of men at an annual cost of more than $500 million, Minnesota has become Ground Zero for a new round of legal challenges alleging that the state’s treatment program is a sham from which no one is ever released. In this guest post, Jon Brandt gives a first-person report on last week’s momentous federal hearing.

U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank
SAINT PAUL, MINNESOTA -- On December 18 at the Federal District Courthouse, Judge Donovan Frank heard motions in a federal lawsuit that promises to dramatically change the civil commitment landscape in Minnesota and, by extension, around the country.

The case began modestly two years ago as a pro se complaint by about a dozen detainees at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).* The Federal District Court for Minnesota determined the case had merit, appointed counsel, and in 2012 Judge Frank certified it as a class action.  At a hearing last Wednesday, Dan Gustafson, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, argued motions alleging that civil commitment as administered in Minnesota is unconstitutional. 

An inauspicious start

When the court convened there was a sparse audience that included a few families of MSOP clients, a handful of reporters, and several professional stakeholders. Conspicuously absent were any plaintiffs.   Perhaps there’s some irony in the fact that, in 20 years, not only has no one ever been fully discharged from MSOP, apparently all current clients are too dangerous for any of them to be shackled and accompanied by security personnel to a federal courtroom to hear arguments on the conditions of their own confinement. Given that courtrooms are designed to contain dangerous people, whether the decision to exclude clients was made by executive or judicial authorities, it seems like a missed opportunity to allow some representative plaintiffs to bear direct witness to the wheels of justice.   

The hearing had an inauspicious start for the 698 plaintiffs civilly detained 90 miles away – the audio feed via phone lines failed. So, after waiting 15 years for the courts to reconsider their plight, the plaintiffs missed the first hour of legal arguments.   When the audio connection was finally restored, Judge Frank assured wary plaintiffs that the technical problems were not deliberate, and personally took responsibility.
The hearing began with attorney Gustafson arguing for “declaratory judgment,” or a legal finding that the state’s civil commitment program is operating in an unconstitutional manner.   He cited case law that clients have a constitutional right to rehabilitation and claimed that the program breaches civil liberties and offers neither adequate rehabilitation nor acceptable living conditions.

No one ever released

Detainee at Moose Lake MSOP facility
The state’s attorney, Assistant Attorney General Nate Brennaman, countered that the program does provide appropriate treatment, that there is no constitutional right to treatment, and that the plaintiffs are basing their entire case on a single fact, “That no one has ever gotten out.”

Gustafson seemed amused that the defense was making his case. The fact that no one is released is strong evidence, he asserted. He pointed out that nearby states have far better track records. Wisconsin, with demographics nearly identical to Minnesota’s, has civilly committed only 351 people, and nearly half are now on either conditional or full release. Iowa has committed only about 103 people, and about 30 of those have been provisionally or fully released. He pointed out that treatment which was originally estimated to be completed in 32 months is now anticipated to last eight to nine years. Not a single one of the more than 700 individuals (including one female) who have been detained has ever completed the treatment program, and only one is on conditional release.

The plaintiff next argued for a court order mandating that each detainee be individually evaluated to determine whether he might safely be released to a “less restrictive alternative,” or LRA.

Judge Frank peppered the hearing with comments and questions that frequently interrupted attorneys on both legal teams, and also gave clues to his persuasion.   Noting that Justice Kennedy was the swing vote in the 5-4 ruling in Kansas v. Hendricks, he read a passage from Kennedy’s concurring opinion whereby Kennedy cautioned that “an improvident plea bargain” by the criminal justice system cannot be remedied by the civil commitment system, and that retribution is exclusively within the domain of criminal justice. Judge Frank also raised concerns about 18 infirmed clients (one who is 91) who require assisted living and questioned the “dangerousness” of such relatively incapacitated clients. He also questioned conditions of confinement that mimic prison. When the state’s attorney argued that conditions of criminal versus civil confinement had been decided by the US Supreme Court in the 1982 Youngberg v. Romeo case, Judge Frank interrupted with, “No, it wasn’t… but continue.”

Judge Frank expressed concern that most of the clients at the MSOP were still in the first phase of treatment, and twice pointed to his understanding that treatment progress is not only slow but that some clients are apparently sent back to redo previous phases. He also seemed concerned that detainees get less treatment than sexual offenders incarcerated in state prisons. He pondered rhetorically, “How much treatment is enough,” and questioned how the “Youngberg standard” of professional judgment might determine completion of treatment.

Motion for federal oversight

Moose Lake
The plaintiffs’ third motion was for the appointment of a “special master” and federal supervision of both the facility and the system. A special master is an administrator who would oversee MSOP operations and implement federal court directives. The state’s attorney responded that clients are getting effective treatment at MSOP, that treatment is subject to quarterly reviews, which is more stringent than other states that only require annual reviews, that MSOP has filled most of its open clinical positions, and that there is nothing that a special master could do that isn’t either already being done, or that DHS couldn’t manage if so directed by the federal court.

If Judge Frank grants the first motion, finding conditions unconstitutional, the other two motions might be automatic -- MSOP could be put under federal supervision in a similar manner as the state of Washington from 1994 to 2007. 

Judge Frank confirmed that on December 6 he appointed four sex offender treatment experts to guide the proceedings, under Federal Court Rule 706 . The four experts are: 
  • Mike Miner, Professor and Research Director of the Program in Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota Medical School
  • Naomi Freeman, who leads New York’s unit for Strict and Intensive Supervision and Treatment that manages civilly committed individuals outside of secure facilities
  • Deborah McCulloch, director of Wisconsin’s sex offender civil commitment program, and 
  • Robin Wilson, former clinical director at the Florida sex offender civil commitment program from 2006 to 2011, during which time there was a class action and settlement
Judge Frank seems to have exercised judicial restraint over the two years since the original complaint was filed. In an effort to prod state government, in 2012 he ordered the establishment of a special task force  to make recommendations to the state legislature. The Task Force held several hearings and collected relevant documents. It issued its first report in December 2012, with general recommendations for public-private partnerships to establish a statewide network of less restrictive alternatives. The report echoed critical findings by the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor in 2011. Unfortunately the state legislature adjourned in May 2013 without enacting legislative changes. 

Events may force action

Wednesday’s motions, the critical reports, and two other events in 2013 will likely force Judge Frank to act soon. Last summer Dr. Grant Duwe, chief researcher for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, published research that challenges the government’s foundational claim that civil detainees are “highly likely” to reoffend. Duwe’s research indicates that most of the detainees are highly likely to NOT reoffend.   

Then, last month, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton issued an executive order that continued the eight-year moratorium of his predecessor -- that there will be no further releases of clients from MSOP, except by court order. With this abdication of executive oversight, all three branches of the state government seem to be in perpetual paralysis. 

Minnesota’s government is managing the Sex Offender Civil Commitment program (SOCC)  like holding a wolf by the ears -- don’t want to hold on and afraid to let go.   Modest reforms that are in progress at MSOP are being sabotaged by systemic failures. Clinical staff have the impossible job of trying to maintain the integrity of endless treatment goals for clients trapped in a treatment paradox and have come to realize that the promise of rehabilitation is disingenuous.

Legal scholar Eric Janus
One of the highly principled critics of SOCC who is likely to be vindicated by imminent rulings from Judge Frank is Eric Janus. Janus is the President and Dean of the William Mitchell College of Law, and author of, “Failure to Protect; America’s Sexual Predator Laws and the Rise of the Preventive State” (Cornell University Press, 2006). Janus led an unsuccessful challenge to SOCC before the Minnesota Supreme Court in the 1990s. Since then, he has been warning that the SOCC, as public policy, is deceptively enticing, deeply flawed, and destined to overreach its stated intent. Janus was also a member of the Minnesota SOCC Task Force. 

Judge Frank indicated that he will accept a joint amicus brief from Janus and the ACLU, due Dec. 27, and will rule on the motions within 60 days.

My take is that the federal courts can no longer ignore repeated judicial admonishments; if the SOCC begins to look like retribution or prison in disguise, the courts will intervene. With precedence in the state of Washington, Judge Frank seems poised to put MSOP under federal supervision. Depending on the strength of any finding of “unconstitutional,” the ruling could have far-reaching implications that echo around the United States.    

Relevant legal cases:

*Karsjens, et al. v. MN Department of Human Services, et al., CV 11-3659 DWF/JJK

Foucha v. Louisiana, (90-5844), 504 U.S. 71 (1992).

Strutton v. Meade, (10–2029) 668 F.3d 549, US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (2012)

Youngberg v. Romeo, (80-1429) 457 U.S. 307 (1982)

Call v. Gomez, 535 N.W.2d 312, Supreme Court of Minnesota (1995)

Seling v. Young (99-1185) 531 U.S. 250 (2001)

Jon Brandt is a clinical social worker in Minnesota, for 35 years working in the prevention of sexual abuse. He has provided evaluations, treatment, and supervision to several hundred sexual offenders, and provided professional consultation and training to colleagues. He is a Clinical Member of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) and is a blogger for ATSA’s website, Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment.   In February 2012 his post, “Doubts about SVP Programs,” was re-blogged here.

December 8, 2013

The psychic perils of forensic practice

John Bradford burst into tears. Hitting the road for the four-hour trek back to his home in Ontario, Canada, he could not stop crying and shaking.

An internationally renowned forensic psychiatrist, Bradford had been working around-the-clock on the high-profile case of Canadian Air Force Colonel Russell Williams, a decorated military pilot and commander of the country's largest military airbase who had spent his spare time torturing and murdering women.

Bradford's breakdown took him by surprise. Like other forensic practitioners, he had spent decades sitting across the table from rapists, murderers and sexual sadists. He was adept at emotionally distancing himself from their twisted psyches and wretched deeds. But the gruesome video of two young women screaming and begging for their lives (unsuccessfully, as he knew) proved a tipping point.

Descending into a very dark place, he was eventually diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder. He underwent lengthy therapy and drug treatment. Although he has now returned to his forensic practice, he is more cautious about the types of cases he will take on.

The profile by reporter Chris Cobb in the Ottawa Citizen, documenting Bradford's three-year struggle with vicarious traumatization, came as a complete shock to me. It was just three years ago that I served with Bradford on a team debating three controversial paraphilias being proposed for the DSM-5. Bradford, an advisor to the DSM-IV, was past president of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law (AAPL), which hosted the debate. He holds numerous other accolades. He is a professor at the University of Ottawa, founder and clinical director of the Sexual Behaviors Clinic in Ottawa, and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, earning its prestigious Isaac Ray Award.

 Williams' victims, Jessica Lloyd and Marie-France Comeau
If he could fall apart, I wondered, who couldn’t?

Bradford described for the reporter how his mental state gradually morphed from calm and collected to irritable and angry, as he worked long hours on the Williams case. At one point, being cross-examined by a defense attorney in another case, he got so irritated by the attorney’s repetitiousness that he almost blurted out, "Why don’t you shut the f-- up, you a—hole?' "

It was then that he realized he was losing control.

"I knew there was something wrong but there was a lot of denial on my part," the 66-year-old Bradford told Cobb. "And that’s why it didn’t work when I first went into treatment. I was pessimistic and depressed, but if you’re a psychiatrist and a tough forensic guy you think you can blow anything off, right? And that’s what I did."

I was struck by the courage it must have taken Bradford to reveal his vulnerabilities to the world. I hope that his personal story can help stimulate conversation on the emotional dangers of this work. If Bradford can crumble, so can anyone, no matter how experienced, competent, or externally cool. Being part of a culture in which weakness is taboo, and can even be professional suicide, makes honest disclosure and help-seeking all the more difficult.

Confronting vicarious traumatization

Vicarious traumatization (also known as compassion fatigue, secondary trauma, or just plain burnout) has received some attention in professional circles in the past few years. There are books, journal articles, professional trainings, even websites.

The DSM-5 criteria for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) reflect this growing awareness. Criterion A, which lists the stressors that make one eligible for the diagnosis, now includes "experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event(s)." To keep those who view disasters on TV from being diagnosed with PTSD, as happened after the 9/11 terrorist attack, the text clarifies that this applies to such people as "first responders collecting human remains or police officers repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse," and NOT to those exposed through the media, "unless this exposure is work related."

As this criterion implies, vicarious traumatization can strike not just forensic evaluators, but anyone who spends too much time rubbing up against trauma -- nurses, ambulance operators, child welfare workers, police, lawyers, judges, even jurors.

Studies on its incidence among forensic professionals are mixed. An unpublished survey by graduate student Julie Brovko and forensic psychologist William Foote of the University of New Mexico found low levels of vicarious traumatization among a convenience sample of 65 forensic psychologists. However, consistent with Bradford's case, more time in the field was correlated with more problems.

In contrast, a 2010 survey of 52 Australian clinicians providing treatment to convicted sex offenders found no evidence of compassion fatigue or burnout. The majority reported low stress and high levels of job satisfaction working with this challenging population. Ruth Hatcher and Sarah Noakes found that supervision and external social support helped clinicians avoid burnout.

One limitation of both of these studies is that they surveyed only those who remained active in the field. Anecdotal accounts suggest that some individuals leave forensic practice due to the emotional toll, which can produce feelings of estrangement, numbness, and hypervigilance.

An opposite danger?

Reflecting on Bradford's breakdown, I thought about the opposite tendency. Is it resilience that keeps other professionals from crumbling under the weight of witnessing constant perversion and misery? Or, might some be repressing their feelings in a manner that is not so healthy?

After all, to not be disturbed by graphic cruelty or stark oppression is in itself disturbing. Such psychic numbing whittles away at one's humanity.

In the memoir 12 Years a Slave (which I highly recommend), Solomon Northrup reflected on how the cruelty of slavery fostered casual violence not only toward slaves but also among white slaveholders. These men thought nothing of stabbing or shooting each other at the slightest provocation, the Southern "culture of honor" that remains with us today:
"Daily witnesses of human suffering -- listening to the agonizing screeches of the slave -- beholding him writhing beneath the merciless lash … it cannot otherwise be expected, than that they should become brutified and reckless of human life."
I've seen that phenomenon first-hand in institutions. Brutality breeds brutality, along with an indifference to brutality among institutionalized professionals that is equally troubling.


Perhaps the first step in addressing the problem is for professionals to openly discuss the risk of professional burnout, vicarious traumatization, and psychic numbing. It’s very useful to have support and consultation groups where one can let one's guard down and be more vulnerable, debriefing after horrific case work with trusted colleagues.

Mindful meditation is so en vogue these days that I hesitate to join the bandwagon, but I do think it too can help reduce stress and emotional meltdowns.

Balance is also essential. Rest, relaxation, hobbies, exercise. It's not coincidental that Bradford broke down while working around-the-clock on a high-profile case. 

I'd be interested in others' thoughts on the emotional hazards of our work, and strategies or techniques for staying healthy.

Hat tip: Jeff Singer

Related resources:
  • Brovko and Foote (2011), Vicarious Traumatization: Are forensic psychologists vulnerable to trauma exposure? (Presentation) 
  • Culver, McKinney and Paradise (2011), Mental health professionals’ experiences of vicarious traumatization in Post-hurricane Katrina New Orleans, Journal of Loss and Trauma 16, 33-42 
  • Harrison and Westwood (2009), Preventing vicarious traumatization of mental health therapists: Identifying protective practices, Psychotherapy Theory, Research, Practice, Training 46 (2), 203-219 
  • Hatcher (2010), Working with sex offenders: The impact on Australian treatment providers, Psychology Crime and Law 16 (1-2) 
  • Robertson, Davies and Nettleingham (2009), Vicarious traumatisation as a consequence of jury service, The Howard Journal 48 (1) 
  • Tabor (2011), Vicarious traumatization: Concept analysis, Journal of Forensic Nursing 7, 203-208 
  • Taylor and Furlonger, A Review of Vicarious Traumatisation and Supervision Among Australian Telephone and Online Counsellors, Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling 21 (2), 225-235

December 4, 2013

School violence and criminology: Free article access

This month only, Routledge (publisher of multiple academic journals) is offering free access to a series of articles on school violence relevant to forensic psychology. Click on any of the articles below to access the content:
The above is just a sampling. For a complete list of the articles, in the form of an interactive online PDF, click HERE.

Justice Quarterly virtual special issues

Wait, there's more!

In honor of its 30th anniversary, Justice Quarterly has put together a set of four virtual special issues, featuring highly cited scholarship from the archives:
With all of this free content, hopefully there is something here for everyone.