Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Helping Society's Outcasts: The Impact of Counseling Sex Offenders

Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Helping Society's Outcasts: The Impact of Counseling Sex Offenders

Article excerpt

The purpose of this qualitative study, which uses a constructivist approach, was to explore the impacts on mental health counselors of counseling convicted sex offenders. Five participants were interviewed using a semistructured format. The data were analyzed using a phenomenological method by breaking down the interviews into themes, comparing the participants 'experiences, and determining the essence of those experiences. Themes identified were feelings of increased competence, closeness, and support from coworkers and supervisors; belief in a mission or responsibility for safety; disconnect from general society; intrusive thoughts of traumatic material," and increased suspicion of others. The findings suggest that mental health workers experience both positive and negative impacts from counseling convicted sex offenders. The research and practice implications for counselors are discussed


It just feels very icky some days and very demeaning and it lacks a lot of rewards. You really have to switch your thinking to think of the reward to the community versus the reward to the client. People don't really understand how it affects a therapist emotionally because we put on a good face.--Chloe.

Forensic mental health workers are employed in a variety of settings related to the criminal justice system: treating substance abuse, investigating parental rights and responsibilities, evaluating testamentary capacity, or providing treatment and support to victims of violent crimes, to name a few. They pursue these specializations for a variety of personal and professional reasons, and for many specializations the lay public can understand their calling. There has been considerable research on the impact on professionals from working with trauma victims (e.g., Baird & Jenkins, 2003; Baird & Kracen, 2006; Hunter & Schoflied, 2006; Jenkins & Baird, 2002; Sabin-Farrell & Turpin, 2003; Salston & Figley, 2003; Schauben & Frazier, 1995; Sommer, 2008; Sommer & Cox, 2005). McCann and Pearlmann (1990) have labeled this vicarious trauma, which they define as the result of being exposed to traumatic material indirectly through client experiences shared with counselors, which can change counselors' beliefs and expectations of themselves and others. However, there has been little research on the effects of vicarious trauma on counselors who work with sex offenders (Ennis & Home, 2003; Moulden & Firestone, 2007).

It may not be as easy for the lay public to understand why or how mental health counselors would choose to work with sex offenders, such as pedophiles and rapists. However, as with other specializations, sex offense counselors enter the field for a variety of reasons, which it might be helpful to understand. However, there is a deficit of empirical studies to help guide sex offense counselors in their work, to better understand the profession, and to explore how their work affects them (Moulden & Firestone, 2007). What little research there is describes only negative impacts from providing sex offense counseling (e.g., Farrenkopf, 1992; Way, VanDuesen, Martin, Applegate, & Jandle, 2004); we were able to identify only one study in which sex offense counselors described positive effects (Scheela, 2001).

The justification for exploring both positive and negative impacts is important; counselors are often the first line of defense between a sex offender at risk of reoffending and potential victims (Hanson & Bussirre, 1998). Moulden and Firestone (2007) noted that the "threat of reoffense may contribute to therapists feeling responsible for the client [perpetrator], as well as the safety of potential victims, the community, and society as a whole" (p. 76). Although this has not been studied, counselors experiencing severe vicarious trauma may miss signs pointing to potential for reoffending; combined with burnout from job-specific activities, they may leave the field altogether. …

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