This is part three of my interview with Terry Peterson, MSW, about her work with sexual offenders.
EA: Tell us about what treatment looks like for outpatient sex offenders.
TP: I’m glad you clarified outpatient offenders because inpatient treatment is different, more intensive. Outpatient offenders are generally seen for group therapy once a week. Groups consist of about eight members, all convicted of some type of sexual offense. More and more, the convictions have to do with possession of child pornography. The offenders are commonly seen for a two to three-year period. Additionally, some are seen for individual sessions as well. All are required to undergo a polygraph examination approximately every six months to ensure that they are abiding by their probation orders. They are each followed by a probation officer. Some are involved in substance abuse treatment as well.
EA: Sounds like there could be a lot of collateral work for you.
TP: You think? Absolutely there is. A lot of phone conversations and a lot of paperwork. And meetings. Meetings with probation, with polygraphists, the people who operate the internet filter that keeps offenders from being able to access pornography. Meetings with other family members, church elders, physicians, victim therapists. Some weeks there are more collateral contacts about the client than there are actual appointments with the client.
EA: Is all that extra work necessary?
TP: I think so. It forms a community to help keep people safe. Like it or not, these offenders are members of the community and most of the time I think we have an obligation not just to potential victims but to these offenders as well. After all, it was our culture that these guys grew up in. There must have been something about it that triggered abusive behavior. For example, I don’t think our society does its best job in teaching men how to manage emotions. Conversely, I’m not sure we’re at our best when we raise daughters to devalue themselves and thus leave themselves open for exploitation. It’s more complicated than that, but it’s the basic picture. We all live and grow together. Sometimes we screw up and sometimes we don’t understand why. That’s what treatment should do. Teach us how that happened and how to fix it.
EA: When you’re retired, will you miss anything about this kind of work?
TP: Well, I can tell you what I won’t miss. I won’t miss speeding through town and running up and down the halls of the courthouse hoping I’ll make it to a hearing on time. I won’t miss written quarterly client reviews. I won’t miss watching men board the bus for prison when there was no rational reason for it to end that way. I won’t miss people telling me I’m wasting my time treating sex offenders. But, I will miss feeling that I’m contributing to the larger societal picture in a positive way and how this satisfies my obligation as a citizen. I will miss seeing the light go on over an offender’s head when he finally gets it. For that matter, I will miss seeing the light go on over one of those collateral contact’s head when he or she finally gets that in order to solve the riddle of sexual abuse, we must work together and acknowledge the victim’s pain as well as the offender’s. Sometimes it’s an unusual Folie a deux we’re working with and that can be extremely challenging and rewarding.
EA: Folie a deux?
TP: It’s generally seen as a shared psychosis, but I like to think of it as a shared dysfunction in a family. Like an expectation that abuse will happen. There is so much of that in our society. Families with big hopes but with an underlying submission to the idea that things are going to turn out the same. I’ve seen generations of victims and offenders in my work. It’s sad, especially with so much help available out there.
EA: But I thought less than fifty percent of perpetrators who had been molested as children. What do you mean when you talk about generational abuse?
TP: I can see where that might be confusing. What I mean is, well, sexual abuse that happens in families most likely has little to do with sex. It’s the fulfillment of a strong emotional need. And that need must indeed be very strong for it to overcome the perpetrator’s knowledge of right and wrong and to break the taboo against it. If you combine that emotional need with the belief that something sexual can satisfy it (even though it doesn’t), then it’s a set-up for sexual abuse. If a child gives you the attention you crave…
EA: You do realize that there’s probably a lot of you in my character, Dr. Carmen Carillo?
TP: Oh, I see we’re back to you again. I’ve read SCABLANDS and THE YELLOW and I have to say I don’t see it. I’m not quite as spontaneous as Carmen. I do some heavy thinking before I make decisions. I think we share an understanding of how men operate, but the comparison ends there. Besides, isn’t she like thirty years younger than me?
EA: Well, she’s partially you then. Anyway, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. Is there anything else you’d like to say about anything at all?
TP: Yes. Please don’t ask me to do this again. And, thanks you for the kind words. You have been a big supporter of women in this business. Years ago, it felt like we were the token females in a group so men would have someone to play off of, now it feels like we’re the real shrinks. The men still play off us, but we have more respect. But, all that means is I’m old and need to retire.
EA: Well, congratulations and good luck in your retirement. I have a feeling we haven’t seen the last of you.