Treating sexual offenders who categorically deny their offending

Jimmie Fourie
Senior Psychologist, Wellington Psychological Services, Department of Corrections

Author biography:

Jimmie has been working as a psychologist for the Department of Corrections since 2012. Prior to Corrections he held a role as a senior psychologist at a community-based sex offender treatment programme, as well as a role in a drug and alcohol counselling service for youth in the criminal justice system.

Current treatment options

The Department of Corrections offers specialist psychological treatment for offenders who sexually offend against children or adults. The treatment of choice for both these sex offender types is attendance at a Special Treatment Unit programme if they have sufficient time in their sentence. However, individual treatment may be undertaken in an attempt to motivate offenders to attend a Special Treatment Unit, in some cases to help them admit their offending or in exceptional circumstances when an offender’s personality style is seen as a responsivity barrier to group treatment.

The department currently runs two Special Treatment Units (Kia Marama at Rolleston Prison in Christchurch and Te Piriti at Auckland Prison) for men who have sexually offended against children. Two treatment programmes are provided. An intensive 10 month programme for those men who are identified as being at a higher risk of re-offending sexually, and a short intervention programme (SIP) of three months duration for those who are of lower risk of re-offending. The intensive programme consists of three parts: a starters’ group, the core treatment component and a maintenance component. Offenders often subsequently attend monthly relapse prevention groups in the community towards the end of their sentence.

Adult sex offender programmes are run at three of the Special Treatment Units for violent offenders. Each unit runs one Adult Sex Offender Treatment Programme (ASOTP) a year which is of similar duration and intensity as the Kia Marama and Te Piriti programmes.

Men who attend these group-based treatment programmes need to have acknowledged to some extent that they have offended and would benefit from assistance to prevent re-offending. One of the inclusion criteria for entry into these treatment programmes is an acceptance of guilt and taking responsibility for all or some of their sexual offending behaviour.

However, despite considerable efforts on the part of departmental staff, some men remain adamant that they have not offended and continue to deny their offending and refuse treatment.

Deniers’ group criteria

For the purposes of the proposed deniers’ programme, denial is defined as a person who categorically denies having committed a sexual offence. This includes a person who claims to be falsely accused and/or claims that they were not present when the crimes were committed. Currently we attempt to motivate offenders, on an individual basis, to acknowledge their offending and partake in treatment offered at a Special Treatment Unit programme. At times these attempts are repeated on a number of occasions over a number of years for offenders serving long sentences of imprisonment. Although successful in some cases, the disadvantage of this approach is that a number of sex offenders have remained untreated. Repeated attempts trying to encourage someone into admitting their offending could also be counter-productive and further entrench their denial. It is suggested that therapeutic efforts should be focused on increasing motivation to engage in treatment and better their lives.

Ware, Marshall and Marshall (2015) reviewed studies looking at the prevalence of denial by incarcerated sex offenders. They cited studies (Barbaree, 1991; Marshall, 1994; Hood, Shute, Feilzer & Wilcox, 2002; Thornton & Knight, 2007; Gibbons, de Volder & Casey, 2003) that reported denial in 21 – 35% of all convicted sex offenders. However, the confusing use of the term “denial” in the literature makes it difficult to ascertain how many are considered categorical deniers (i.e., the offender claims to be entirely innocent as opposed to the offender that denies some of the offending, denies sexual motivation, or claims the offending was consensual). The matter is further complicated when one considers the temporal timing of such research with respect to where within the criminal justice system an offender is. That is, is it at the time of arrest, pre-trial, pre-or-post treatment? We know the number of offenders that maintain their stance of denial is much higher at pre-trial and sentencing in comparison to when they are incarcerated. Specific research within the New Zealand context is required to clarify the number of categorical deniers.

An accepted definition for “taking responsibility for offending” has been defined by Ware and Mann (2012) as:

“Giving a detailed and precise disclosure of events involved in the sexual offence which avoids any external attribution of cause and which matches the official/victim’s account of the offence.”

Many sex offenders are considered to deny or minimise some aspect of their sexually abusive behaviour (Ware and Mann, 2012). Minimising, externalising blame, omitting some aspects of the offence, admitting only a historical offence, denying a sexual motive, claiming sexual contact was consensual, or memory loss (mostly due to alcohol or drug intoxication or in some instances a medical condition) are considered by some as denial. These forms of denial are seen as a treatment barrier but would not necessarily exclude a person from being accepted into one of the current treatment programmes.

Why do people deny?

At times, most people will fail to take responsibility for something they have done either to conceal some aspect of it or by offering plausible or sometimes implausible excuses (Snyder and Higgins, 1988). Levenson (2011) points out that courts and clinicians recognise that some people, particularly those who engage in criminal behaviour, are unlikely to acknowledge aspects of this behaviour or seek therapy for their problems. The justice system therefore makes use of mental health professionals to assist with the goal of rehabilitation. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR, APA, 2000, p.807, p811) defines denial as a defence mechanism in which “the individual deals with emotional conflict or internal or external stressors by refusing to acknowledge some painful aspect of external reality or subjective experience that would be apparent to others”. The DSM-IV-TR further defines defence mechanisms (or coping style) as: “automatic psychological processes that protect the individual against anxiety and from the awareness of internal or external dangers or stressors”.

Ware et al (2015) identified the reason for denial by sex offenders as somewhat unclear and an important area for future research. They do, however, highlight limited evidence that suggests denial serves a (possibly at times adaptive) function to avoid feelings of shame and the potential consequences of being identified as a sex offender. Also, offenders may wish to maintain relationships with family and friends. Ware et al (2015) further suggest the notion that a sex offender’s denial reflects a desire to continue to offend remains speculative.

Denial and risk of re-offending and treatment

A very important issue to consider is whether denial of their offending increases a person’s likelihood to commit a similar offence in future. It is paramount to remember that categorical denial of an offence comes after the offending/accusations and rarely has a direct relationship with the offender’s actions or cognitions during the planning of the offence or the offending itself. For Corrections, the accurate assessment and effective management/treatment of risk is paramount during the rehabilitation, reintegration and community sentence management phases of an offender’s sentence.

Meta-analyses of sexual recidivism studies by Hanson and Bussière (1998) and Hanson and Morton-Bourgon (2005) are considered by many professionals around the globe in the field of sex offender treatment and risk management as guiding best practice. According to these meta-analyses neither denial nor minimisation were related to actual re-offending. Ware and Mann (2012) report a lack of reliable evidence that denial and minimisation lead to increased recidivism. They highlight some evidence that offenders who deny or minimise may re-offend at lower rates. They propose that given it is likely more difficult to maintain denial when faced with multiple sex offences or following re-offending, a reasonable assumption would be that most categorical deniers are first time offenders and relatively low risk to re-offend. Therefore, it can realistically be assumed that treatment does not need to produce change in an offender’s denial to be considered effective in reducing their risk of re-offending. Ware and Mann (2012) propose that the function of denial be incorporated in future studies of the relationship between categorical denial and recidivism in order to provide greater clarity on the results. The function of denial to reduce shame or maintain self-esteem could be considered as reducing a person’s risk because it might act as a motivator to desist from further offending in order to avoid painful emotions associated with lowered self-worth and being condemned by others.

Within a treatment context, Ware and Mann (2012) suggest we view responsibility-taking using a framework posed by Bovens (1998). This framework distinguishes between passive and active responsibility whereby passive responsibility is seen as being accountable for past actions. Active responsibility is seen as viewing the self as responsible for changing one’s future behaviour for the better. Passive responsibility is commonly addressed in treatment during responsibility-taking or offence disclosure exercises as the offender has to admit what is deemed fact according the victim, judge’s sentencing notes or the Police summary of facts. Active responsibility is future focused and should reflect the primary focus of treatment. Changes have to be actively pursued in the offender’s thinking, attitudes, and behaviours.

New Zealand has kept a watching brief on overseas jurisdictions that have run group-based programmes for sex offenders in denial. Programmes have been run successfully in Canada and Australia. A programme specifically designed for sex offenders that denied their offending was started in 1997 in Canada by Marshall and his colleagues (Marshall, Thornton, Marshall, Fernandez & Mann, 2001). An appraisal of this programme demonstrated re-offending rates to be much lower (2.5%) than expected (13.5%) and approximately the same for treated admitters (Marshall, Marshall & Ware, 2009). This is a promising result for such programmes. However, more research
is needed in this field, especially with larger numbers  of offenders in the samples.

What is happening in New Zealand?

After reviewing the literature available in this area it was decided to investigate the viability of running a group-based programme for sex offenders in denial in New Zealand. The chief psychologist’s team undertook to trial a treatment programme for men who were in denial of their sexual offending. As part of our preparation, discussions were held with Jayson Ware who has run a deniers’ programme in New South Wales. Jayson Ware visited New Zealand in September 2016. He presented a half day workshop at the Psychologists National Training Event on working with offenders in denial of their sexual offending. He also worked with the author to assist in the development of a programme for New Zealand.

Offenders in denial are initially provided with motivational work to ensure that those who are willing to acknowledge their offending do so and make use of the opportunity to engage in treatment. It is considered that in the early stages of the programme external motivation such as the potential for a favourable New Zealand Parole Board hearing outcome would be an early incentive for engaging in the programme. Throughout the programme the hope is that with the future focus of active responsibility the offenders will become intrinsically motivated to maintain and complete treatment.

An estimate of the number of prisoners nationally who are in denial but motivated and willing to attend a treatment programme was not available. It was therefore proposed to assess offenders and trial the programme in Rimutaka Prison in Upper Hutt.

The programme currently in preparation is based on a modified version of the intensive group-based programmes run at the Special Treatment Units in New Zealand. It is also based on the work from Jayson Ware from Australia and Dr B Marshall and Dr L Marshall from Canada who are already providing treatment to men who deny their sexual offending.

Prisoners who are in total denial of their offending and have a low-medium security rating are eligible to attend the programme. Prisoners are currently being assessed for the programme. Following acceptance into the programme, the men will be assessed for their dynamic risk factors that contributed to their offending. The dynamic nature of these factors implies that they can be altered through intervention and these factors are targeted in treatment to reduce an offender’s risk. Psychologists at Corrections employ the Violent Risk Scale: Sex Offender Version, not only as a risk measure, but also to identify up to 17 dynamic risk factors that have been shown to be related to risk of re-offending. These dynamic risk factors can be altered through intervention. The theory is that the majority of a denier’s dynamic risk factors could be addressed without them having to accept responsibility for committing the offence. With the denier’s treatment approach, it is suggested that something about the offender’s behaviour, expressed attitudes, thoughts and feelings within certain situations led to the allegation and ultimately a conviction. These are the factors that will be addressed in treatment.

It is anticipated that the group will consist of about five offenders. Once the men have been assessed and their level of risk of re-offending has been established, the content of the programme will be finalised. Their risk level will determine the duration and intensity of the programme. Early indications are that they will meet for three sessions a week (each session will be 2.5 hours) and the programme will be approximately four months duration.

Following completion of the programme both outcome and process evaluations will be undertaken. This will include consideration of other prisons and security environments and changes to the programme. A review of the programme will be summarised in a follow-up article in this journal.


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