Child sexual abusers: Can they be fixed?
There's no consensus on whether offenders who commit sex crimes against children can be rehabilitated.
by Lex Talamo
"Shocked" and "scared."
That's how former cop and preschool teacher Jesse Ward described his reaction to stumbling across a child sexual abuse image for the first time in an online network. But instead of repelling him, the image – depicting graphic and violent sexual acts committed on young victims – sent him looking for more.
“I went back to it for multiple reasons. One was because of the taboo nature of the images themselves,” Ward wrote in a letter to The Times. “There was a ‘rush' of being involved in that world, knowing I shouldn't.”
There's no consensus on whether offenders who commit sex crimes against children can be rehabilitated. Some psychologists and correctional workers point to low rates of re-offending for those who complete treatment programs, while others point to the high rates of re-victimization for those who don't.
“We're talking about images and videos that are so disturbing that I've had to turn them off before I got sick,” said Louisiana State Police Detective Melissa Welch. “And these are individuals who are watching these videos and becoming sexually aroused and masturbating to them. So therein lies your problem with child pornography.”
Susan Tucker, an assistant warden with the Louisiana Department of Corrections who works with the state's sex offender treatment program, said sex offenders can change – or at least restrain – their behavior if given the tools and if they want to change.
“While we've thrown out the idea of curing a sex offender, there is a way to teach them to manage their risk,” Tucker said. “I think it's important for people to know there are some programs that do work.”
Who offends and why?
Research yields conflicting results
Research has yielded conflicting results about who views child pornography, with one clear conclusion – you can't stuff sex offenders into a neat box.
Studies of people convicted of possessing child pornography by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the National Juvenile Online Victimization Study found:
97 percent are male.
91 percent are white.
87 percent had no known prior arrest for a sex offense against a child.
73 percent were employed full-time.
59 percent were married or had been married.
46 percent had direct access to children through their jobs, activities or at home.
42 percent had children.
27 percent made at least $50,000 a year.
A study from the scholarly journal Child Abuse & Neglect painted a darker picture. It described those who commit sex offenses against children as having:
A history of sexual or physical abuse.
Harsh discipline and family dysfunction as a child.
Aggression, violence, antisocial behavior or addiction as an adult.
Problems with adult intimacy and a lack of social skills.
In the past five years, Louisiana offenders convicted on child pornography and sex crimes against children have included repeat sex offenders. They've also included foster parents, deputies, bailiffs, teachers, priests, police officers and mayors, according to a Times review of more than 200 cases.
The reasons this heterogeneous group keeps returning to child sexual abuse images also vary.
According to the NJOV study, some – like Ward – view images for the “thrill” of doing something they know they shouldn't or of entering the dark web, a portion of the public internet that requires special software and authorization to use.
Ward, who is serving time at Louisiana's Oakdale Federal Correctional Institution until 2025, wrote that he experienced a similar “rush” from the images as he did from being a police officer, firefighter and medic.
“I was sickened by a lot of what I saw, yet drawn to other aspects of it,” he wrote to The Times. “That push/pull kept me coming back to try and understand why I was interested in this stuff at all.”
Ward said addiction and ease of access also contributed to his involvement with the dark web.
“The fact that it was so easy to get these images was a hindrance to me getting away from it,” he wrote. “Every time I'd delete all my images out of hate for myself, I could always re-acquire it in a few minutes online.”
People arrested for possessing child pornography cited other reasons for wanting continued access to the images, according to the NJOV study:
Sexual interest in children.
Sex addictions or sexual gratification.
Desire to relive adolescent fantasies.
Desire for power or control.
Clint Davis, a certified sex addiction therapist in Shreveport, said not all sex addicts or adults who view adult pornography will go on to view child sexual abuse images or molest children.
“Everyone who views pornography as an adult, or is a sex addict, does not view children in sexually explicit ways or find them attractive,” Davis said. “There is something cognitively different and broken about someone who views child sexual abuse. We're not wired to view children that way.”
Can they be helped?
A risk-management approach to rehab
The David Wade Correctional Facility in Homer, Louisiana, is a sprawling state penitentiary with imposing gray walls and barbed wire fencing.
Most inmates within the compound serve long sentences – from decades to life. But the staff, programming and institution itself are based at least in part around the hope that inmates will lead productive lives, without re-offending, after their release. Staff said they are committed to helping the inmates, and the prison has elements of a rehabilitative environment such as ornamental gardens, a koi pond and chapel.
The facility's sex offender treatment program is a voluntary program that involves five phases. Tucker, the assistant warden who works with the sex offender treatment program, said it has a 20-year history of success. Only 4.5 percent of sex offenders who complete the minimum year-long program will recidivate, or re-offend, after they return to their communities, Tucker said.
The program takes a risk-management approach to rehabilitation. In the initial phases, inmates are taught to identify “high-risk situations” where they might have an opportunity to victimize additional children, Tucker said.
A major part of the program is building individualized offender “profiles,” with psycho-educational treatment options tailored to offenders' distorted thought patterns, which Tucker termed “cognitive distortions.”
An example of this distorted thinking: An offender who told Tucker that his 6-year-old victim had tried to initiate sex with him.
“That's what we focus on, the thinking," Tucker said. "How did you come to be thinking that it's okay to have sex with a child?”
Warden Jerry Goodwin said another type of cognitive distortion he sees frequently is “minimizing.”
“They'll try to minimize the impact upon the victim. They may tell you their victim was a 14-year-old, a teenager, when in fact it was a 5- or 6-year-old child,” Goodwin said.
Another frequent cognitive distortion is an offender's misinterpretation of a child's physical arousal as consent, said Andres Hernandez, a private-practice psychologist who formerly directed the federal sex offender treatment program in Butner, North Carolina.
“Abuse doesn't cease to be abuse if the teenage boy, for example, has an erection or if the girl appears to have an orgasm when they perform oral sex on her,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez added that offenders often develop this cognitive distortion because they themselves were victims of sexual abuse as children.
“They have grown up believing that if this occurred to me, and I didn't turn out so bad or I actually enjoyed the sex with my abuser, then society must be wrong,” Hernandez said.
Tucker said events from offenders' pasts may make them more likely to re-offend, such as a previous criminal background, a history of violence, a past crime committed against a stranger and inability to maintain intimate adult relationships.
A partnership with probation and parole offices is critical to the program's overall success, Tucker said.
“I would like to see more split sentences where they are on supervision and treatment is mandatory on the street,” she said. “That would be more helpful.”
Risk and re-entry
Sexual predators and 'crimes of opportunity'
Goodwin said most offenders in the David Wade Correctional Facility who committed contact sex crimes against children assaulted their child victim through what he called “crimes of opportunity.”
“The majority of these sexual offenders in prison are not the violent, sexual predator type. They take advantage of certain opportunities,” Goodwin said. “If they're not allowed to babysit their grandchildren anymore, then they are not going to go out and seek a victim. They generally victimize people that come to them.”
Goodwin described these offenders as “the most treatable” of sex offenders. But Hernandez cautioned that even opportunistic offenders can victimize more than one child.
“The story that is not told is that sometimes you have individuals who are serial relational offenders,” Hernandez said. “They move from one relationship to the other and they offend in various relationships.”
Tucker said sex offenders who accessed child sexual abuse images on the internet face exponentially more “opportunities” to re-offend. She called the accessibility of materials on the internet “scary.”
“There are lots of peer-to-peer networks out there that are very violent, full of violence and abuse towards children as well as adults,” she said. “You can look at anything and connect with other people who do the same things.”
Rehabilitation and registration
When offenders go back into their communities
Much like those who commit sex crimes against children, those convicted of internet-related crimes often have conditions of release. Conditions often include no access to a computer or the internet without written permission from probation officers, including computer or internet-access while at work.
Prosecutors and law enforcement officials surveyed by The Times who supported sex offender registration cited public safety. Removing “opportunities” doesn't necessarily remove the desire to re-offend, said Welch, the Louisiana State Police detective.
“Just because you take them away doesn't mean (they) don't want them anymore,” she said. “Just because you take it away doesn't mean you've flipped the switch and that they don't still desire that.”
Critics said registration makes reintegration, including finding stable housing and employment, more difficult for sex offenders. Drew Kingston, a clinical and forensic psychologist at the University of Ottawa in Canada, said specific requirements can counter-productively make offenders more likely to re-offend.
“These include, for example, publicly accessible offender registries and residency restrictions,” Kingston wrote in an email. “Thus far, these approaches have simply increased offenders' risk to harm others because of the challenges it places before them for an overall successful reintegration.”
Solutions to rehabilitating sex offenders nationwide have ranged from the cognitive behavioral therapy and medication used at the Louisiana Department of Corrections to physical and chemical castration.
Castration doesn't work well on offenders who use sex for power or control rather than sexual gratification, Tucker said. In Louisiana, physical castration also is strictly voluntary, and judges often leave the choice of chemical castration up to the offenders.
“We offer it,” Goodwin said, referring to chemical castration. “It's not a popular program.”
What offenders watch
91 percent accessed child sexual abuse materials from home computers.
83 percent of images included pre-pubescent children.
80 percent had images depicting graphic sexual penetration of a child.
51 percent who blackmailed children with images wanted more images.
27 percent had organized collections of child sexual abuse materials.
26 percent who blackmailed children with images wanted to meet the child in person.
20 percent used “sophisticated” technology to cover their tracks.
14 percent had more than 1,000 child sexual abuse materials.
7 percent who blackmailed children with images wanted to money from the child.