'I always adopt a non-judgmental approach’: What it takes to work with youth sex offenders
Youths who commit sexual offences may have difficulties talking about key issues that led them to commit such crimes. CNA speaks to the experts who work with such youths.
SINGAPORE: She turned her office into a safe space for clients, but shame often remains the elephant in the room.
This shame can sometimes prevent her clients from opening up, said Dr Tan Ee Ee, a senior forensic psychologist who sees youths who have committed sexual offences.
Some of these crimes include underage sex and voyeurism, which John (not his real name) has just completed his probation order for.
The 16-year-old was in Primary 5 when he learnt about sex through lessons in school and by watching pornography.
He had “frequent sexual thoughts”, which led him to have sex with his then-girlfriend, who was underaged. He also took upskirt photos of girls in his school with his friends.
In a facilitated email interview with CNA, John shared that it was “very hard to truly accept” that he had offended.
“I felt upset with myself to know that I have let my family down because I committed an offence. A lot of thoughts ran through my mind about how my academics, relationships and reputation will change after I was caught,” he said.
“But the main thing that was going through my mind was trying to accept the fact that this is the consequence for what I did.
“It’s also hard for me to find self-worth as I had let my mistakes define who I am.”
Dr Tan, who is also deputy director of the Clinical and Forensic Psychology Service division within the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), said these youths “do feel quite a lot of shame in what they have done”.
“And that can impede their willingness, their readiness to come into treatment, because what is really required is for them to be able to share about some of the difficulties they’re facing,” she added.
“With all that shame, what it means is they try to distance themselves from talking about key issues.”
As a result, when these youths come into treatment, many tell Dr Tan that they are “okay already”, because they have been on probation and learnt their lesson.
Some also hold a “simplistic view” that their offence was caused by “one factor”, such as watching pornography, and that they will not offend again as long as they stop watching.
CURIOSITY TO TACKLE SHAME
But skirting around the key issues in treatment is not going to help, noted Dr Tan, who helps these youths understand that their offence may be due to “a combination of different factors”.
She is interested in understanding what drives and contributes to offending behaviours, and whether society can do something about it.
“I usually come from a perspective of curiosity ... I always adopt a non-judgmental approach. It’s the person that I'm working with; it's the behaviour that I'm trying to address. The behaviour doesn't equate to the person as a whole,” she said.
“They may have committed an offence and I don't condone the behaviour. But I think it's important that they are given a second chance. They have the capacity for change; there are strengths that we try to look into, to enhance, to ride on.”
Ultimately, Dr Tan believes “it doesn't help if you just lock the person away without rehabilitation”, as rehabilitation “contributes to maintaining and ensuring public safety”.
“It takes time to work on the relationship, to build the trust. I never take it for granted. The trust that the clients accord to me when they're willing to share ... that's really very humbling,” she said.
Dealing with such shame is a similar challenge that others face when working with youth sex offenders, and breaking down their defences is no mean feat.
“Sexual offending touches on very intrusive information. So sometimes, probationers may hesitate to share their challenges or anxieties,” said the assistant manager in MSF’s Probation and Community Rehabilitation Service division Paul Fernandez.
“We will balance the guidance and support, with the need to hold them accountable for their actions.
“At the beginning, they may feel that they may be judged or remain apprehensive to share. But over time, as we normalise (talking about) some of these behaviours … and we get them to share their interests and other aspects not related to the offending behaviour, we realise they start to open up.”
If left untackled, this shame may stand in the way of the youth’s reintegration into society, added Mr Paul Yong, a psychologist with the Singapore Prison Service.
“The social stigma they experience, the shame not only coming from others but sometimes internalised by themselves because of the offence they committed ... They may face difficulty trying to find stable employment - they can find something short-term but long-term is quite difficult - or even finding social support from others.”
MULTIFACETED ASSESSMENTS, CUSTOMISED APPROACH
Sexual offending is a “multifaceted problem” and there is “no single pathway” to sexual offending behaviour, hence there must also be a “multifaceted assessment approach”, said Dr Tan.
Her work in forensic psychology typically sees youth sex offenders at two main stages: The pre-sentencing stage to assess their suitability for probation; and the post-sentencing stage where she provides a range of psychological services as part of the rehabilitation process for youths on probation.
It involves conducting court-ordered assessments to assess whether mental health issues may impact the offending behaviour.
“That part is really the crucial bit in the forensic work that we do. It’s not just about a diagnosis of mental health issues, but how that relates to the offending behaviour and what that means in terms of the treatment considerations,” said Dr Tan.
These assessments aim to address various questions such as the underlying psychological factors that contributed to the offending behaviour, as well as risk factors that predispose these youths to such offences and trigger the behaviour.
“Basically, the psychological assessment understands them holistically, as a whole person, what drives their behaviour,” added Dr Tan.
“Then we can put together the development pathway of the offending behaviour. That will give an indication of what the treatment targets are, then we can come up with a customised approach for each offender.”
The assessments also help psychologists make recommendations for the duration and intensity of the intervention.
To ensure a holistic understanding of the individual, Dr Tan said the assessment will comprise information attained through “multiple means”.
“Multiple sources of information means I will see the individual himself, and interview the significant people in his family, including caregivers and parents. Sometimes (I will also speak to) teachers or any significant others who are likely to have an impact on their lives,” she explained.
“And multiple means (imply) doing face-to-face interviews, clinical observations during the interview itself.
“I will also look into historical records where relevant, like school reports. We also make use of well-validated and well-established psychological tools to complement the information that we obtain from the interviews.”
Dr Tan acknowledged that some people may have reservations about sharing information on the offender, especially if they are a loved one, and she does not fault them for that.
But she stressed that there is “nothing scary or threatening” about these assessments. For example, questions asked about school reports would only be for clarification purposes.
She also ensures that she does not jump into talking about the offence itself.
“That really makes people wary. Because it’s a holistic kind of assessment, we have to cover different areas. We have to ease the individual into the interview,” she said.
“When we come from the approach where we are here to support, here to help, and tell them this is the point where we can discuss some difficulties they have so we can put in place the right support they need, people usually understand that.”
However, even though understanding psychological underpinnings are important, a mental health condition is “just one possible risk factor”, Dr Tan noted.
“It doesn’t mean that if you have a mental health condition, you will offend. There are relevant mental health conditions such as paraphilic disorders, mood and anxiety disorders, that might contribute to the offending behaviour. But it wouldn’t be the sole factor.”
Following a customised assessment, interventions are tailored to the youth offenders.
“Upon their admission (into the reformative training centre), we will conduct risk assessments to understand some issues that we can provide intervention for,” said Ms Angeline Tay, a correctional rehabilitation specialist at the Singapore Prison Service who works with youth offenders.
“We also work with the officers in case discussions for better rehabilitation and behavioural management of the reformative trainees.
“On top of that, we also deliver psychology-based correctional programmes. Individual counselling sessions will also be provided to address their risks and needs.”
Intervention for sexual offending behaviours is targeted to individual trainees on a “one-to-one basis”, added Ms Tay.
“We take into consideration where they are in terms of developmental stage, their strengths. It also depends on where or how they’re living their life, or what relationships they’re in at that point in time,” said prison psychologist Mr Yong.
Part of the intervention aims to help youths develop healthy emotional and sexual self-regulation skills, as some come with “quite distorted thinking or certain behaviours that have gone on for a couple of years in their lives”, he added.
“Second, we want to raise awareness … about how they should conduct themselves, what kind of sexual behaviours are considered illegal, but also to form healthy, intimate relationships with others,” he said.
“And thirdly, to help them develop prosocial beliefs and views to replace those that support sexual offending behaviours.”
Finally, the intervention also looks at individualised risk management and reintegration plans for the youths’ release from the reformative training centre.
NOT ALL FAMILIES READY FOR CHANGE
Beyond working with the youth offender, individuals involved in the rehabilitation process also tap on families and various community partners, such as schools and employers.
But while families play a vital role in supporting the offender on probation, they may sometimes “take a simplistic approach” by saying it is just “a growing up phase” for the offender, noted Dr Tan.
There may also be certain significant issues in the family causing stress for the youth on probation.
“We need to help the family to identify some of these things and recognise that there are these issues that may be a barrier to strengthening communication,” she said.
As a probation officer, Mr Fernandez works closely with families to “change their parenting skills and empower them to manage their child effectively”.
But not all families are ready for change, he pointed out.
“Sometimes within a family’s history of conflict, they can be aggressive or defensive. And they may be unwilling to participate in the sessions,” he added.
“For probationers, sometimes the partners that work with them in different capacities may disagree on what is best for them.”
To manage this, officers like Mr Fernandez regularly work with families and partners to address each other’s concerns, while giving them the time and space to adjust, so everyone is eventually “aligned towards the shared goal of successful rehabilitation”.
It helps to have a conversation with the family to understand what the specific risk factors are, and share how parents can play an important role to support the offender’s rehabilitation, added Dr Tan.
“We don’t see the individual 24/7. The ones outside the treatment session are the family members who help to support.
“The understanding of what goes on in treatment has to be shared, so that if there are certain skills that they need to practise, to reinforce, then parents and significant people in the family can help to do that.”
SETBACKS, SUCCESSES AND SECOND CHANCES
While getting through probation is no walk in the park, some of the main challenges set in when youths return to their family.
“While they are in the reformative training centre, we observe positive changes. But the moment he returns to his family, it could be (due to) peer influence or how he’s responding to his natural environment, we start to see this young person breaching some of the supervision conditions,” said correctional rehabilitation specialist Ms Tay.
“And at that moment, that's where to me, sometimes it's also disappointing. But it also reinforces our intervention … that we need to continue to provide for him.”
Moreover, youths with “more complex social issues, psychological issues and comorbidities” may face greater challenges, said Mr Yong.
“Sometimes they’re presenting a number of issues … developmental disorders, intellectual disabilities as well ... These cases I find to be more challenging because they require more intensive watch over them as well as interventions.”
Besides external support from family and community partners, internal factors also play a part in change, he added.
“We always believe that, at least from a psychological perspective, their personal motivation and commitment to change are key factors to turn over a new leaf,” he said.
“It also depends on whether they’re responsive towards rehabilitation, intervention programmes, as well as their own commitment after that to continue to lead an offence-free life.”
Mr Yong considers it a success when these youths can “rewrite their own story”, by achieving their personal goals or finding meaning in their lives.
Success also entails celebrating the small wins.
“I used to have a reformative trainee who really struggled with (dealing with) his supervisor. Every day, he would give me a call and tell me, ‘Today I didn’t quarrel with my supervisor. That’s a day of success’,” explained Ms Tay.
“When he tells himself that he’s successful today – maybe it’s not really about looking at what defines success – but at that moment, if he’s able to acknowledge that it is (a success), then it is going to be helpful for his life.”
As for 16-year-old John, what keeps him going is his faith in himself.
“Being on probation helped me figure out my strengths and weaknesses for me to work on. Doing community service helps me build my empathy for others as I get to understand other people's perspectives,” he said.
“This made me more conscious of my actions (in the future) as I don’t want to cause any form of hurt to anyone by offending or in any other way.”
After years of working with youth sex offenders, all the experts who CNA spoke to maintain that they believe in second chances.
“I always believe in second chances. But sometimes we see guys come in three, four times. Where does the number lie? I’ve heard an inmate telling me, 'This will be my last chance at a second chance',” said Mr Yong.
“Some of the acts that they have committed can be quite severe. It’s hard to say whether they deserve these chances, but sometimes they do need these chances to find support (in society) and within themselves as well.”
Having had his identity as a probation officer and as a person shaped by his experiences, there is a quote Mr Fernandez often shares with people: “Be willing to give people a second chance. You will be surprised how well people respond to another opportunity to succeed.”
And if people ask why he believes in second chances for such offenders, he usually gives a two-word response.