Chris Lobanov-Rostovsky, program manager of the Colorado Sex Offender Management Board, is a licensed social worker with more than 20 years of experience providing treatment and evaluation services to sex offenders. The Board sets standards for sex offender treatment and certifies sex offender service providers within Colorado. Chris finds himself called upon to share expertise with the Governor’s office, the State Legislature, the media, and members of the public—including the reentry community. Chris embraces the community’s role in sex offender rehabilitation, but he wants to make sure that well-intentioned volunteers and community organizations have all the facts first.
The Stats Don’t Lie: Sex Offenders Can Change
Because sexual offenses have such devastating consequences for victims, a lifelong stigma attaches to the men and women who perpetrate these crimes.
“The public, the media, and policymakers tend to believe things, like: All sex offenders can’t be helped; or Treatment doesn’t work,” Chris says.
When Chris runs into such black-and-white preconceptions, he tries to point to the gray areas. First off, he notes, sex offender registries run the gamut of offenders, from peeping Toms to more dangerous pedophilic rapists. Not all pose the same danger to the community. Secondly, with appropriate supervision and treatment, sex offenders actually stand an excellent chance of successful reentry.
In 2003, a Colorado study found that sex offenders who received treatment and supervision had a recidivism rate of just 6 percent. (Those who received no treatment or supervision had a 34-percent recidivism rate.)
“Some [sex offenders] don’t want to be helped,” Chris says, “but we can make a difference for some with the treatment plan.”
Learn to Manage Risk Factors
“We need to work with offenders in the community,” says Chris, but he also cautions, “anyone who considers doing that needs to collaborate with professionals so that the reentry plan takes into account community safety and offender accountability.”
In addition to collaborating with the sex offender’s parole officer and treatment professionals, volunteers or community organizations must learn to identify and manage the offender’s risk factors. Identifying risk factors starts with frank communication. Volunteers and sex offenders must openly discuss triggers that might put the offender at risk for a new crime. Some might have to avoid unsupervised contact with children. Others might need accountability for websites they visit. Direct, specific dialogue on these issues, though possibly uncomfortable, will ultimately help sex offenders succeed.
Balance Support and Accountability
Compassion, caring, and support ought to characterize volunteers’ stance toward sex offenders. But, says Chris, “there also needs to be limits, accountability, and rules.” An approach that balances support and accountability helps keep volunteers from being taken advantage of, and it helps to protect the community at large. It even protects sex offenders from situations they are not ready to face.
“Don’t be naïve,” warns Chris. “There is a temptation to say, I believe in you, Joe, so you can babysit my daughter. Don’t put the offender in a situation that maybe he can’t handle. You don’t want to set him up for failure.”
Know the Law and Your Liability
In Colorado, the Sex Offender Management Board sets standards of accreditation for sex offender treatment providers. Other states have their own standards and governing bodies. If your organization plans to serve sex offenders, make sure to familiarize yourself with state-level requirements. If your organization is found to not meet necessary standards, you could lose funding, or the permission necessary to serve sex offenders at all. If a sex offender under your care re-offends and you are found negligent, you can also lose professional licensure and may be subject to a lawsuit.
Helping Sex Offenders Is Worth It
“We can make a positive difference in terms of a sex offender being successful and not re-offending,” says Chris. When sex offenders have an environment of care and accountability that combines community support with professional, therapeutic treatment, they have an excellent chance of success.
That doesn’t mean their road will be an easy one.
“There are a lot of trials and tribulations in finding a job, making friends, and finding a place to live. Be supportive of the person,” counsels Chris, “but don’t let it turn into a pity party. Let them know that this is something they have to overcome, but they can do it.”