Sexual abuse and violence happen in every community. Here in B.C., it is estimated that at least one in three women will be sexually victimized at some point in her life. In addition, most sexual victimization goes unreported, meaning that official statistics are likely to grossly underestimate the true scale of the problem.
Research shows that appropriate treatment (i.e., targeted cognitive-behavioural therapy) can significantly reduce reoffending among men who have committed a sexual offence. At Forensic Psychiatric Services, the Forensic Sexual Offence Program provides such treatment to men who have been convicted of a sexually motivated offence in B.C., with the aim of reducing the rates of sexual victimization in the community.
“The evidence shows that specialized treatment works,” says Dr. Matthew Burnett, a forensic psychologist and clinical lead of the Forensic Sexual Offence Program. “One way for us to protect our communities from these kinds of offences is by treating those who have committed them and who may be at risk of doing so in the future. As part of this program, we help individuals understand why they have committed sexually motivated offences, we assist them to better manage a range of problematic sexual behaviours or disorders, and we support them in developing their own risk management plan, all with the aim of preventing future offences.”
The Forensic Sexual Offence Program is a province-wide, evidence-based service, intended to serve communities and clients across British Columbia using the most up-to-date research and best practices. The program recently expanded its capacity to provide virtual care, one of the outcomes of a comprehensive review, where both internal and external experts were invited to identify opportunities for quality improvement and change.
"Through the use of virtual health technology, we can essentially remove the geographical barriers to the delivery of the program, offering more treatment to more clients, thereby helping to keep more communities safe."
“Improving our reach through virtual care was a key recommendation that came from the review,” says Dr. Martin Zakrzewski, the director of psychology at BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services. “Sexual victimization affects all communities across the province. However, it is simply not feasible to provide in-person care in every community, particularly in remote areas of B.C. Through the use of virtual health technology, we can essentially remove the geographical barriers to the delivery of the program. In doing so, we are able to effectively offer more treatment to more clients, thereby helping to keep more communities safe.”
Adding virtual capacity wasn’t as simple as sending Zoom meeting invites to participants. Some program participants are legally prohibited from accessing the internet (i.e. those convicted of child pornography-related offences). Others may not know how to use computers. With support from BC Corrections, the program has been able to provide access to participants to receive treatment in the community.
One priority of the recent review was for all programming to be based on the most current evidence, including a focus on trauma-informed care. Many offenders, whether sexual or otherwise, have experienced trauma and bringing an understanding of the mental health impact of these traumatic experiences into treatment, is a priority.
“An individual’s history of trauma can be relevant to their own offending behaviour,” says Dr. Burnett. “In certain cases, it can help illuminate why they may present with offending behaviours. That’s why adopting a trauma-informed approach to treatment is critical to creating an effective working relationship with clients and to creating a space where people can change and recover.”
The three most common types of offences among program participants are sexual assault, sexual interference–the direct or indirect sexual contact with someone under 16–and child pornography-related offences.
“Sex offender treatment is among the most complex, nuanced and delicate interventions in forensic psychology,” says Nancy Desrosiers, the provincial executive director for Correctional Health Services and the Forensic Regional Community Clinics. “The specific types of offences committed by program participants are varied and the clients themselves are complex. We’re extremely fortunate to have a team of expert and highly trained psychologists providing specialized and effective care. We also have a group of forensic psychiatrists which can provide psychiatric consultation, as needed.”
“An individual’s history of trauma can be relevant to their own offending behaviour. In certain cases, it can help illuminate why they may present with offending behaviours."
The program is centred on group psychotherapy sessions, with each group having between 8 and 12 participants. Treatment is focused on identifying and addressing a number of “risk factors,” which include problematic behavioural patterns, personal issues, and life circumstances. These factors are likely to contribute to sexual reoffending, and may include sexual impulsivity (i.e. a limited ability to control one’s sexual urges), distorted thinking about sex and sexuality (e.g., misogynistic attitudes, poor understanding of consent, etc.), or deviant sexual interest and arousal (e.g., a sexual attraction to minors, violent sexual fantasies, etc.).
“Risk factors, of course, are not excuses for offending,” says Dr. Burnett. “Identifying the reasons, causes, and contributing factors that underlie a person’s criminal behaviour, however, is essential to effective treatment. We must target the specific factors that contribute to an individual’s offending.”
Clients typically participate in group treatment for several months. Program data illustrates its effectiveness.
“As an evidence-based program, we routinely monitor the outcomes. Our data indicates that those individuals who complete the program, compared to those who do not, show a significant reduction in their assessed risk to reoffend sexually,” says Dr. Burnett. “Ultimately, this is all about keeping our communities safe and the best way to do that is to treat people who need help.”
If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual violence and need more information or support, visit VictimLinkBC or call VictimLinkBC on 1-800-563-0808. This helpline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.