News

O'Farrell must not let outrage at the crime rob victims of support



4 September 2012

Because of the widely shared horror at sex crimes against children, many people see the incarceration of incest perpetrators as the appropriate social response.

In some cases, this reaction is justified but in many others it ignores the unresolved needs of child victims and the non-offending members of the child's family, to say nothing of the future victims of perpetrators when they are released from jail.

These concerns should be society's first priority. For more than 20 years they have been the main concerns of a remarkable but currently endangered treatment program in NSW called Cedar Cottage, whose initiation more than 20 years ago was supported by both sides of politics.

As a former head of Corrective Services, I had the privilege of being commissioned in 1991 to study the processes employed by Cedar Cottage firsthand.

In this program, first-time incest offenders whose crimes did not involve violence beyond the sexual assault are further assessed in terms of whether or not they accept responsibility for their behaviour and show awareness of the impact of their behaviour on the victim and the victim's family. A prime consideration is whether the applicant's participation in the program is in the best interests of the child. Restoration of the offender to the family is not an aim.

The child victims I met felt supported by Cedar Cottage's individual and group discussions, which made explicit the fact they bore no responsibility for what had happened. They appreciated the opportunity to reflect on their experience with other similarly affected young people.

The perpetrators' partners gained in similar ways from participation and were assisted to rebuild their relationship with their child, where it had been damaged by the incest.

Lest it be thought that the program lets offenders off lightly, it needs to be said that some of the men complained of the rigour of the unceasing self-examination they were obliged to undergo for two to three years and being endlessly confronted by the reality of their self-centred behaviour.

They acknowledged their offences to significant family members and friends. They were obliged to live apart from their family home and their movements were monitored to ensure that they were not in contact with their victim. In some cases, they expressed the wish to take the alternative option of a straight-out sentence even if it meant going to jail.

Is all this painful scrutiny worth the candle? Aside from the support extended to the families of incest offenders admitted to the Cedar Cottage program, the sobering fact is international research reveals treatment of serious offenders, be it more or less punitive, does not generally reduce their rate of reoffending.

But thanks to a recent and carefully conducted quantitative appraisal of more than 200 offenders treated between 1989 and 2007, it is apparent the Cedar Cottage program is the exception to the rule. The evaluation, led by Professor Jane Goodman-Delahunty of Charles Sturt University, with police assistance, traced the subsequent offending of Cedar Cottage participants and a comparison group.

Some adjustments were made to the initial design of the program with marked improvements in the period 2003-07. Offenders who did not enter the program had a reoffending rate for sexual offences of about 12 percent; those who participated in the program - even if they did not complete treatment - had a sexual reoffending rate of less than 5 per cent. This was declared by the researchers to be a success by any measure. A marked decline in recidivism for non-sexual offences was also observed.

It is a major setback for evidence-guided social policy in our state that the state government had decided to to abandon the Cedar Cottage program without careful consideration of the research evidence.

In our rush to express abhorrence of sex crimes against children, we need to consider whether by abandoning the program we would harm the interests of those we wish to see assisted - the child victims and their families.


Tony Vinson is an honorary professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney and a former chairman of the NSW Corrective Services Commission. This week is National Child Protection Week.


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