Supervision

Overview

Although both the assessment and treatment of sex offenders have been the focus of considerable attention in the professional literature for several decades, it was not until the framework of relapse prevention was applied to sex offender management that the critical functions of supervision officers were elucidated and the need for collaboration between supervision officers and treatment providers became explicit (Pithers, Kashima, Cumming, Beal, & Buell, 1988; Pithers, Martin, & Cumming, 1989). The initial application of relapse prevention to sex offender treatment included only the internal, self–management component, in which offenders were taught to recognize risk factors and develop skills and competencies to cope with these factors. Given that many sex offenders mask their high–risk behaviors in secrecy, the need to develop strategies that were not exclusively dependent on offenders’ willingness to disclose became evident. Subsequently, the external supervisory dimension of relapse prevention was created, with the following goals (NAPN, 1993; Pithers et al., 1988, 1989; Pithers & Cumming, 1989):

Since that time, supervision strategies have become inextricably linked with assessment and treatment to form the cornerstones of the community management of adult and juvenile sex offenders (CSOM, 2000, 2002a; Cumming & McGrath, 2000, 2005; English, Pullen, & Jones, 1996; Green, 1995; Scott, 1997). Moreover, as the field has progressed, it has become increasingly clear that some of the traditional supervision practices used with non–sex offenders may not adequately address the risk factors that are unique to sex offenders. As a result, specialized supervision strategies are essential (CSOM, 1999, 2000, 2002a; Cumming & McGrath, 2000, 2005; English et al., 1996; Scott,1997).

Supervision is one critical component of a broader, comprehensive approach to sex offender management that is based on a victim–centered philosophy, with the overarching goal of enhancing community safety.

Furthermore, supervision is one critical component of a broader, comprehensive approach to sex offender management that is based on a victim–centered philosophy, with the overarching goal of enhancing community safety. Effective supervision requires collaboration among criminal and juvenile justice system actors, treatment providers, victim advocates, and others (including members of community support networks) to ensure that officers’ or case managers’ decisions are informed by a diverse set of perspectives and that multiple parties share ownership in the larger management process.

Although examinations of the impact of specialized supervision strategies and collaborative, multidisciplinary approaches to sex offender management remain untested to a large extent from an empirical perspective, there is compelling evidence from the general criminal justice literature of the efficacy of supervision approaches for both adult and juvenile offenders that balance monitoring activities with treatment and rehabilitative efforts (Aos, Miller, & Drake, 2006; Aos, Phipps, Barnoski, & Lieb, 2001; Cullen & Gendreau, 2000; Gendreau, Goggin, & Fulton, 2000; Gendreau, Little, & Goggin, 1996; Petersilia & Turner, 1993). In addition, the literature suggests that such approaches have applicability to sex offenders as well (Gordon & Packard, 1998; McGrath, Cumming, Livingston, & Hoke, 2003; McGrath, Hoke, & Vojtisek, 1998; Pithers & Cumming, 1989).

Specialization

Specialized Caseloads

In the absence of specialized knowledge about adult and juvenile sex offenders and effective management practices, supervision officers may not be fully equipped to detect concerns and develop timely strategies to address the unique criminogenic needs that are associated with recidivism among these offenders. Indeed, early efforts to supervise sex offenders using traditional approaches resulted in limited impact, in part due to the inability of officers to recognize, understand, and respond to the dynamics and critical risk factors associated with sex offending (Cumming & McGrath, 2005; English, 1998; English et al., 1996; Green, 1995; Pithers & Cumming, 1995; Pithers et al., 1988, 1989).

In jurisdictions throughout the country, therefore, supervision agencies have taken active steps to create specialization among supervision officers to manage adult and juvenile sex offender caseloads more effectively, either by establishing specialized sex offender supervision units within existing agency structures or by designating officers or case managers who are specially trained to manage such cases (CSOM, 1999, 2000; Cumming & McGrath, 2000, 2005; English et al., 1996; English, Jones, & Patrick, 2003; Green, 1995; Scott, 1997). The development of specialized caseloads affords supervision agencies and officers the expertise and dedicated personnel necessary to address the unique needs of adult and juvenile sex offenders, and to formulate differentiated supervision strategies based on assessed levels of risk and identified needs. In addition, officers who are specialized possess increased knowledge of—and familiarity with—key local resources (e.g., sex offender–specific treatment) that provide important services to this offender population.

Selecting officers for specialized sex offender caseloads and establishing caseload limits are critical to the success of sex offender supervision. To promote sustainability, effectiveness, and commitment, the assignment of officers to specialized caseloads ideally should be voluntary, following a thorough exploration of officers’ desires and interests to work with this population (see, e.g., Cumming & McGrath, 2005; English et al., 1996, 2003).

In addition, specialized caseloads should be limited in size because sex offender supervision is most effective when it includes routine monitoring of offenders in their natural environments (e.g., home, work, school, leisure time) (Cumming & McGrath, 2005; English et al., 1996, 2003). Recognizing that exposure to potential risks in a variety of settings is ongoing, supervision officers must be consistently vigilant regarding offenders’ day–to–day activities, behaviors, and community adjustment. While sex offenders may attend scheduled appointments as required and appear cooperative, it is incumbent upon supervision officers to verify compliance by conducting both scheduled and unscheduled field contacts in multiple settings, and by communicating frequently with other key stakeholders who are involved in the management process (e.g., treatment providers, school officials in juvenile sex offense cases). For example, beyond requiring offenders to attend scheduled appointments in the probation or parole office, supervision officers should conduct field visits with adult offenders at their places of residence or employment; similarly, contacts with juvenile sex offenders should occur periodically at school and in the home.

It is incumbent on supervision agency administrators to develop policies and procedures that ensure frequent, spontaneous, and needs–based field contacts while affording flexibility in officers’ work schedules to allow for monitoring outside of traditional business hours (including on holidays and during weekends). As described later in this section, surveillance officers can be particularly helpful in this regard.

As supervision officers and case managers become more specialized and immersed in sex offender management, there is an increased likelihood of experiencing secondary trauma and burnout (Cumming & McGrath, 2005; Pullen & Pullen, 1996; Thorpe, Righthand, & Kubik, 2001). Specifically, officers are often exposed to descriptions of sexual abuse and offenders’ attitudes and statements that support this abuse. In addition, they frequently hear and read about the significant impact of sex offenses on victims. This may subsequently lead officers to manifest the same or similar symptoms (e.g., sleep disturbance, loss of appetite, anxiety, depression, helplessness) as the victims with whom they directly and indirectly interact (Conrad & Perry, 2000; Dane, 2000; Figley, 1995; Thorpe et al., 2001). Contributing to secondary trauma are the burden of responsibility for community safety, excessive caseloads that do not allow for sufficient “recovery time,” and a lack of training and support to manage job impact effectively (Conrad & Perry, 2000; Dane, 2000; Figley, 1995; Thorpe et al., 2001). It is critical, therefore, that agency administrators and supervision officers are aware of the increased potential for secondary trauma and burnout when supervising caseloads of sex offenders, and receive training about managing this impact. Active steps must be taken to preserve the emotional and psychological welfare of officers through training and other supports, thus facilitating the stability in the workforce necessary to work effectively with this population and protect the community (Cumming & McGrath, 2005; Pullen & Pullen, 1996; Thorpe et al., 2001).

Specialized Knowledge and Training

While in larger jurisdictions the ability to create specialized units or caseloads may be more easily accomplished, such an approach may not be practical or feasible in areas in which resources are limited. Regardless of whether specialized units or specialized caseloads have been established, it is essential that all supervision officers who are responsible for working with sex offenders receive training regarding a variety of topics related to sex offender management (CSOM, 2000; Cumming & McGrath, 2000, 2005; English, 1998; Green, 1995; Greer, 1997; NAPN, 1993; Scott, 1997). Beyond equipping officers with the necessary skills and information to improve their effectiveness—and thus enhance community safety—specialized training provides them with a common language to use to communicate with offense–specific treatment providers and others about critical sex offender risk management issues (Cumming & McGrath, 2005; English, 1998; English et al., 1996, 2003; Gray & Pithers, 1993; NAPN, 1993; Pithers & Cumming, 1995; Scott, 1997). Among the most critical training topics for officers are the following:

Overall, focused training and job specialization for supervision officers and case managers promotes expertise, maximizes limited resources, and improves consistency.

Because the sex offender management field is constantly evolving, specialized training should not occur as a singular event. Instead, it is essential that supervision officers receive ongoing training to remain abreast of critical developments in research and practice, such that policies and practices can be adjusted as warranted.

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