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Bearing Witness: Working Therapeutically with Child Sex Offenders

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No six-year-old dreams of being a child sex offender when they grow up. A series of internal and external circumstances lead this child in adulthood to committing what many, including me, believe to be one of the most heinous crimes possible. I work with child sex offenders and adult victims of child sexual abuse.

If you search for ‘working therapeutically with child sex offenders’, it will unearth a plethora of articles focusing on the negative impact of such work. They are identified as notoriously difficult to work with – sexual offenders, who present a unique set of behaviours distinct from other clients, leading to a specific set of stressors impacting the therapist.

Much of the research available in this area focuses on vicarious and secondary trauma experienced by the therapist. Also, vicarious trauma can impact the therapist’s sense of self, spirituality, world-view, interpersonal relationships and behaviour. Some of the symptoms of vicarious trauma include increased in fatigue, cynicism, sleep disturbances, irritability, difficulties making decisions, depression and frustration.

Researchers identify secondary trauma as the dual experience of feeling traumatised by the victim’s pain and the offender’s history of offending. Professionals must become familiar with the trauma experienced by victims and gain insight into the offender’s deviant behaviour. This is further complicated by the offender’s likely history of victimisation.

How does a therapist manage the impact? From research, my own experience and that of my colleagues there is a consensus that what’s required is a combination of robust support within the organisation and personal coping mechanisms. We need to foster and maintain our personal resilience.

For the purposes of this piece, I will be focusing on what I need to manage, namely, my own art-making. Sandra Bloom said ‘Artistic performance is the bridge across the black hole of trauma, the evolved individual and group response to the tragic nature of human existence.’ Put simply, the rituals we engage in, such as art-making, provide a framework of resilience which nourishes us as individuals and communities. For me, art-making is an important ritual which supports me in managing potential vicarious or secondary trauma.

Frances O’Brien, an art therapist once said: ‘Fear cannot be modified and emotion cannot be symbolised by thought and language.’ Put simply again, there are things we are exposed to, that we see and hear, which we will never be able to verbalise. With art-making, catharsis occurs when past, held distress is re-experienced through a ritual when safe to do so allowing internal processes to be externalised in a tangible way. I can control my level of engagement through the choice of materials, awarding me mastery where I might otherwise feel powerless. So the process of making itself is of huge restorative benefit.

The product, or art object, is a physical representation of an inner process. This product can be modified or destroyed, facilitating control over memories and feelings and allowing a modified interpretation of events to be re-internalised.

I am sharing a piece entitled ‘Bearing Witness’ which describes my responses to my clinical work. Its genesis can in part be attributed to something my supervisor said to me in relation to my work with offenders: You are the voice of the victim.

Image: Deirdre Ronan

Image: Deirdre Ronan

I have also decided to share my artist’s statement which I hope will provide a context for my work.

My work explores the nature of relationships. In my clinical work as a psychotherapist, I am required to form incredibly intimate, yet contained therapeutic relationships with clients.  The basic tenets of the therapeutic relationship and my beliefs about my engagement with the therapeutic space and my role within it have been challenged by my work with victims of child sexual abuse and child sex offenders.

My systemic work supporting families of both offenders and victims of child sexual abuse further leads me to question relationships in terms of the systems we come from and become part of. This refers me to my own relationships, personally, clinically and with my own art-making and how they have been impacted by the systems past and present in my life.

As an art therapist, I believe that the art process and product are unique in creating a container for that which is ‘unsayable’. Similarly, as a psychotherapist, I act as a container for my clients. I am the holding space. As such my work is multi-layered, seeking to mirror the dynamic essence of systems and relationships and my various roles within these. In engaging with my process I seek to explore and repair.

Deirdre Ronan currently works as a psychotherapist, working therapeutically with adult survivors of child sexual abuse. 

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