Working With Intellectually Disabled Sex Offenders Is Challenging, But Not How You’d Expect
"I don't really feel the need to defend my job, more to educate people on the realities of this group of people."
As a disability support worker in Australia, I work with people (mostly men) who have an intellectual disability and have had some contact with the prison system. Most of the guys are on orders in reference to sexual abuses against minors. Depending on their orders and history, some come to our service voluntarily, some come from orders after their release from prison, and others come as part of an order instead of prison.
I work with them in the supported accommodation house they live in, which is run by our service. I do things like help them plan their day, access the community, attend appointments, cook, clean, and work on achieving any identified goals.
I'm not a psychologist, but I work with the men on day-to-day stuff. For example, a counsellor may say, "Bob's got issues in exerting appropriate sexualised behaviour, he shouldn't be around minors. If he is around minors and he feels inappropriate urges, these are the steps that he follows to avoid that." I'll help him put that into action, to stop what he's doing, turn away, and walk in the other direction.
Initially it can be difficult to separate emotional judgement from professional responsibility. My first shift started early in the morning; the guys were asleep so I read through their case files to get a sense of their history and offences. Some of them had pretty sinister behaviours—rape, indecent assault, stalking, abduction—and you see what their grooming behaviour is like. Reading their files with blunt police reports detailing every facet of their abuses built them up in my head. I was like, "Oh my god, these are gonna be awful monsters. I don't know what I'm in for."
Initially it can be difficult to separate emotional judgement from professional responsibility.
Then they woke up and were just really regular, lovely guys having breakfast and a chat. Your work is defined by those normal interactions, not by their history. We chat about everyday things—how was your weekend, did you watch the footy, how was dinner last night, what's plans for the week?
The work is obviously very challenging, but not how you might expect. It's hard to create normality in an environment that's artificial. We're trying to show them how to develop relationships and daily rituals but they're under 24-hour care and supervision. They need to sign out when they leave and call us when they're in the community. If they drive, we check the mileage on their cars. They've got to be home by a certain time; we lock their windows and alarm their doors. There's a strange power dynamic—I'm a 28-year-old girl telling a 45-year-old man he can't do what he wants.
Most of the guys I work with have come from incredibly traumatic places themselves. People with a disability or a mental illness are very vulnerable to abuse. Of the people I work with, probably 95 out of 100 were abused by family or while in state care. As children they learnt those are normal behaviours and that's the way adults express love.
If these men had supportive childhoods, if the state care system was better and protected them, I wonder if they would have grown up with this warped understanding of relationships and sex. If a person grows up without any other tactile relationship, other than being abused, how do they have a healthy relationship with someone that's their age?
As children they learnt those are normal behaviours and that's the way adults express love.
I don't have a problem working with them because I think the minute you give people the right support, help them develop healthy relationships, and engage them in community activities you find their offending behaviour reduces. I know they're an unpopular group. They're not people others can relate to and are willing to help. There are very few services for them.
We find a lot of the guys struggle with their sexual identity, so we also link them in with LGBT classes and groups where they can understand am I gay, am I straight? Being disabled, they probably didn't get the right sort of support growing up in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. A lot of them are starting to figure out those things now.
It's important to remember that most human relationships for these men are artificial—with support workers, counsellors, psychiatrists, doctors, case managers, corrections officers. They generally have few friends, family connections, or positive links to the community. Sometimes we link them to brothels as a safe way to manage sexual urges and expressions with a consenting adult, not a child, that doesn't involve abuse. Mostly the guys (on staff) sort that out since I'm a girl and they might feel uncomfortable with me doing it.
When I tell people about my work they're usually surprised and concerned for me. They have the idea that I'm in danger, as if these guys are mad offending machines. Most of the guys I work with, their target group is children, often male children. They wouldn't look at me like that.
Working with these men has made me more understanding of the ways we can prevent crime. Prison doesn't help these guys. It might make the community feel better but it doesn't help them at all. I don't really feel the need to defend my job, more to educate people on the realities of this group of people.
Told to Wendy Syfret, follow her on Twitter