The New South Wales Parliament last night voted to remove convicted child sex offender Dennis Ferguson from his home in Sydney’s Ryde. The law is a vigilantes’ charter. And worse than that, it represents a missed opportunity for a sensible rational policy discussion about how to resettle the hundreds of child sex offenders who are released from our prisons each year.
The general community response towards sexual offending is predictably and rightfully censorious: sexual abuse has the well-demonstrated potential to wreak havoc with bodies, minds and lives. However, the panicked community and media mindset to this most complex form of criminal offending is counter-productive in terms of the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders. And most importantly it may also militate against progress towards reducing the future incidence and severity of sexual offending.
The dangerously ill-informed debate around Ferguson’s case, and that of many other cases in recent years across the country, demonstrates the need for there to be a nationally co-ordinated approach to dealing with child sex offenders and in educating the community.
So what might the core elements of such an approach be? In other words, what steps should be put in place by justice and health authorities in dealing with a child sex offender who is completing his or her term of imprisonment?
First, before the offender is released or immediately upon their release, there needs to be co-ordinated medical management by well-qualified specialists (psychiatrist, psychologist, general practitioner, social worker and/or other suitably qualified experts) who will conduct a thorough and expert s-xual risk assessment of the offender, together with a full medical examination and a mental health assessment to identify any excacerbating features such as depression or other forms of physical or mental illness.
Together with any on-going rehabilitation needs being met, a safety plan is an expected component of community-based management strategies. The safety plan may include on-going medical monitoring and management, together with crisis facilities that afford timely access to specialist services as needed. Any close friends, partners or relatives may form a component of safety plans if appropriate. This may require those support people to themselves have attended for education about sexual offending and risk factors.
Governments and community leaders, including the media, need to work to ensure that the community response to a released offender is characterised by empathy, a desire for understanding and a willingness to provide support and engagement. What is required for this to happen is for there to be a public education program to the complex issue of s-xual offending behaviours. The program must deliver the unambiguous message that stigmatising and vilifying rehabilitating individuals is anti-social behaviour that will mitigate against the rehabilitation process. And just as the media abides by protocols and laws in reporting around issues of race, for example, so they should be forced to do so in the case of child sex offenders.
Descriptions of child sex offenders as “monsters” for example, needs to stop.
Finally, given the fact that child s-x offenders have even less capacity to reintegrate back into the workforce than the average prisoner, financial planning, vocational support and suitable employment opportunities, where appropriate, need to be offered to offenders because this will enhance social interactions and their sense of value and purposeful contribution. The provision of stable and suitable housing within a generally supportive social community is naturally necessary for the proper and social functioning of the person re-integrating into the community.
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If we want to seriously reduce the opportunity for child sex offences, then our political leaders need to show much greater leadership than they have to date. A national scheme that addresses the triggers for reoffending while educating the community would be a good start in turning the corner.
Greg Barns is a criminal lawyer and a director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance. Wendy Northey is a forensic psychologist who practises in the criminal justice system in Victoria.