The program -- Sex Offender Accountability and Responsibility, or SOAR

Discussion in 'Up to the Minute' started by mysteriew, Jan 2, 2006.

  1. mysteriew

    mysteriew A diamond in process

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    Rich says he is evidence that a unique prison treatment program can do what many fear is impossible: prevent sex offenders from striking again. The program -- Sex Offender Accountability and Responsibility, or SOAR -- is the only treatment approach in the state that claims significant success in treating sexual deviants.

    Convicts like Rich who get into the program are lucky. Despite SOAR's promise, few of North Carolina's nearly 10,500 registered sex offenders get the chance to enroll.

    Rich isn't cured. SOAR therapists and graduates don't make such lofty claims. In the sterile bunk rooms at the Harnett County Correctional Institute, therapists level with participants, telling them they are prone to violate someone else. Like recovering alcoholics, these sex offenders must admit they are capable of relapse. Once they recognize their vulnerability, therapists help them figure out how to manage their distorted thoughts.

    "It's not a cure. It's not something you can once and for all wipe away and it's gone," said Robert Carbo, psychological services coordinator for SOAR. "It's a lifelong management problem."

    The program, one of about 15 like it in the nation, claims unusual success. Of the 302 graduates released in the 1990s, less than 3 percent were caught striking again by 2000. Only two of the 157 graduates released from 2000 through 2005 were sent back to North Carolina prisons for sexually offending again.

    It's difficult to know how those results compare to offenders who never receive treatment. Some therapists say anywhere from half to all untreated offenders will admit they abused again. Other studies found that between 13 percent and 20 percent of child molesters released from prison got caught molesting again within five years.

    Space in SOAR is limited, and about 20 percent of those who enroll never finish. Only about 7 percent of the 4,694 sex offenders released from state prisons since 2000 graduated from SOAR.

    There are no plans to expand the program anytime soon, prison officials said. Willing and qualified therapists are in short supply, they said. It's grueling, highly specialized work that doesn't attract many counselors.

    SOAR therapists used intense, confrontational talk therapy to help clear Rich's head of unhealthy thoughts. For more than eight hours a day, Rich, like other sex offenders in the program, hashed through his crime with more than a dozen other sex offenders, therapists and graduates. Nights and weekends, he tackled homework -- reading and worksheets aimed at zeroing in on his errors in judgment -- and attended support groups.

    The objective is simple: Identify errors in judgment that led to the sex offense and develop the tools to better handle similar situations next time. About a quarter of those who enroll can't hack it. They either drop out, or counselors determine they haven't made enough progress to graduate. Dropouts rarely return for a second try, said SOAR psychologist Carbo.

    The program demands complete disclosure; offenders can't fudge the details of their crimes. Therapists have copies of court records, and participants keep each other honest. Offenders know when one of them is lying, Carbo said. They'll call him out.

    Most breakthroughs come during role-playing. SOAR forces inmates to verbally re-enact their personal sex crime. The offender plays the part of his victim; another participant plays him. It's here, when the most selfish of men -- all offenders are selfish, Carbo said -- crack. The role playing helps teach offenders how to empathize with their victims.

    Most convicted sex offenders won't get into the program, either because they're given probation or have such short sentences that they are released before they can get a spot. In 2004, more than half of the 1,590 people convicted of sex crimes were found guilty of taking indecent liberties with a minor; first-time offenders of that crime are usually placed on probation.

    "Giving sex offenders a slap on the wrist doesn't do anyone any good," said another SOAR graduate named Edward, a 56-year-old Alamance County man serving a life sentence for sexually abusing two boys in the 1980s. "It tells the victim it didn't matter, and for sex offenders, it guarantees that they won't get any help."
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