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Theresa Robertson, Gina Magyar-Russell, Ph.D.

The Impact of Compassion-Focused Therapy on Psycho-Spiritual Measures for Men on the Maryland Sex Offender Registry

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Over 860,000 individuals in the U.S. are currently registered as sex offenders (National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 2017).  Public sex offender registries were created with the purpose of increasing public safety.  However, research indicates that these registries have little to no impact on increasing public safety by reducing the already low recidivism rates, and may actually increase recidivism (Prescott & Rockoff, 2011; Ackerman & Sachs, 2012; Mercado, Alvarez, & Levenson, 2008).  Nonetheless, the public policy aimed at maintaining and expanding sex offender registration continues to be a primary response to sexual offending. 

The public believes that sex offenders are a homogeneous group who are at high-risk of reoffending, who cannot be rehabilitated, and that sex crimes perpetrated against children are likely to be committed by strangers (Levenson, Brannon, Fortney, & Baker, 2007; Maguire & Singer, 2011; Mancini & Pickett, 2016; Payne, Tewksbury, & Mustain, 2010).  However, current research clearly demonstrates that the vast majority of those on public registries will not reoffend (Sample & Bray, 2006; Socia & Harris, 2016), that various treatment approaches are effective (Kim, Benekos, & Merlo, 2016), and that most sex crimes against children are committed by family or others known to the child (Snyder, 2000).

Shame generated by the social stigmatization associated with public registration is a common reality for most registrants. Tewksbury & Mustaine (2009) found that nearly all collateral consequences identified by registrants were related to the social consequences of stigmatization.  Registrants widely report experiencing an array of collateral consequences of sex-offender registration and notification including harassment, assault, stigmatization, and barriers to obtaining housing, employment, and social support.  The challenges presented by these collateral consequences often lead to psychological symptoms such as depression, hopelessness, shame, stress, and anxiety.  Ultimately, both the external and psychological challenges prevalent among persons on sex offender registries present obstacles to successful community reintegration and increase the likelihood of adopting maladaptive coping strategies such as increased criminal activity, hypersexual activity, and resistance to treatment. 

Compassion-focused therapy (CFT) was specifically designed for individuals who experience high levels of shame and self-criticism (Gilbert, 2010).  The aim of the current study was to determine the effectiveness of CFT in managing psycho-spiritual symptomology related to public sex offender registration.  A total of 30 men on the Maryland sex offender registry completed one of six 8-week CFT groups.  Participants were randomly assigned to the treatment or waitlisted groups.  Assessments were administered at 3 points in time to measure stress, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, shame, compassion for others, self-compassion, spirituality, and religious crisis.  ANOVA was used to identify possible CFT treatment effects on these measures.  Preliminary results indicate significant improvements at pre and post testing for self-compassion, anxiety, depression, external shame, stress, and spiritual transcendence. 


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