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Handling High-Stress Police Work: Treating Male Sex Offenders

By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety

Throughout her 25-year career, Kelli Callahan has always sought out new challenges in law enforcement. She started her career in a sheriff’s department working to pay for a double college degree in biology and chemistry, with the hopes of becoming a marine biologist. Her science background led her to forensic science, while her law enforcement experience included working in death investigations as well as probation and parole. Her current career involves working with what many would consider an undesirable population: convicted male sex offenders.

Callahan works for a forensic mental health and treatment unit within a correctional facility in the state of Washington. She is also a professor at American Military University, teaching courses in forensic sciences including fingerprinting, DNA and criminalistics.

In addition to a full-time job and part-time teaching career, Callahan is pursuing her Ph.D. in psychology, which fosters her interest in this population of prisoners. “Working with sex offenders in a prison setting is a new challenge for me. I’ve spent my entire career in investigations and now I’m focused on helping to treat the people who have committed crimes,” she said. “The reality is that the overwhelming majority of offenders will one day be released. We’re treating them to lower their risk of recidivism, so we’re simultaneously working to protect the community as well as giving these individuals an opportunity for parole.”

Treatment Programs for Sex Offenders

Treatment programs focus largely on cognitive behavior and risk/needs assessments. Callahan collaborates with mental health professionals to create treatment programs for felons in hopes of eliminating their need to act out on their thoughts. “It’s daunting. I work with men whose deviant sexual thoughts have been expressed as criminal sexual behaviors. Their thoughts are commonly fantasy-based and they attempt to reenact these fantasies. These behaviors, in turn, reinforce the deviant sexual thoughts so we attempt to disrupt this maladaptive cycle,” she said. “We work every day to tear down that existing structure and rebuild it with new thoughts, new ways of viewing things, and new ways of expressing healthy, prosocial behaviors.”

sex offenders
While working with sex offenders is challenging and stressful, Kelli Callahan knows she’s helping keep the community safe.

The program is highly intensive and offenders must complete numerous assignments as part of their treatment. One such assignment, the Behavioral Chain Analysis (BCA), involves a detailed autopsy of a specific offending behavior where the offender must detail every thought and behavior associated with an incident. This assignment is designed to focus on the internal and external triggers and cues that accompany the event. Each thought and behavior is examined with the goal of the offender realizing the interconnectedness of all his thoughts and behaviors.

In doing so, it provides the offender with much-needed insight into factors that increase his risk for offending. By better understanding risks, offenders are ideally better able to engage intervention strategies in the future.

[Related: Police Veterans Share Expertise for Sexual Assault Awareness Month]

While such assignments can be effective, Callahan notes that not all offenders are amenable to sex offender treatment. Those who present psychopathy or are not willing to admit to criminal behavior cannot be treated. For the most part, however, offenders know they have a problem and express a desire for treatment.

While the work is challenging and progress is often slow, Callahan remains focused knowing that what she’s doing is helping keep the community safe. “These men are serving lengthy sentences for sexual-based crimes, but we can’t keep them locked up indefinitely,” she said.

The success of her work is assessed through an offender’s behavior. There is often a reduction of violent outbursts and signs of an increased ability to regulate emotions. While seeing such improvements is encouraging, working with male sex offenders is incredibly stressful, she admits. “Many people don’t like working with this population. There’s a very high turnover rate in our unit and burnout is rampant,” she said. “It’s really difficult to go in and subject yourself to the psychology of these men and it’s even harder to put your personal biases aside and work toward treating them.”

Stress Management Techniques

While working with convicted sex offenders presents unique stressors, managing stress is nothing new in her career. “When I graduated 25 years ago from the police academy, my sergeant’s parting words were to make sure I made friends outside of law enforcement. At the time, I remember thinking it was an odd thing to say, but now I remember it as an almost prophetic piece of advice,” she said. Initially, she didn’t heed his suggestion; most of her friends were fellow cops.

“About seven years into my career, I started to pull back and make friends outside of the profession. I started surrounding myself by people who didn’t know about law enforcement and didn’t have access to that world,” she said. “It really helped keep me grounded and expose me to a world outside of what I was so entrenched in.”

In addition to making friends outside of policing, she consciously works to disconnect herself from the job after hours. “It’s important to have very clear dividing lines between work and home. Obviously, it’s easier said than done, but I make a point to consciously do it,” she said. Much like with death investigations, Callahan said it is important to maintain professional detachment. “While I’m at work, I am 100 percent focused and devoted to my responsibilities. Prison is a dangerous place to slip into complacency,” she said. “But when I leave prison for the day I make a concerted effort to mentally unplug and re-engage with my life outside the prison walls.” She surrounds herself with healthy individuals and activities including teaching, which provides an amazing outlet to pass along the practical knowledge and tips she’s learned over the years. In addition, she also volunteers with several charity organizations that help promote positive, prosocial causes, which provides a healthy outlet for her.

[Related: Teaching Officers About Stress Management]

So far, these stress management strategies have worked well for her, but she has seen many fellow officers suffer. She recently had a good friend complete suicide. “If you don’t learn to manage your stress, it’s going to manifest,” she said. “Venting about what happened on your shift is a healthy psychological activity. If you’re stuffing aside your issues and telling yourself that you’re okay, that’s when things start piling up psychologically.”

Taking a healthy approach to mental wellness is increasingly important for her in her current role working with sex offenders. “I constantly have to make a concerted effort to remind myself that people are good,” she said. It’s not always easy, but she remains positive knowing her work to rehabilitate sex offenders is aimed at helping keep the community safe. “Knowing I’m providing assistance and helping these men makes it easier to work with this population on a daily basis,” she said. “While this treatment is no doubt controversial given society’s inherent hatred of sex offenders, as a criminal justice professional it’s important to adapt to evidence-based practices from the field. Having a healthy respect for the sciences, natural or social, helps modify existing practices to better protect our communities, which is the ultimate goal.”

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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