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Aboriginal Sex Offenders: Melding Spiritual Healing with Cognitive-Behavioural Treatment

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Cross-Cultural Comparison: A community-Based Treatment Program

Sexual assault and sexual abuse are now receiving more recognition in aboriginal communities. In a study focussing on sexual abuse in American Indian families, Carter and Parker, cite an Informational brochure that describes the problem quite well. The Division of Indian Work (DIW, 1987) brochure states:

Over the years, extreme deprivation, discrimination and victimization of Indian people by the dominant society that has rarely recognized or acknowledged the Indian way of life has led to a startling reality: approximately 80% of American Indian Families in urban areas now have a history of family violence including incest, sexual abuse and battering; over 65% are unemployed, over 50% are chemically dependent and 65% are single parents, four times the state average.

Carter and Parker state that little research has been conducted on sexual abuse among Indians in part because of a lack of interest among social scientists and professionals, despite the fact that the tribal court judges have indicated that the incidence of incest in Indian families is about the same as that among non-Indian families (NAICJA, 1985). Their study was intended to investigate the nature and definition of incest among Minnesota Indians, establish baseline data, suggest further questions to be explored, and identify treatment models compatible with Indian culture. Carter and Parker found that colonization and alcohol were closely related to family violence. According to this explanation, Indians may have internalized cultural exploitation and denigration of their culture, and the combination of alcohol and racism has led to lowered self-worth and consequently, to physical and sexual abuse within the family (Carter and Parker, 1991).

Carter and Parker also found that many in the Indian community attributed the breakdown of the Indian family, in part at least, to government boarding schools. Another author, Fischler (1985) supports that point of view: A substantial number of today's Indian parents were raised apart from their families in boarding schools, non-Indian foster and adoptive homes, where parental modeling may have been poor. Fischler goes on to say that unprepared for separation, Indian children who went to boarding schools were more vulnerable to identity confusion and returned to the reservation alienated from their culture and generally maladjusted. Assessment of maltreatment in Indian families should include careful assessment of the early childhood experiences of parents, including details of placements (Fischler, 1985).

Concerning the non-reporting of abnormal sexual behaviour within the aboriginal family, Carter and Parker suggest that traditional Indian values of non-interference and non-assertiveness could prevent the reporting of deviant sexual acts and even hinder the investigation of such offences. Non-interference is a principle which prevents people from becoming involved in what does not concern them directly. More than that, it perpetuates an attitude related to non-assertiveness that makes this type of reporting an unthinkable act. It also endorses a behaviour related to shyness. Moreover, Carter and Parker indicated that non-reporting appears to be based on fear of public authorities, especially child protection agencies. As a DIW counselor stressed, the client's primary concern is likely to be survival of herself, her family, and even the perpetrator, in the face of external threats from white institutions and culture (Carter and Parker, 1991).

Carter and Parker suggest that professionals working with Indian sex offenders and victims should enlist the help of family support groups, whenever possible with the clients' consent, particularly when these groups are culturally oriented to the Indian experience. Referral to culture-sensitive treatment personnel is very important as such professionals recognize the inappropriateness of some therapies to Indian clients and the appropriateness of others (Carter and Parker, 1991). Carter and Parker state that such professionals are likely to employ a holistic approach, dealing with issues of culture and spirituality. The holistic approach doesn't focus on specific problems in the individual but on the individual as a whole, mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually.

aboriginal treatment stresses an approach which allows the client to align him or herself as a whole. To achieve balance within oneself is more important than treating separate illnesses (alcoholism, deviant sex drive, etc.). This method would be especially effective where offences have been committed under the influence of illegal substances. Carter and Parker suggest that the person involved in treatment should be knowledgeable about Indian spirituality, at least in general, and should be able to assist the client in making interpretations based on understanding, while validating the client's need for spiritual healing. While this is perhaps best done by aboriginal personnel, non-aboriginals can be helpful. In the long run, the best route would be to train more aboriginals and increase tribal services, while an acceptable alternative is to train non-aboriginals who respect and understand aboriginal cultures (Carter and Parker, 1991).

In Canada, there is growing concern about the appropriateness of culturally relevant programming for sex offenders within corrections. "The Correctional Service of Canada has identified sex offenders as one of the most pressing public safety concerns and has established a Working Group of Administrative, clinical, and research representatives, to develop the "basic infrastructure of a cohesive sex offender strategy" (Standards and Guidelines for the Provision of Services to Sex Offenders (1996)). This document supports the concept that aboriginal sex offenders require culturally and spiritually appropriate assessment and treatment.

aboriginal offenders who have participated in prison programs are said to feel abandonment, displacement, an absence of or confusion of identity, as well as racism, issues which are far less prevalent among non-aboriginal offenders (Symposium, 1995). The 1995 Symposium also noted that aboriginal offenders tend to have histories of maltreatment (verbal, physical, sexual, emotional and psychological), problems with substance abuse (alcohol, drugs, solvents), as well as issues related to poverty and death (due to illness, suicide and violence). The aboriginal offender also tends to be more disadvantaged in terms of level of education, employment skills, work history, financial position and social supports as compared to non-aboriginal clients. If the aboriginal offender is from a rural or remote area and is released to the city, reintegration into the community is far more difficult and the likelihood of successfully completing a conditional release is more challenging (Symposium, 1995). The Symposium attendees concluded that treatment will not be effective unless it is culturally specific.

An assessment of a community-based treatment program for aboriginal sex offenders (Native Clan Organization) indicated that, for individuals who had completed the clinic's community-based sex offender treatment program, there was no differences between return rates for aboriginal and non-aboriginal offenders. This finding was replicated by Dr. Nicholaichuk at the Regional Psychiatric Centre (1996), although he noted that after treatment aboriginal sex offenders were significantly more likely than non-aboriginals to recidivate violently, but non-sexually. This suggests that with respect to sexual recidivism, all clients benefited from the treatment notwithstanding their cultural background (Ellerby, 1994). However, aboriginal offenders were less likely to complete the program and were also more likely to have their parole suspended for breaching National Parole Board conditions (such as abstaining from alcohol), were more likely to recidivate (sex offenses and others) during treatment and more inclined to drop out of treatment after the end of sentence. The following table illustrates results from the Forensic Behaviourial Management Clinic's community-based treatment program (1987-1994):

Cross-cultural Comparison: The Forensic Behaviourial Management Clinic's Community-based Treatment Program (1987-1994)

Status Aboriginal Non-aboriginal Aboriginal Non-aboriginal
Entered treatment 36% 64% 53% 47%
Terminated 4% 3% 5% 0
Dropped out 19% 8% 0 0
Suspended 16% 2% 24% 0
Recidivated (While in treatment)
Sexual 15% 0 0 0
Nonsexual 4% 3% 0 0
Completed treatment 42% 84% N/A N/A
Recidivated (post treatment)*
Sexual 0 0 N/A N/A
Nonsexual 4% 2% N/A N/A

Note: N/A = not available

* Nine months to 4 years after treatment completed.

The Native Clan Organization sees a need to help aboriginal offenders invest in the treatment process and remain engaged in the treatment process. Ceremonial healing rites were, therefore, integrated into the treatment program. Traditional healing provides the opportunity for aboriginal offenders to either discover or to continue to participate in their aboriginal culture and spirituality. It helps them develop a clearer sense of self-identity, cultural awareness, pride and belonging. The integration of ceremonial healing also demonstrates a recognition of, and respect for, aboriginal culture and spirituality on the part of the treatment professionals (Ellerby, 1994).

Like any other treatment program, the Native Clan Organization hypothesized that the integration of ceremonial healing into a treatment program would help aboriginal offenders address their offending and develop the insights and skills necessary to avoid or manage the factors that can lead them to re-offend.

Although the inclusion of traditional rites in treatment programs appears to have considerable potential, Mr. Ellerby feels that it would be naive to assume that this approach would be beneficial to all aboriginal offenders. Cultural homogeneity should not be assumed, and there must be a recognition that people are at various stages of adaptation - from acceptance of a traditional aboriginal culture to assimilation into non-aboriginal Canadian culture (Ellerby, 1994). Despite the common problems faced by aboriginals, aboriginal communities vary in their needs, customs, and aspirations (Frank, 1992). Mr. Ellerby suggests that the type of cultural experiences aboriginal offenders have been exposed to, and have adhered to, will greatly influence their attitudes, beliefs, styles of presentation and interest in traditional healing. He also states that it is crucial that clinicians providing assessment and treatment services for aboriginal sex offenders also assess cultural adherence. Since sex offenders have a tendency to deny, minimize, rationalize, justify and distort their personal responsibility and the seriousness of their offending behaviour, Mr. Ellerby believes that clinicians must be able to assess and discriminate between cultural issues and manipulation.

Another point made by Ellerby involves the difficulty of integrating aboriginal healing into the programs' existing cognitive-behavioural, relapse-prevention model. Unfortunately, many programs have tended to take an "all or nothing" approach (Ellerby, 1994). It is Ellerby's opinion that the integration of aboriginal healing concepts and sex offender therapy has been, and continues to be, an evolutionary process.

The traditional healing methods of aboriginals are quite different from methods based on current psychological practice. While one comes from a spiritual and community-oriented approach, the other tends to be scientific and oriented towards the individual. The priority of aboriginals tend to be oriented to the community and the maintenance of balance within it (Brant, 1993). Dr. Couture (1995) has suggested that treating the sex offence in isolation, would be less useful than treating the whole person. This holistic approach is a "world view" which looks at healing comprehensively (Frank, 1992). Treating the whole person examines the entire problem set of the person. One of the methods used by aboriginals to resolve social problems and crises affecting the community is the Healing Circles. Healing circles are a caring, supportive, safe environment to "get it all out and not let the problem fester inside" (Shirley Bighead, Herald, August 1st, 1995). In this article, Connie Sampson described the Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation rebuilding their Healing Lodge. The Cree people are rebuilding their community spirit in an attempt to deal with their problems in a traditional manner. Healing circles are therapeutic groups available to anyone who wants to address a problem. Ms. Sampson indicates that the lodge is a sacred place in Indian spirituality.

Healing lodges and healing circles were suppressed after the treaty signed in the late 1800s. However, Elders have preserved the teachings and are now able to lead the Cree nations in the re-establishment of healing in terms of Indian spirituality (Herald, August 1st, 1995). Elders hold the respect of aboriginals because they have worked through the problems of life, changing and adapting, learning and growing wise with rich experiences, they are considered ready to give suitable advice and guidance (Oates, 1988). Joe Daniels, a Cree elder, stated that the healing lodge is the place where, "we deal with people and their problems, addictions and abuse", adding that it can serve to rehabilitate sex offenders and other offenders alike.

As Lawrence Ellerby indicated, aboriginal people have used healing ceremonies to cope with their problems for thousands of years. The Native Clan Organization felt that the initial step in incorporating traditional healing into modern sex offender programs was to include aboriginal Elders as co-members of the clinical team. The Elders provided information about aboriginal healing, identified the necessary components that could be incorporated in treatment, and provided guidance on integrating them into the therapeutic process (Ellerby, 1994). The Forensic Behavioral Management Clinic currently offers both aboriginal and non-aboriginal offenders the opportunity to participate in pipe ceremonies, sweat lodge ceremonies followed by a feast, smudging with sweetgrass prior to individual and group therapy sessions, and to hold an eagle feather when disclosing their personal and offending histories.

Although it is too early to determine whether the inclusion of healing ceremonies will have a positive effect on the number of aboriginal offenders who complete the treatment program or on recidivism rates, the response from offenders who have participated in traditional healing, suggests that the Native Clan Organization is realizing their goals of demonstrating a recognition and respect for the traditional healing process, enhancing the offender's sense of identity, and most importantly, making the treatment process more meaningful for aboriginal offenders (Ellerby, 1994). The Pacific Region of Correctional Service of Canada reports that aboriginal sex offenders are accepting and completing programs which meld cultural/spiritual approaches with mainstream techniques (Personal Communication, 1996) at the same rate as non-aboriginals.

Violence And Healing In Aboriginal Communities

In her paper entitled "The Role of Healing in aboriginal Justice" (1995), Ms. McIvor advances the idea that community and family justice may actually be harsher than prison. A sex offender might be more intimidated by a confrontation with the victim and her/his family than by incarceration. According to McIvor, family violence, substance abuse or sex offender counselling programs for offenders will not work in isolation. The holistic approach to aboriginal healing takes into account the family and the community while accepting individuals as whole persons -- spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically and psychologically (McIvor, 1995). The author goes on to say that involving the community in healing means bringing the violence into public view. It ends the silence and secrecy which victims generally experience in isolation and it begins to end denial which is characteristic of both family violence and sexual abuse (Krawll, 1994).

In her paper on family violence in aboriginal communities, Frank (1992) indicates that treatment programs imposed by non-aboriginals are not sufficient for aboriginals. She advances the idea that aboriginal people have the right to self-government and thus have the right to deal with their own problems in their own ways. She illustrates that there may be a political as well as cultural basis for the creation of aboriginal programs. In her opinion, more aboriginal people have to develop approaches, systems or solutions, to the problems. It seems that although communities and organizations are addressing these areas, there is a need for more advisory, information-sharing and consultative services, which are aboriginal specific and not government-controlled. It is important to consider: resources, economic and community development, healing, jurisdictional issues, training, education and human resource development, as well as the need to recognize community control in making decisions over processes or problems affecting members.

In another paper entitled "Violence in aboriginal Community", Emma D. Larocque supports the notion that with respect to sex and violence, education and sexual enlightenment may be our best hope for the future. She suggests that one of the biggest problems in aboriginal homes and communities is lack of qualitative sex education. Such education must include not only the physiological aspects of sex and sexuality but must also promote respect for persons (Larocque, 1994). Also, the author sees boredom in aboriginal communities as a significant problem which is not receiving appropriate attention. Boredom may result in abuse of drugs and alcohol, sexual experimentation, mob behaviour, violence and suicide (Larocque, 1994). It is her opinion that community leaders must make every effort to provide qualitative recreation for young people. With respect to aboriginally oriented services, she suggests that all aboriginal and non-aboriginal agencies involved with aboriginal family problems, (i.e. hospitals, police, lawyers, judges, social workers, therapists, child care organizations, etc.) should be required to attend workshops and/or conferences which address the issue of sexual violence. Again, it is Larocque's opinion that aboriginal leadership must initiate such forums while the government must provide the resources.