We can all use our voices to change the culture to prevent sexual violence. Prevention requires addressing the roots causes and social norms that allow sexual violence to exist. During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we are engaging groups whose influence can play a critical role in changing the culture.  This post highlights how partnerships between sex offender management and treatment professionals, victim advocacy organizations, and faith communities offer an essential network of accountability and safety.

As part of an ongoing effort to collaborate with communities of faith to create sexually safer congregations, in December 2016 the New Jersey Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (NJ ATSA) held our second annual “Building Bridges Symposium.”  In addition to sexual abuse prevention, the panel of faith leaders and clinicians explored the issue of ministering to individuals who have sexually offended.

Inspired largely by Reverend Debra Haffner and the ongoing work of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing , the panel explored ways in which communities of faith can continue to support adult and adolescent parishioners who have engaged in sexually abusive behaviors.

The symposium panel agreed that faith leaders and clinicians share common goals: preventing sexual violence and helping clients/congregants succeed in the community.  To that end, ongoing sex offender treatment and the informed inclusion of offenders in a community of faith can reduce the likelihood of someone harming someone again. Reducing recidivism is tantamount to prevention. Critical to this process is the ongoing communication and collaboration between those who support the offender: prison chaplains, family, partner, therapist, faith leader, parole officer, sponsor, and mentors. It is through informed, pragmatic, and diligent support that this circle can effectively help sexually abusive youth and adult offenders acclimate successfully to the greater community. Communities of faith can provide support, compassion, and reconciliation to offenders who take responsibility, demonstrate a willingness to change, and are meaningfully engaged in their recovery.

The symposium panel established that inclusion comes with limits and that forgiveness does not imply forgetting. As an example, safety contracts (also known as Covenants, Accountability Contracts, Limited Access Agreements) are essential in setting clear boundaries for the offender. The offender, the therapist, the parole officer, the faith leader, and a lay leader collaboratively produce the documents.  They are shared within the circle of support and updated annually. These documents typically contain a list of the offender’s support team, a list of prohibited activities, areas in which the offender cannot frequent, and any equipment that may be prohibited such as access to keys, computers, or vehicles.

The annual NJ ATSA “Building Bridges Symposium” is an incredible opportunity for collaboration between the secular and faith communities in facilitating the safe and supported re-entry of all offenders. Ultimately, both play an integral role in preventing sexual violence.

Heather Burnett is a graduate of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, having earned a Masters of Social Work.  In Canada, Heather was active in grassroots community organizing and work with survivors of violence. Upon moving to the United States, Heather began her career at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center where she worked with incarcerated adult sex offenders. She is currently the Director of Social Work at the Special Treatment Unit – an inpatient facility for civilly committed sex offenders in Avenel, NJ. As a licensed clinical social worker, she maintains an active private practice assessing and treating adult, sex offenders. She has also worked as a volunteer with her local Domestic Violence Response Team since 2000.

NJ ATSA is a member organization comprised of clinicians, law enforcement, attorneys, and others who work with or on behalf of individuals who have engaged in sexually abusive behaviors. NJ ATSA is dedicated to preventing sexual abuse by offering training, networking, and collaborative opportunities and grant scholarships that further evidence-based practices and effective treatment and management of sexual abusers. If you are interested in attending a Building Bridges symposium or in obtaining more information about the treatment/management of sexually abusive youth and adult offenders, please contact Heather Burnett at njatsa@gmail.com.