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I never thought I could feel empathy for a child sex offender.

But having spoken to many over the years, I now can.

Some readers may find the concepts in this article confronting.

Many were damaged as children, and while that is no excuse, healing that damage may be the most effective way to prevent the sexual abuse of children.

You might find this approach scandalous, or think that I'm supportive or lenient or condoning the abuse of children. I am not.

I am not an apologist for anyone who hurts or even thinks about hurting, a child.

But there's a case to be made to rethink how we treat child sex offenders and online child pornography offenders — if we are serious about breaking the intergenerational cycle of abuse.


Breaking the cycle

While not every victim will go on to offend, almost every child sex offender I have met has been a victim.

This has stuck with me ever since I first started reporting on this issue many years ago.

It's where clinical psychologist Christabel Chamarette believes we have to start — by treating the offender as a victim first.

"My whole life was changed when I worked in the prison system and I saw what sort of childhoods people who committed really serious offences came from," she said.

"And I thought: 'Why on earth are we spending all this money further damaging people in society rather than trying to help people before they get to that point?'"

"Everything I say is not to condone the offending. It's to prevent it from happening to any more children."


Community-based approach

Ms Chamarette, a former Greens Senator for Western Australia, has treated more than 700 child sex offenders, online child pornography addicts, and their families over the past 30 years.

Twenty years of that was spent running SafeCare, a two-year, holistic program she had to shut down when its funding was cut by the newly-elected WA government in 2008.

Since then, she's been running community-based treatment programs for offenders.

Earshot meets the family of a man arrested for child pornography.

Her work has been criticised, resisted and slammed for being soft on offenders. But she knows it works. And so, does the local police force.

Not long after Safe Care was shut down, Ms. Chamarette received a call from the head of Western Australia Police's Sex Crime Division.

Four men charged with child sexual abuse or online offences had taken their own lives in the previous two months, and officers were left traumatised.

He wanted to know how they could do things differently.

"He just said to me: 'We're losing men and we don't know what to do,'" Ms. Chamarette said.

The police officer's concerns were two-fold: ensuring perpetrators have their day in court and maintaining morale among staff.

Ms Chamarette's advice was for the officers to conduct an emotional triage, of sorts, at the time of arrest and refer men at risk of suicide to her.


Reducing the risk of suicide

Hundreds of offenders have been referred to her by the police and courts since that call: both child sex offenders and those charged with non-contact offences like child internet pornography and child exploitation.

Not one has committed suicide and only one — that they know of — has gone on to re-offend.

"They need to be helped because it doesn't help their families or their victims if they commit suicide," Ms. Chamarette said.

"It's much more helpful for them to accept responsibility for what they've done, to engage in treatment and try to really understand how their offending came about and to address it as best they can."

There are very few if any other, community treatment programs in Australia like Ms. Chamarette's.

Most are run through the prison system, which she believes is problematic for several reasons.

First, they don't reach men in the community who are at risk of offending. Second, prison programs lump all sex offenders into one group.

"We don't mix sex offenders who've offended against adults with those who offended against children," she said.

"In a therapeutic group, you don't expose people who've done crimes that people naturally find offensive and horrendous to people who share those antagonistic, hateful views.

"For people to openly disclose the enormity of what they've done they need a safe, compassionate, non-judgmental space."


Lessons from Germany

Christabel Chamarette has her eye firmly on Germany's ground-breaking, controversial Dunkelfeld ("Dark Field") Project, which was set up in 2005 as a free, confidential treatment program for men who are sexually attracted to children.

The project publicly appealed to all men in Germany who felt a sexual attraction to children to come forward for treatment.

Almost 7,000 men did — and now they have 11 treatment centres across the country.

Project Dunkelfeld asks: "Do you like children more than you would like to?"

Germany does not have the same mandatory reporting laws Australia does and Dunkelfeld’s participants say this confidentiality is key; they would not have sought help if they knew they'd be reported.

The project works on the same principles as Ms. Chamarette's — a permanent cure for sexual attraction to children may not be attainable, but behaviour can be changed by helping offenders to take responsibility, empathise with victims, recognise triggers for offending and learn how to avoid them.

As with Ms. Chamarette's programs, this German project has helped prevent recidivism, although that is a very tricky statistic to monitor because it largely relies on honest self-reporting.

Critics of the program also highlight the fact that therapy is open to men who have previously abused children, even when it is unreported.

But it's an interesting approach and one that bears thinking about carefully, especially given that Ms Chamarette expects the rise in online child pornography offending to continue.


Keeping children safe

When the majority of online child abuse is underground, it is invisible. According to Ms. Chamarette, if you take away the incentive for offenders to seek help, it only drives them further underground.

Earshot is about people, places, stories, and ideas, in all their diversity.

"Nobody's going to put up their hand if they know it's going to be cut off or if they're going to be put into prison or their families will be stigmatised and vilified," she said.

"We're not protecting children with the attitude of 'lock them up, throw away the key,' because we can't lock up everyone and, at some point, even those locked up are released from prison.

"The most helpful intervention is to say: 'If you have this problem, for goodness sake, get help straight away.'"

The more we demonise child sex offenders, the harder we make it for men to seek help. The harder we make it for men to seek help, the more we put our children at risk.

And that does not help meet everybody's end goal: keeping children safe.



Christabel discusses how families are affected when one of their partners commits an offence. She also provides information below on how to help families heal.

Ms. Christabel Chamarette,
Clinical Psychologist
PO Box 1290 Fremantle 6959
Ph/Fax (08) 9430 6168
Mob: 0431 925 860
Rooms: 3/195 High St, Fremantle



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