Forensic Psych

Professional Boundaries and Staff Sexual Misconduct: An Evidence-Based Proposal

I’ve been back at it again! This paper was pretty fun to write actually…I review the literature about professional boundaries and staff sexual misconduct within juvenile facilities (like detention centers or treatment facilities) and then propose a solution and a way in which to test the effectiveness of my solution! Hope you enjoy, and as always please be kind and don’t steal as this is my work! Thank you!

Abstract

Oftentimes boundaries are blurred in the juvenile justice system when staff members find themselves attracted to the juvenile resident or client or are not quite sure if certain topics or behaviors are crossing the line (Okamoto, 2003; Torretta, 2004; Abner, Browning, & Clark, 2009). Individuals who work with youth in a detention center, residential setting, or elsewhere must establish and maintain professional boundaries in order to avoid staff sexual misconduct (Torretta, 2004; Plaut, 2008; Review Panel on Prison Rape, 2010). Research on sexual victimization and professional boundaries are examined in detail and practices for maintaining appropriate professional boundaries are proposed in light of the previous research and expert suggestions. Additionally, an evidence-based study is proposed that could be beneficial to the juvenile facilities in this country by determining if these suggestions are helpful in creating a safer, more accountable atmosphere devoid of a code of silence in regards to sexual misconduct by staff or by inmates.

Keywords: juvenile, staff sexual misconduct, professional boundaries, prison rape

 

Professional Boundaries and Staff Sexual Misconduct: An Evidence-Based Proposal

            There have been a number of incidences of staff sexual misconduct that have been sensationalized in the media (Abner, Browning, & Clark, 2009). One of these cases occurred in Northern Virginia inPrinceWilliamCounty(Goodman, 2007). An entry-level officer and a jail officer with 20 years experience were both charged with having sexual relations with a male youth who was on house arrest. Neither of the officers was on duty when the sexual activity occurred. While it was declared to be consensual, the officers had custodial rights over the youth and were therefore arrested and charged. Oftentimes boundaries are blurred in the juvenile justice system when staff members find themselves attracted to the juvenile resident or client or are not quite sure if certain topics or behaviors are crossing the line (Okamoto, 2003; Torretta, 2004; Abner, Browning, & Clark, 2009). Individuals who work with youth in a detention center, residential setting, or elsewhere must establish and maintain professional boundaries in order to avoid staff sexual misconduct (Torretta, 2004; Plaut, 2008; Review Panel on Prison Rape, 2010). Research on sexual victimization and professional boundaries will be examined in detail, practices for maintaining appropriate professional boundaries will be proposed, and a study to evaluate the effectiveness of these suggestions.

Literature Review

Staff Sexual Misconduct and Harassment

Staff sexual misconduct (SSM) is defined as “…any sexual act or behavior, either consensual or non-consensual, which occurs between an offender and a correctional employee, volunteer, official visitor, or agency representative” (Abner, Browning, & Clark, 2009, p. 5). Another definition describes SSM as “…a range of sexually inappropriate and unprofessional behaviors that violate the boundary [emphasis added] between personal and professional behavior” (Roush, 2008, p. 32). No sexual behavior between staff and inmates can legally be considered consensual because there is a power differential between the two, with the staff member having power over the inmate (Abner, Browning, & Clark, 2009). There also exists staff sexual harassment which involves repetitive “verbal statements of a sexual nature to a youth” (Beck, Adams, & Guerino, 2008). The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) surveyed juvenile facilities in 2005-2006 and found that 32% of the reported allegations against staff were of staff sexual misconduct and 11% were of staff sexual harassment. Eighteen percent of the allegations against staff were substantiated in this report. In 2008, the BJS reported that 10.3% of surveyed youth reported incidences of staff sexual misconduct, with 4.3% of that 10.3% reporting that some sort of force was used (Beck,Harrison, & Guerino, 2010). This paper will examine only SSM. Overall, these numbers are disconcerting and one thing that can be done to reduce these incidences is to establish and maintain professional boundaries.

BJS Findings

The BJS findings are very informative and can help in the formation of better practices involving professional boundaries. Sixty-five percent of the incidents involving staff involved youth between the ages of 16 and 17 (Beck, Adams, & Guerino, 2008). The incidences involving staff were more likely to take place between 6 in the evening and 12 midnight outside of the victim’s room, with 80% reporting that an incidence or incidences had occurred in common areas such as a library, kitchen, classroom, office, closet, or supply room and 51% reported that the incidence(s) occurred in a bathroom or shower (Beck, Adams, & Guerino, 2008; Beck, Harrison, & Guerino, 2010). Eighty-eight percent of the youth surveyed in 2008 reported that they had been victimized more than once by staff (Beck, Harrison, & Guerino, 2010). Both the 2005-2006 and 2008 findings revealed that there were more substantiated occurrences of sexual violence in state juvenile systems (Beck, Adams, & Guerino, 2008; Beck, Harrison, & Guerino, 2010). Smaller facilities which hold 10-25 youth were much less likely to have reports of staff sexual misconduct (Beck, Adams, & Guerino, 2010). Male-only facilities reported the highest amounts of SSM. As the length of stay increased, the likelihood of victimization also increased, with youths who stayed less than 5 months being the least likely to be victimized. Twenty-seven percent of the male staff perpetrators and almost half (48%) of the female staff perpetrators had worked at the facility for 6 months or less (Beck, Adams, & Guerino, 2008). These data seem to suggest that older youth who stay longer than six months at a larger, state-run facility are more likely to be victimized in the evening or at night in a common area. These facts certainly help to better inform us in order to create a better definition of the boundary violations found in SSM (Roush, 2008). A set of practices in regards to professional boundaries will later be suggested for implementation based on this knowledge and on the suggestions of experts.

Professional Boundaries

            Professional boundaries are important in any relationship that involves a power differentiation (Abner, Browning, & Clark, 2009). SSM involves a power differentiation with the youth worker or counselor having more power over the inmate. The worker or counselor can deny the inmate privileges if he or she refuses to participate in the sexual activity or they may provide the inmate with more privileges if the inmate consents. By keeping these boundaries in check, a staff member can avoid situations that may lead to sexual misconduct. First, however, the staff member must understand what healthy professional boundaries are and what is considered a boundary violation. When working with at-risk clients, such as juvenile offenders, there are 3 general types of boundaries that must be considered, namely physical, mental, and emotional boundaries (Torretta, 2004). Physical boundaries are the physical area surrounding a person. There are many questions that staff members may be unsure of in regard to what physical boundaries are (Richmond, 2005). Is it acceptable to hug the client? Is it acceptable to pat him or her on the back?Richmond (2005) interviewed 10 young people in a residential treatment facility and found varying opinions about physical touch and hugs. Some of the teens expressed that hugs were appropriate in some situations but not others, while some of the other teens expressed no concern about hugging and suggested that, “…they should provide a nurturing environment for us. So I think that should be part of their job description—provide warm hugs” (Richmond, 2005, p. 63). This teen suggested that hugs were not sexual in nature and would therefore be acceptable in a juvenile facility. Some facilities believe that nonsexual touches may be beneficial to the client, while there are other facilities where touch is prohibited. However, research is not clear on when or if touch is helpful.

Another type of boundary is a mental boundary (Torretta, 2004). This involves a person’s thoughts, beliefs, and decisions. This type of boundary will not be discussed in this paper. The third and final boundary is the emotional boundary which certainly may have an impact on a juvenile inmate who is involved in staff sexual misconduct (Torretta, 2004). Emotional boundaries consist of a person’s feelings and self-esteem. Oftentimes in these SSM situations the inmate will feel betrayed because he or she is being violated by someone who is supposed to be protecting and supervising them (Abner, Browning, & Clark, 2009). Inmates who are victims of SSM often do not report these events because of fear, and therefore their emotional and psychological needs and injuries are not able to be met or addressed. Research has suggested that inmates who are victims of sexual assault in prison may experience fear, helplessness, depression, suicide ideation, and/or PTSD (Dumond, 2000). These are serious issues that need to be addressed, but may not be addressed due to the inmate’s fear of reporting (Abner, Browning, & Clark, 2009). With this knowledge, one must now consider how to define healthy boundaries as well as unhealthy boundaries.

To help determine whether or not a staff member working with at-risk youth may be crossing professional boundaries, Abner, Browning, & Clark (2009) developed a list of questions. Some questions that staff members should ask themselves are:

  • Do you look forward to seeing a particular offender when you come to work?
  • Have you done anything with an offender that you would not want your family or your supervisor to know about?
  • Would you be reluctant to have a coworker observe your behavior for an entire day?
  • Do you talk about your personal matters with offenders?
  • Do you believe that you can ask an offender to do personal favors for you?
  • Have you ever received personal advice from an offender?
  • Have you said anything to an offender that you would not want tape recorded?
  • Do you have thoughts or fantasies of touching a particular offender? Does this extend to planning how you can be alone with that offender?
  • Do you think you have the right to touch an offender whenever and wherever you want to do so?
  • Do you look forward to sharing good/bad news with a particular offender?
  • Do you think offenders are not allowed to say “no” to you, no matter what you ask?
  • Have you ever allowed an offender to talk to you about sexual experiences or sexual fantasies, or to tell sexual jokes in your presence? Have you ever shared these things with an offender? (p. 12)

If any of these questions can be answered affirmatively, the staff member may be crossing their professional boundaries or on the verge of crossing boundaries. Others have suggested that giving the client money, believing that the system or other staff members do not understand the client and giving out personal information to the client are also signs that the staff member may be in the process of crossing professional boundaries (Torretta, 2004). What may lead a staff member to cross boundaries? What methods have been suggested to aid in the prevention of crossing boundaries? Roush (2008) has suggested 3 items that may lead staff members to cross boundaries and commit acts of sexual violence, namely, an insufficient number of staff that cannot adequately supervise the inmates, a general lack of staff training about how to supervise properly, and an inability to screen out those individuals who desire to work with these youth for inappropriate reasons. One other reason that appears in the literature about crossing professional boundaries is a client’s sexual attractiveness (Okamoto, 2003). Okamoto (2003) interviewed 16 male practitioners at juvenile facilities inArizonaand found that these men felt that professional boundaries were especially necessary in order to help manage any sexual feelings they may have toward their at-risk female juvenile clients. In one interview, a practitioner describes his experiences:

To be honest, though, many girls are very attractive, and, I mean, you can’t deny that. A lot of them…dress seductively, because of their history. You can’t help notice a girl’s beauty…that’s just human nature…But, to get a clear sense of what you need to do, you can’t even go there. (p. 308)

As a part of human nature, sexual attractiveness is one of the many hurdles of professional boundaries that must be addressed. What, therefore, has been suggested in the past to prevent crossing professional boundaries? Several agencies have provided suggestions (Plaut, 2008; Roush, 2008; National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, 2009; English, Heil, & Dumond, 2010).

Previous Suggestions for Prevention

In a report that was submitted to the National Institute of Justice, English, Heil, and Dumond (2010) observed 5 juvenile jails and 3 juvenile residence facilities. They found that the best practices for preventing sexual assaults in these juvenile facilities began with the belief that juvenile offenders deserve safe surroundings. They declare that within each of these 8 facilities staff and inmates were expected to behave respectfully and staff members were trained to be able to communicate effectively with knowledge of how to maintain their authority while being approachable at the same time. They developed a list of items that were promising practices seen within the 8 facilities:

1. Leaders who promote values that advance safety, dignity, and respect for all residents, inmates, and staff;

2. Officials who actively seek better ways to manage the population and who integrate knowledge and ideas from a wide variety of sources including staff, professional associations, accreditation processes, and other agencies and facilities;

3. Open communication between managers and correctional staff, and between correctional staff and inmates and residents;

4. Recruitment and hiring of diverse individuals who are respectful towards others and have effective communication skills, and mentoring and succession planning;

5. Standardized and on-going staff training to transmit values through policies and practices;

6. Direct supervision architecture and direct supervision principles for the behavior management of residents and inmates;

7. Programs and services to (a) productively occupy the time of inmates, (b) meet the needs of prisoners and juveniles, and (c) improve the life outcomes of those who are incarcerated;

8. An objective classification system used to facilitate safety for inmates and staff;

9. A comprehensive and independent investigation process that emphasizes the following:

  • training, security, investigation (see Appendix B), and medical staff (see Appendix C) in responding appropriately to victims (see Appendix D), effective investigation techniques, and promoting cross-training
  • responding immediately to all reports of sexual assault investigating all incidents of sexual assault (see Appendix B)
  • sensitively responding to victims (see Appendix D), prosecuting criminal behavior when appropriate

10. A system of data collection, analysis, and incident tracking system that enables effective, data-driven decision making; and

11. Officials who are committed to (a) learning from litigation, (b) detecting and correcting mistakes, and (c) transparency of operation. (English, Heil, & Dumond, 2010, p. 15-16)

As was mentioned earlier, lack of direct supervision, which is the sixth item on this list, is one item that may lead staff members to cross boundaries and commit acts of sexual violence (Roush, 2008). English, Heil, & Dumond (2010) report that the 22 staff members that were involved in direct supervision facilities perceived more control than the other 60 staff members who were involved in remote supervision facilities. They suggest that constant, direct contact among the staff members and inmates will help the two groups to get along better and communicate more effectively. They label this the mere exposure effect and explain that inmates tend to view corrections officers and staff members more positively in direct supervision environments where there is constant exposure between the two groups.

The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (2009) also suggests that direct supervision methods should be used, along with many other helpful suggestions. They suggest that juvenile facilities should use knowledge from past assaults and knowledge of the facility’s physical layout to aid in prevention. Where have past sexual assaults occurred in the facility? Are there any dark, hidden areas or areas with physical barriers? Are there adequate amounts of staff on each shift? When during the day have previous assaults taken place? Are staff members and inmates taught the zero tolerance policies and the consequences for breaking these policies? Some things they suggest are: removing physical barriers or patrolling these areas better; making sure that there are adequate amounts of staff on each shift for better direct supervision; patrolling during the times when assaults have occurred in the past; installing monitoring devices such as cameras; and teaching staff members and inmates about the zero tolerance policies and consequences.

One licensed psychologist and certified sex therapist has also suggested a short, simple list of items that can help one to avoid crossing professional boundaries (Plaut, 2008; Smith, 2009). Plaut (2008) suggests that one must be sensitive to the client’s values, avoid intimate relationships with clients, be cautious about crossing nonsexual boundaries, including gift giving and gift acceptance, handle sexual advances by clients in a professional manner, and lastly, seek advice from coworkers if you are unsure of anything in regards to boundary crossing. Plaut tends to focus on medical students and faculty and uses case examples and a review of other literature to support his suggestions. While these are helpful suggestions, this author desires to use more of a research-based support for the suggestions which are to follow. Individuals who work with at-risk youth such as those in juvenile facilities certainly must learn how to establish and maintain professional boundaries before staff sexual misconduct occurs (Torretta, 2004; Plaut, 2008; Review Panel on Prison Rape, 2010).

Rationale and Method

Suggested Practices for Maintaining Professional Boundaries

            As mentioned previously, staff sexual misconduct (SSM) can be defined as “…a range of sexually inappropriate and unprofessional behaviors that violate the boundary [emphasis added] between personal and professional behavior” (Roush, 2008, p. 32). Breaking these boundaries may be problematic emotionally, psychologically, or even legally (Dumond, 2000; Torretta, 2004; Smith & Yarussi, 2007; Abner, Browning, & Clark, 2009). Legally a staff member convicted of “carnal knowledge” of a juvenile inmate can be convicted of a felony and can be charged with up to 5 years imprisonment (Smith & Yarussi, 2007, p. 108). SSM is a serious offense against a young person. Based upon the research that has been presented, the author will suggest practices and training that may help in preventing SSM.

What is known is that SSM tends to occur with older youth between the ages of 16 and 17 who stay at a larger, state-run facility for more than 6 months (Beck, Adams, & Guerino, 2008; Beck, Harrison, & Guerino, 2010). These youth are more likely to be victimized by staff members who have worked at the facility for 6 months or less and tends to occur in the evening or at night in a common area such as an office, classroom, or bathroom. Knowing the information that has been presented thus far, along with the knowledge of the more commonly reported issues, times, places, and participants of SSM, the author would suggest that in order to help prevent SSM, juvenile facilities should:

  • implement open door policies for staff offices so that everything is visible and there is a better ability to keep one accountable for one’s actions;
  • increase the youth-staff member ratios, making sure to keep the ratios of youth to staff members as minimal as possible;
  • increase surveillance, via electronic monitoring if possible, as well as increase direct supervision and contact by staff members in order to increase accountability and in order to gain rapport with the inmates by the mere exposure effect;
  • implement a “buddy system” where one staff member never approaches an inmate alone in order to increase surveillance and keep each member of the staff accountable for his or her actions;
  • create clear zero-tolerance policies and consequences that staff must be trained in and inmates must be informed of in order to again create an atmosphere of accountability and rapport;
  • implement a policy where staff members must weekly evaluate themselves using a checklist comprised of items involving youth-staff interactions such as the 12-item checklist examined earlier by Abner, Browning, and Clark (2009);
  • and, lastly, implement a policy of biweekly or monthly staff meetings where men staff meet with one other and women staff meet with one other and discuss policies, boundaries, and whether or not any one is concerned with their own behavior or that of another staff member.

While this is an extensive list, it may help to address some of the issues that are commonly reported in SSM situations. With these items in place, juvenile facilities could possibly experience an increase in rapport as well as accountability among staff and possibly even among the inmates. If this increase in rapport and accountability were to occur, there may be fewer incidences of staff sexual misconduct in juvenile facilities.

Evidence-based Research Proposal

To test the effectiveness of these 7 suggestions, the author proposes a study. The ideal study would involve contacting juvenile detention and residential facilities across the country and giving them each 2 months to respond. The researcher would need to develop a list of high youth-staff member ratio facilities, which could be defined as having at most 15 youth per 1 staff member, and then ask these facilities if they would be willing to implement the suggestions and be surveyed once a year for 10 years about their rates of staff sexual misconduct in order to study the effectiveness of the implementation of these suggestions. Another set of facilities would also be needed for a control group. This could be done by contacting other facilities across the country and asking if they would be willing to be surveyed once a year about their rates of staff sexual misconduct. Once the 2 month waiting period is over, the facilities that have expressed a willingness to participate in the study will again be contacted and given detailed instructions for implementation if part of the experimental group and the control group will be told that it will be contacted for surveying in approximately two years, and that the survey process will continue once a year for ten years. The experimental group will be instructed on how to implement these suggestions and given one year to begin implementation. They will also be told that one year after implementation begins they will be surveyed for the first time and will continue to be surveyed once a year for 10 years.

The survey will be composed of questions that discuss: (a) the demographics of the inmate victims; (b) the demographics of the alleged staff perpetrator; (c) the prevalence of staff sexual misconduct and staff sexual harassment, including how many assaults per inmate; (d) times of day when it occurred; (e) the length of time the offender has been working at the facility; (f) the length of the inmate’s stay; (g) the location(s) of the assault(s); (h) and the prevalence of the use of force in the assault(s). Some of the questions could be based on questions from past surveys and research, such as the studies by Beck, Adams, and Guerino (2008) and Beck,Harrison, and Guerino (2010). The researchers could also interview the staff members on: (a) their perceptions about their zero-tolerance policies, or lack thereof; (b) their perceptions of what types of policies and changes have been or would be helpful in reducing staff sexual misconduct; (c) and, their perceptions of who, when, and how staff members could become vulnerable to crossing professional boundaries and committing a sexual offense with a juvenile inmate or resident. This interviewing could be based on a study such as the study by Okamoto (2003) in which he interviewed therapists about their professional boundaries with clients, or such as the study by Okamoto and Chesney-Lind (2000) in which they interviewed therapists about their fears in working with at-risk youth.

Based on past research and suggestions, this study could be utilized to inform future policies, suggestions, and changes that are made within juvenile facilities. If any or all of the suggestions proposed by the author were effective in the experimental group, there would likely be some sort of reduction in the rates of staff sexual misconduct. However, this study would certainly be limited. First, there would be an inherent difference in the two groups in that the experimental group would all have high youth-staff member ratios while the control group would vary, and this could have an impact of its own on increasing or decreasing SSM. The experiment could be modified so that both groups varied in their youth-staff member ratios, but this would mean that the suggestion about ratios proposed by the author would no longer be a variable that was controlled. Secondly, and lastly, one of the stronger limitations would be that there may be facilities that would drop out of the study over the course of ten years and this would limit the data. However, despite these limitations, there could be small modifications that could be made if needed as previously mentioned.

Conclusion

This study could be beneficial to the juvenile facilities in this country by determining if these suggestions are helpful in creating a safer, more accountable atmosphere devoid of a code of silence in regards to sexual misconduct by staff or by inmates (Smith & Yarussi, 2007; English, Heil, & Dumond, 2010). With these suggested items in place, juvenile facilities could possibly experience an increase in rapport as well as accountability among staff and possibly even among the inmates. If this increase in rapport and accountability were to occur, there may be fewer incidences of staff sexual misconduct in juvenile facilities. This type of study could provide further insight into policies and changes that need to be made in order to reduce staff sexual misconduct because it examines items that are based on previous research and expert suggestions. The author recommends this study be performed in order to help maintain professional boundaries and reduce SSM in juvenile facilities.

 

References

Abner, C. E., Browning, J., & Clark, J. (2009). Preventing and responding to corrections-based sexual abuse: A guide for community corrections professionals. Retrieved from the American Probation and Parole Association website: http://www.appa-net.org/eweb/docs/APPA/pubs/PRCBSA.pdf

Beck, A. J., Adams, D. B., & Guerino, P. (2008). Sexual violence reported by juvenile correctional authorities, 2005-06 (NCJ Report No. 215337). Retrieved from the Bureau of Justice Statistics website: http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/svrjca0506.pdf

Beck, A. J., Harrison, P. M., & Guerino, P. (2010). Sexual victimization in juvenile facilities reported by youth, 2008-09 (NCJ Report No. 228416). Retrieved from the Bureau of Justice Statistics website: http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/svjfry09.pdf

Dumond, R. W. (2000). Inmate sexual assault: The plague that persists. The Prison Journal, 80, 407-414.

English, K., Heil, P., & Dumond, R. (2010). Sexual assault in jail and juvenile facilities: Promising practices for prevention and response, final report. (NIJ Document No. 236738). Retrieved from National Institute of Justice website: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/236738.pdf

Goodman, C. (2007, August 17). 2nd officer charged in sex scandal. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/regional

National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. (2009). Standards for the prevention, detection, response, and monitoring of sexual abuse in juvenile facilities. Retrieved from the National Criminal Justice Reference Service website: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/226684.pdf

Okamoto, S. K., & Chesney-Lind, M. (2000). The relationship between gender and practitioners’ fear in working with high-risk adolescents. Child and Youth Care Forum, 29(6), 373-383.

Okamoto, S.K. (2003). The function of professional boundaries in the therapeutic relationship between male practitioners and female youth clients. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 20(4), 303-313.

Plaut, S. M. (2008). Sexual and nonsexual boundaries in professional relationships: Principles and teaching guidelines. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 23(1), 85-94.

Review Panel on Prison Rape. (2010). Report on sexual victimization in juvenile correctional facilities. Retrieved from the Office of Justice Programs website: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/reviewpanel/reviewpanel.htm

Richmond, P. A. (2005). Perspectives of professional boundaries from adolescent females in a residential treatment facility: A case study (Doctoral dissertation, The Ohio State University). Retrieved from http://etd.ohiolink.edu/send-pdf.cgi/Richmond%20Pamela%20Ann.pdf?osu1132610169

Roush, D. W. (2008). Staff sexual misconduct in juvenile justice facilities: Implications for work force training. Corrections Today, 70(1), 32-34.

Smith, B. V., & Yarussi, J. M. (2007). Breaking the code of silence: Correctional officers’ handbook on identifying and addressing sexual misconduct. Retrieved from the National Institute of Corrections website: http://static.nicic.gov/Library/022473.pdf

Smith, J. B. (2009, September 29). Focus on: Dr. S. Michael Plaut. Retrieved from http://www.focusonthecoast.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=478

Torretta, A. (2004). Maintaining healthy boundaries when working with at-risk audiences. The Journal of Extension, 42(6). Retrieved from http://www.joe.org/joe/2004december/iw5.php

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