Vermont's Successful Sexual Offender Program Is Undergoing Big Changes

Aug 3, 2015

There are changes afoot in the way Vermont's Corrections Department houses and treats sexual offenders. The program has most recently been located at facilities in Windsor and Springfield. Now most of it is moving to the Northwest Correctional Center in St. Albans and there's a big turnover in service providers.

Vermont has long been recognized as a leader in sexual offender treatment, with recidivism rates hovering around 5 percent. Now that the program is moving to a new location, none of the independent contractors who have been working with incarcerated offenders have re-applied for their jobs, as required by the Department of Corrections.

The departing therapists do not want to speak publicly about their decisions to leave the program. Several say privately they would be willing to move from the Upper Valley to St. Albans but fear they would not have job security. A few are unhappy with the direction treatment is taking toward what corrections officials call "manualized intervention." Here's how DOC Program Services Director Kim Bushey defines that term:

"'Manualized' means that the curriculum has been developed in a particular order that usually builds on each other. Lessons build on each other, or skills practice build on each other and that there is some structured guidance around how the material gets presented," Bushey explained.

Bushey says she knows some therapists at first resisted the new written curriculum and would rather have more freedom to treat each individual offender differently. But she says it's based on sound research about what triggers sexual misbehavior, and what kinds of interventions are needed to change it. Now that the former therapists have left the program it will be overseen by a newly hired New Hampshire-based contractor called Re-Entry Resources. Bushey acknowledges that the company has more experience in substance abuse treatment than in sexual offender intervention.

"But we also have consultation and they have consultation with experts in the sex offender treatment and assessment world," she said.

Robert Lang, the state's contact for Re-Entry resources, declined to be interviewed. The Department of Corrections provided the $826,000 contract but it does not contain much information about the new the Manchester-New Hampshire based company. The contract covers two years and funds four interventionists.

Bushey says using this single contractor will easier to manage than the separate therapists. She believes Lang will be able to hire replacements for the outgoing therapists who will be able to get positive results by integrating written curriculum into group therapy.

"Now we are preparing for change because we are transitioning the program and we have a new contractor. So we are preparing to shift some of the curriculum around and provide a structured and individual model and a supervision model — but other than that nothing else has really changed," Bushey said.

"We are transitioning the [sexual offender] program and we have a new contractor. So we are preparing to shift some of the curriculum around and provide a structured and individual model and a supervision model — but other than that nothing else has really changed." - Kim Bushey, DOC program services director

Nevertheless, one sexual offender treatment specialist who has admired Vermont's program in the past does have concerns about the direction it seems to be taking.

David Prescott is past president of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Offenders, and he has followed the trend away from individual therapy to heavier reliance on manuals. Even though he has used some of that curriculum successfully by revising it, he still can understand why veteran therapists have left Vermont's program.

"Changes such as going to a highly manualized treatment association — it has been responsible for people having second thoughts about staying in the field, and frankly one of them is me. I am very aware that research has shown that who the therapist is is very important to how well treatment actually works," said Prescott.

"Changes such as going to a highly manualized treatment association — it has been responsible for people having second thoughts about staying in the field." - David Prescott, former president of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Offenders

It's too soon to tell if the new contractor will get the positive recidivism results of the staff who have left. But the legislature's corrections oversight committee says it will keep a close eye on all the changes underway.