The topic addressed in this research is the effect of secondary trauma on parole officers tasked with the supervision of sex offenders. For the sake of this research, secondary trauma is described as the cognitive and emotional experiences from hearing or learning of stories that detail one or more traumatic events. The researchers recorded first-hand accounts of officer and supervisor experiences, and how they manage symptoms of secondary trauma. Both parole officers and supervisory parole officers were included in the sample of 49 participants.
Their view on the stressors and departmental support in relation to their profession were collected by the researcher’s study. By the end of 2009, parole departments were tasked with supervising 58,546 sex offenders (Severson, M ; Pettus-Davis, C, 2011). Prior to this study, there was limited research available pertaining to supervising sex offenders and the effects of symptoms associated with secondary trauma with parole officers. Secondary trauma can elicit similar symptoms to that of post-traumatic stress disorder such as hypervigilance, difficulty sleeping, sudden recollection of events, etc. According to Severson and Pettus-Davis (2011), studies have shown that 46% to 80% of mental health practitioners experience symptoms associated with secondary trauma.
To this point, clinicians and parole officers share a common susceptibility, hearing or seeing the details of victimization and heinous acts of sexual violence. In conducting their study, Severson and Pettus-Davis (2011) drew from prior research done on parole officers in a midwestern state, including both rural and urban areas. The authors used the data from the prior study to solicit their sample of parole officers and parole supervisors. A census recruitment strategy was utilized, and 49 officers and supervisors were used as the sample population. Once the participants were selected, seven focus groups were created, five for officers and two for supervisors. Of the officers and supervisors selected, their experience working with sex offenders ranged from a few months to decades of involvement. During the focus groups, the researchers asked a battery of questions pertaining to officer experiences, agency policy, and training aspects.
The face-to-face interviews were recorded, and the transcripts saved on word documents. Aiding the authors were research assistants who took detailed notes of the officers and supervisors’ nonverbal cues to ascertain group dynamics in relation to the questions asked. As a result of their research, Severson and Pettus-Davis (2011) found the experiences associated with working sex offenders produced high levels of stress and behaviors associated with symptoms of secondary trauma. The officers noted their high level of stress often carried over to their personal lives. To this point, one officer recalled a time off-duty when he saw an elderly man walking with a child. The negative effects of his job supervising sex offenders made him speculate whether the older man was a sex offender.
Additionally, officers stated the high stress and manipulative nature of the offenders creates a hypervigilant and untrusting relationship with the sex offenders they supervise. An interesting aspect of their experience with these offenders was noted by many of the officers. Some participants in the study recalled feeling as though their supervisees were trying to groom them while under supervision. Moreover, the sex offender would attempt to manipulate the officer similar to the behaviors used with potential victims. The authors of the study also found the effects the physical and emotional impact felt by parole officers tasked with supervising sex offenders.
One officer noted after reading one offender investigative report, he felt physically ill, to the point he almost vomited. In relation to coping strategies and departmental support, Severson and Pettus-Davis (2011) concluded the parole officers in the study utilized minimal coping techniques. One officer stated the fear of their supervisee absconding and victimizing another individual remained in his thoughts throughout his off-duty hours. In terms of coping, one of the participants claimed the best way to cope with the stressors of supervising sex offenders was to switch to another unit within the department. Further, one officer identified the most effective coping tool was to compartmentalize most details of the offense. When questioned about departmental support, most officers and supervisors said they received very little support from their respective departments. More alarming, the majority of the participants stated their departments lacked training relating to the stressors and effects of secondary trauma. In conclusion, both parole officers and supervisory parole officers detailed the effects of supervising sex offenders.
Symptoms associated with secondary trauma were consistent with the participant’s responses, however, a diagnosis was outside the scope of the researcher’s abilities. Nonetheless, the stressful nature of supervising sex offenders was apparent in the responses given by the officers. Granted, this study used a small sample of parole officers from a midwestern state, however, it is plausible to believe these experiences are similar throughout the country. Parole departments should make training a priority for those supervising sex offenders, to familiarize officers with the warning signs of secondhand trauma. This would ensure parole officers are being more proactive in minimizing the risks associated with this distress.