Criminal, dangerous, scary, stay away, scared, murder, watch out, offensive, terrible, aggressive…these are some of the phrases chosen to describe “violent offenders” in a free association exercise.
On April 11, Nicole Rochat, LMSW, Director of Social Work/Reentry Program at Office of the Appellate Defender (OAD) and Bill Brosh, LCSW, Forensic Social Worker at Legal Aid Society challenged attendees to re-frame these labels to avoid “othering” in a workshop entitled “No One Wants to Work With Me:” Working with ‘Difficult’ Populations, hosted by the Criminal Justice Caucus in partnership with the Men’s Caucus.
Parent, student, classmate, relative, teacher, friend, boss…if we are going to label people, these words do a much better job of identifying the many roles people play outside of the criminal justice system.
Mr. Brosh drew an important distinction when we talk about “difficult” clients; some clients present as difficult for us to work with professionally because they are non-compliant, challenging, or defiant, while others are difficult for us to work with personally because they committed a heinous crime but we often find them to be very engaging and likeable. “It’s very upsetting when your entire worldview gets challenged. That’s why we need to separate the behavior from the human being,” he explained.
So, what is it about working with certain populations or individuals that makes us so uncomfortable? The feelings identified related to anxiety, anger, frustration, powerlessness, fear, and being unsafe. In response to a question about how to empathize with someone when you cannot understand how they could have committed a certain crime a participant stated, “I could never murder someone else. I just couldn’t.” Mr. Brosh responded, “It’s very hard to know what you would do when the pressure gets turned up and up and up… Really, you could do almost anything. You might just be capable of doing things you never thought you could do.”
Mr. Brosh added, “What is your view of humanity? How does the world really work? If you come into the room with some kind of mindfulness and acceptance around the reality of how humanity works, it makes it much easier to work through some really challenging stuff. I’m not saying you should accept heinous crimes as okay from a judgmental place; just that this is the reality and to be accepting of everything is often so challenging.”
Ms. Rochat ended the workshop by showing a clip from MTV’s True Life: Sex Offender followed by a brief discussion about our misconceptions and judgments of people labeled registered sex offenders. She encouraged the room to consider whether or not the registry requirements actually promotes public safety or just serves to publicly shame individuals who have already served them time. The title of this workshop came from a client at OAD on the sex offender registry who has been told so many times that he is unworthy and undeserving that he really started believing it and questioned why anyone would want to work with or help someone like him.
The light at the end of the tunnel: “some people want to work with me.” While they are certainly not the majority, there are quite a few providers who genuinely want to work with those who are routinely marginalized and oppressed, pushed to the outer limits of society and deemed undeserving by most others. Ms. Rochat acknowledged that it is perfectly acceptable to questions why we would want to help anyone who has harmed someone else, but she forced us all to remember, “Everybody is a human being with a story.”
Brisson-Smith, A., Capozziello, C., Gunther, C. J., & Kagan, S. (2009, September 24). Patient Voices: O.C.D. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/09/24/health/healthguide/TE_OCD.html?ref=health
Conover, T. (Host). (2010, February 8). All prisoners lie. The Moth Podcast. Podcast retrieved from The Moth Podcast: http://www.tedconover.com/2010/02/1797/
Conover, T. (2001). Newjack: Guarding sing sing. Vintage Books.
I’m a sex offender [Television series episode]. (2012). In True Life. MTV Productions. Retrieved from http://www.mtv.com/videos/true-life-im-a-sex-offender/1677462/playlist.jhtml
Isett, S., Kagan, S., Makarewicz, B., Sauger, J., Smialowski, B., & Waselchuk, L. (2008, July 16). Patient voices: Bipolar disorder. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2008/07/16/health/healthguide/TE_BIPOLAR_CLIPS.html
Miller, T. (Director) (2011). 4 Myths About Attica [Web]. Retrieved from http://vimeo.com/29285165
The Legal Aid Society is a private, not-for-profit legal services organization that provides legal representation to low-income New Yorkers. It is dedicated to one simple but powerful belief: that no New Yorker should be denied access to justice because of poverty. Forensic Social Workers at Legal Aid Society interview and assess clients’ needs and readiness for treatment, investigate and write psychosocial reports and pre-pleading and pre-sentencing memorandum and advocacy reports, advocate in court for clients, coordinate service provision, and identify and secure appropriate alternative-to-incarceration program placements.
* Check out Bill Brosh’s private counseling services at http://www.billbrosh.org *
* Check out Nicole Rochat’s holistic health counseling services at http://nicolerochat.com *