Fellow Therapists: Do You Work With Sex Offenders? By Susan Winston, LMFT on 10/7/21 - 3:24 PM

I have had a career-long commitment, or understanding, primarily with myself, but also with insurance companies, that I choose to not work with child-abusers. It is not that I can’t see redemptive possibilities. It is just that I know I have a strong bias and am not willing to forge a pathway to empathy for those who molest children. It is a boundary I set when deciding whom and who not to treat. My thoughts about this dilemma came to the forefront very recently.

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Yesterday, a man who had been on my therapy waiting list finally arrived at my office. On his intake he noted a recent breakup with his girlfriend of several months. He stated he experienced depression and needed help to “get over the relationship.” It was only in session that the rest of his concerns emerged. At the beginning of their relationship, he told her that he had been married and had several children, but lost custody of them in the divorce. At that time, he was in deep financial trouble, having lost his then recently-purchased home, cars, and his wife to her drug addiction. Nevertheless, the Department of Children and Families (DCF) had determined that neither he nor his ex-wife were capable of raising their children, who were subsequently placed into foster care.

The divorce and subsequent foster placement of the children occurred several years prior to my meeting with him. Several of the children had since reached the age of majority. For a seemingly inexplicable reason, the foster parent who later became the adoptive parent of several of the children took it upon herself to contact my client’s girlfriend (I have no idea how she learned about her) in order to warn her that my client had been accused by his then young daughter of inappropriately touching her. True? Not true?

My client vehemently denied that this ever happened and maintains that position to date. According to him, there had been no legal proceedings, and instead, four hours of reported verbal assault by the local police. He was then purportedly presented with paperwork which he signed without reading. Why? As it turned out, he could not read. He only recently discovered that the paperwork was an affirmation of his guilt, precipitating removal of his contact privileges with his children. The most important sentence, that he could not read and was not read to him, was that he was (and possibly still is) forbidden to be around all children under a certain age. He was later told by his ex-wife that he had been placed on the state Registry of Sex Offenders. Boundary alert! But there was something about this man that compelled me to search a bit deeper.

It was easy for me to confirm that he had never been placed on that Registry through a simple request form and a phone call to the state. But what about the other accusations? I suggested he engage an attorney to find out whatever he could from the DCF offices in his state. As stated, he and his wife had been deemed unfit and the children were placed in foster care, from which they were eventually adopted. He has not seen these children since.

If he was and still is a concerned parent, I wondered why would he not have fought this and tried for all these years to see his children? He did admit that one of his older children had recently contacted him and said that the child abuse was a fiction delivered to DCF by his mother, no doubt out of anger and rooted in her addiction. This child, now an adult, refuses to make a legal statement.

As it turns out, DCF initially denied him access to any of the historical paperwork, reportedly stating that it was too late that they could not find electronic versions of it. As the children were no longer “his,” no documents could or would be turned over to him. Nevertheless, his newly-retained attorney persisted and indicated that there was indeed a document my client is not aware of indicating only that in saying goodbye to his children he was “observed hugging his daughter tightly.” This seemed appropriate to me, as he was saying goodbye to her for an indeterminable length of time. As per the attorney’s suggestion, I have not disclosed the existence of the document to my client. There may be more information forthcoming, and while I trust my intuition and am fairly accurate in “reading” my clients, I would be profoundly sad to learn that these accusations of child abuse against this man are true. It will be up to his attorney to share any “new” findings of legal significance. For now, my client is very relieved to know that he is not listed on his state’s offender registry.

Given that he has recently lost another relationship, I believe that my job at this point is to help this man try and understand why that relationship ended and to move forward if possible. His only response in this context thus far is that he just feels more broken. In light of my long-term and deeply-held conviction to not treat child abusers, I question whether I am comfortable treating him. Or, I wonder, am I too far in right now to bow out should more information come forth indicating that the charges of child abuse were indeed valid? As a parent, I intellectually appreciate how the trauma and drama of those events converged in a legal mess for this naïve, then-illiterate man who struggles to date, but am disturbed by his seeming inability or lack of initiative to have fought for custody and have found a way to hold on to his children.


As a therapist, I have asked myself new questions about how to set professional boundaries as to who I do and do not choose to treat. Do I believe everyone deserves a second chance? No—not when it comes to abusing a child. But this is not a matter of another shot at life. This is partly a story of a man who carries with him the stigma of assuming he was listed as a sex offender in the state for all these years. That was simply not true. A victim of a vicious ex-wife, a potentially inept police team, the inability to read, and the lack of good legal counsel at the time, conspired to trap this man, holding him hostage for wrongs not committed. Had he been found to be an abuser, DCF would have reported him to the state and he would have been on their list. That was never the case. And what about when these boundary lines become blurred? How do I (re)define my role in order to help a client like this one to establish new goals in the center of a complicated and lingering legal morass that may never be resolved? I have decided, at least for now, to continue to meet with him. But what if information does indeed emerge that implicates him? Do I search for redemption or reestablish my professional boundaries? I do not have that answer, at least at this moment in time.

File under: Law & Ethics, Musings and Reflections