In treating a female who sexually abuses a minor, what should the clinician keep in mind? Is the treatment plan different for a female offender than a male?
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The following vignette is an amalgamation of several different cases described by the media.1 It highlights several characteristics common among women who sexually abuse their students.
Questions to consider when reading the case
1. In treating a female who sexually abuses a minor, what should the clinician keep in mind?
2. Is the treatment plan different for a female offender than a male?
3. How might you counsel Joe's upset mother?
4. If Joe were to inform you that he believes he and Mrs Smith are "truly in love" - how might you counsel him?
Mrs Smith was a 28-year-old, high school biology teacher in a small town. She was well liked by students, parents, and colleagues. Students easily identified with her because of her youthful appearance. Soon after she started teaching, rumors surfaced that photos of her wearing seductive attire were available on the Internet. Although this caused a stir within the school, the administration did not become involved. Mrs Smith admitted that these pictures were of her, appeared contrite, and explained that they were taken some time ago; the incident was forgotten relatively quickly.
During the fall of the next school year, Mrs Smith began attending many high school football games. Unbeknownst to others, she started paying close attention to one of the players, who was also one of her students. Joe was a 14-year-old varsity linebacker who was unusually tall for his age. He did not often socialize with his teammates and was considered a loner.
Mrs Smith initially contacted Joe by e-mail, offering to assist him with his homework after school in her classroom. He accepted, flattered by the attention from an attractive, young female teacher. These tutorial sessions then moved to her home on Thursday evenings. Mrs Smith began asking him increasingly personal questions during these sessions. Initially, she inquired how he felt about various female classmates, and then eventually about his past sexual activities.
After 6 months, she encouraged him to take an overnight trip with her to a museum located a few hours away. She told him that his parents might be uncomfortable with the idea, so she encouraged him to tell them that he was spending the night at a friend’s house. It was during this trip that Mrs Smith and Joe first engaged in sexual activity, which both later described as consensual. Following the initial encounter, their meetings took place with increasing frequency: at first limited to hotels, then in her car, and finally in her classroom during her free period.
Joe’s parents noticed that his school performance was slipping and his few friends denied any recent contact with him. Concerned, his parents searched his room. Under his bed, they found a number of love letters from Mrs Smith, and they discovered on his computer a file containing photos of Mrs Smith and their son engaging in sexual activity. Joe’s parents approached the school board and the police with their findings.
We invite your comments below. The authors will review your responses and give their feedback in coming weeks. See the next page for key teaching points.
For further reading, see the earlier published article, “Lessons to Learn: Female Educators Who Sexually Abuse Their Students,” on which this case is based.
FROM THE AUTHORS: Key Teaching Points Based on Reader Comments
Reader comment:"One can clearly see in the vignette how she groomed him. She knew he was a loner and used that to her advantage, she was very predatory in her actions."Teaching Tip 1: This is an excellent point. In my experience consulting with school administrators and attorneys in the wake of these incidents, the grooming pattern was invariably present and almost painfully obvious. How is it that parents miss the signs? Very often, they have been groomed as well. The offender purposely gains their trust, puts them at ease, and "assures" them that they have nothing but the child's best interests at heart. To busy parents with a struggling child, this can seem like a Godsend. However, it is this phenomenon that can cause parents to overlook the inappropriate boundary crossings that become more frequent and progressive.
For example, in the case of Joe, the tutorial sessions after school would not raise any suspicions. But once the sessions moved to the teacher's home, and then progressed to an overnight trip, parental concern should pique.
Reader comment: “Keeping in mind that sexually acting out is a sign of bipolar, if I were her psychiatrist, I would be sure to screen her for bipolar disorder and treat her accordingly.”
Teaching Tip 2: It is astute to consider the possibility of mania where uncharacteristic sexual behavior is concerned. In fact, in one notable case, teacher Debra Lafave claimed that she suffered from bipolar disorder at the time she engaged in sexual misconduct with a 14 year old student.1 However, she was unable to raise any type of mental health defense, and pleaded guilty in 2005 to Lewd or Lascivious Battery. Of course, the majority of teacher sexual abusers will demonstrate little in the way of serious mental illness.2
Reader comment:"The important aspect to note in this case is whether it is a case of sexual abuse or some sort of 'counter-transference'? Had it been a case of sexual abuse, it would have happened with more than one student by the offending teacher. Transference is fairly common in students towards their teachers belonging to opposite sex."Teaching Tip 3: Indeed, transference and counter-transference, as described in the psychoanalytic and psychotherapy literature, are constantly occurring regardless of the nature of the relationship. As opposed to a pathological process, these phenomena are meant to generally describe how we relate to one another via evoked past experiences and relationships, and we psychiatrists try to stay attuned to this so as to make use of it in psychotherapy in a way that is helpful to the patient. The teacher-student relationship does share some similarities with the therapist-patient relationship in that both involve a power imbalance, the need for trust, and the over-arching goal of the former placing the latter's best interests first. Research has shown that teachers, by and large, are acutely aware of this special relationship and the heavy ethical burden it comes with. In a study of teachers’ opinions on ethical standards, teachers rated boundary violations as the single most serious ethical violation.3–Dr Knoll
References1. See: http://edition.cnn.com/2005/LAW/11/22/teacher.sex/index.html.
2. Moulden H, Firestone P, Kingston D, Wexler A. A description of sexual offending committed by Canadian teachers. J Child Sex Abuse. 2010;19:403-418.
3. Barrett DE, Headly KN, Stovall B, Witte JC. Teachers’ perceptions of the frequency and seriousness of violations of ethical standards. J Psychol. 2006;140:421-433.
The big list: female teachers with students. WorldNetDaily Web site.
. Accessed April 10, 2012.