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Counseling Female Offenders and Victims
Book review

By Donna Cavaluzzi
Posted Thursday, March 20, 2003

Counseling Female Offenders and Victims, by Katherine van Wormer. (2001). Springer Publishing Company, New York, 392 pp., $49.95.

Counseling Female Offenders and Victims brings to life a compelling account of women in the United States prison system. Part I of this book, "Victimization to Empowerment," details the history of how women for generations have been victimized by the social control of men. The author details why women have been led down the pathway to crime, and how we as individuals in corroboration with society can help empower women to regain control over their own lives. Katherine van Wormer reminds us of the old cliché "history repeats itself." In essence, those who can hold their own will do so, and those who cannot will we be subject to their prey. Van Wormer gives an eye-opening look at how institutions who lead this country, punish women of color in poverty.

van Wormer opens her first chapter with the statement, "Where there is no dream people will perish." All of us at one time or another have been victim to society's failure to meet our needs. This book is an excellent readable tool for social work students, professionals, and lawmakers to gain a comprehensive understanding that the criminal justice system is not about justice at all, but about the punitive approaches that keep women stagnant, revictimized, and without hope for a future. The violence perpetrated by men toward young girls and women is a major focus of this book and is a continued epidemic in society today. While crime rates are down, incarceration rates for women are up. van Wormer speaks to how early childhood trauma such as physical and sexual abuse—compounded by being female, poor, and a minority—will undoubtedly create a woman with low self-esteem who will predictably have a severe mistrust of the people in society. We see how drug addiction is used to self-medicate oneself from a painful existence and to numb the post-traumatic stress from the early trauma these women endure.

The author comments on how the media plays a significant factor in showing women as failures and highlights only those who have done wrong and are repeat offenders. She presents the question, "How do you promote strength in the very structure that was proposed to intimidate and control?" She shows how "the treatment relationship" helps the victim build a sense of empowerment. The basic social work tenets of using the client's language, reframing, validating, breaking down of illogical thoughts, and collaborating instead of dictating help victims see they can take control and make good choices with their lives with the worker's support. Review of trauma with the victim gives them new understanding of the damaged self they see. Moving toward acceptance of their life situations helps victims take control and find new ways of adapting.

Most women are incarcerated as a result of mandatory drug sentencing laws.Prison conditions are inhumane, with medical and mental health services being severely inadequate and questionable. Custodial oversight by male guards doing strip and pat searches is a violation of human rights. Females from poor inner city life are forced to deal early and on a regular basis with problems of abuse, drugs, pregnancy, and rough treatment by authorities. Their children are likely to carry on the tradition.

Male guards reenact the same brutal treatment these women have received on the outside. The author shows how sometimes prison life provides a respite from a traumatizing and harsh world. Gangs and prison subcultures offer family type relationships as well as protection. Many women are inclined to choose romantic partners who appear familiar to them, those who are abusive, controlling, and law breaking. The compulsion to repeat patterns we have learned from our families is common to us all, and these patterns cannot be broken when there is no one to support and show us a better way.

van Wormer tells the reader not all is lost and there is reason to be hopeful. Many prisons and jails are showing greater sensitivity to the special needs of women. Although social work schools have been teaching a supportive and strengths perspective approach as a treatment model, van Wormer brings the reader a new dimension to the framework. She reinforces looking at the solution to the problem. Efforts to build and enhance personal power in people who feel powerless are the basic components of the strengths perspective. It is through the victim's self-awareness, reevaluation, and societal support that the damage will be repaired

Reviewed by Donna Cavalluzzi, CSW, Domestic Violence Coordinator, Elmhurst Hospital Center, Elmhurst, NY.

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