BY LAURIE HAYES
FOR COUNSELING TODAY
Like stealing candy from a baby
It may seem like small-time crime to some, but the seriousness of shoplifting goes beyond stealing a pack of gum from a convenience store and can turn into a full-blown obsession.
More than 70 percent of all of the crimes committed in this country are theft related, making it all but certain that most people will face having property, valuables or cash stolen from them at some point in their lives. And while these losses are likely to have a lasting impact on the victims, most thieves will never give their actions a second thought - unless they get caught.
This is because thieves think differently from other people, according to Steven Houseworth, founder of "THEFT TALK", a counseling service dedicated to theft diversion and prevention counseling based in Portland, Ore.
"Theft offenders by and large do not believe that they are having any adverse impact on other human beings," he said. At "THEFT TALK", Houseworth and his associates work to disprove this belief by encouraging offenders to examine their own thinking, attitudes and beliefs.
Houseworth began to develop the underlying premise of "THEFT TALK" in the mid-1970s when he and future partner Patrick Murphy were beginning their careers as juvenile court counselors.
He vividly recalls meeting his first client, a young man who had burglarized a home. "I thought, 'Oh my Gosh. This kid is a burglar. What am I going to do with him?' Even after years of college study and preparation, this first client showed me that I was not at all prepared to effectively intervene in the lives of people who commit crimes," he said.
Houseworth eventually resorted to traditional intervention techniques, including punishment in the form of restitution and community service; helping with the client's employment and/or family situation; assigning probation and weekly check-ins; and reviewing the laws surrounding theft and the consequences for violating them.
He soon found himself frustrated with these options, however. While there was little doubt that each may have contributed to some improvement in the client's life, Houseworth was increasingly convinced that none of these approaches made a significant difference in the task at hand - correcting the criminal behavior.
This frustration, combined with a personal interest in the psychology behind what causes a person to steal, inspired Houseworth and Murphy to specialize in theft counseling. Their ensuing research uncovered three primary differences between people who steal and those who don't.
"To put it simply," Houseworth, who has since earned an MA in Counseling Psychology from Lewis & Clark College, explained, "those differences include an overdose of selfishness, a stronger than normal attraction to the forbidden and thinking errors in the way they think about stealing."
This understanding paved the way for Houseworth and Murphy to establish "THEFT TALK" Counseling Service Inc. Eighteen years and 48,000 offenders later, Houseworth remains convinced of the existence of these differences and of the ability of a person to change with appropriate counseling.
"THEFT TALK"- found online at www.thefttalkcom - also sponsors training sessions for a variety of mental health professions that deal with theft offenders, including corrections officials and school counselors. In addition, the service conducts school assemblies and other informational seminars.
"THEFT TALK" is currently used by the Washington County Juvenile Justice Department among others to counsel youths who are caught stealing.
"It has been a great resource for us," said Barbara Newcomb, a juvenile counselor with the department. "The theft class was commonly used as a consequence for kids who have stealing issues."
She said the program has consistently gotten good feedback, especially from parents. "They like that it forces the kids to talk about what they have done and to think about the consequences," Newcomb added.
She noted that she is philosophically in line with the program, especially the message that the offender is the only person who can stop himself or herself from stealing. "You can't be supervised 24/7," she said.
However, Houseworth noted, getting theft offenders to want to stop is easier said than done.
"Stealing is obviously a very self-rewarding behavior," he said. "But there is something inherent in most of us that keeps us from crossing that line, a self punishment that won't let us act on such thoughts."
An extreme example of this "self-punishment" occurs if an average person has thoughts about killing someone. "Just the thought evokes a gut wrenching reaction," Houseworth, said. "This is self-punishment."
When a person is lacking in the self-punishment thought, process regarding theft, he or she may begin by what Houseworth refers to as "mental rehearsing," or just thinking about stealing with no conscious intent to go through with the act.
Eventually, he said, the individual can become desensitized to the thought until it becomes exciting or even obsessive. ("At this point in counseling, I always see bobbing heads among the chronic offenders," Houseworth noted.) The frequency with which someone steals is directly related to the frequency that they mentally rehearse, he added.
Further encroaching on their ability to self-punish, Houseworth said, is the fact that many theft offenders embrace "thinking errors" about the consequences of their actions.
"The fact is that when people make the choice to steal, they often times base this choice on misconceptions and or inaccurate information. And when people make choices in, this manner, they often choose poorly," he said. "We found that theft offenders have no conception of the effect that they have on their victim. Even if they are stealing from a person directly, they frequently believe that the victim is too rich to miss the property or insured in such a way that he or, she will be compensated for the loss."
The existence of such "thinking errors," when combined with another basic premise of "THEFT TALK"- that most people are not willing to cause injury to others if they are aware of, and fully understand the injury - led Houseworth to develop a counseling approach that invites the offenders to challenge their own values and beliefs.
"People are always asking me how I talk people out of stealing," he said. "My answer is always that I don't even try. Instead, our approach recognizes that we can't control the behavior of or make decisions for theft offenders. We also realize that threats, scare tactics and educating about the possible consequences of stealing are ineffective."
"We focus on thinking," Houseworth continued. "We try to demonstrate that every time someone steals, someone gets injured."
Those who attend the "THEFT TALK" counseling sessions spend a good bit of their time learning exactly how their offenses have caused real hurt to real people. They focus on exactly who was impacted when they committed their crimes and how. They discuss financial injury - not merely, the loss of money but how that loss affects the other aspects of their victims' lives.
One of the most striking ways of conveying this message is through the use of a victim impact panel. Victims of theft appear in person in front of chronic offenders and describe their experiences, emphasizing how the theft hurt them and their families.
Recognizing the injuries they have caused can be quite a revelation to some offenders.
Emily, 23, was ordered to participate in the "THEFT TALK" program after she was caught stealing a handbag from a Saks Fifth Avenue department store.
"Before I went through the program, I figured that stealing from a big corporation or store really didn't hurt anyone. Now I realize that stealing from these places actually hurts the consumers in the long run," said Emily who asked that Counseling Today withhold her last name.
"And," she added, "we learned that people who steal from little stores are really committing robbery, since the loss often literally does come out of someone's pocket."
Emily noted she had never before been presented with the viewpoint that the type of theft that she committed could actually cause anyone Amy real harm.
"The idea of punishment scared me, but it wasn't enough to change my mind about stealing," Emily said. "But now that I know who I am hurting and why, I feel sick and horrible about what I did."
In addition to emphasizing the human hurt caused by theft, the program also encourages offenders to take responsibility for their actions.
"We don't buy into the conventional ideas about why people steal," Houseworth said. "Contrary to popular belief, we have found that only between 5 to 10 percent of theft offenders steal to support a drug or alcohol problem or are under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they commit their crimes.
"Likewise, we don't believe that it's a cry for attention, because if that was the case, why would they try so hard not to get caught? We also reject the majority of the 'causal' models, which attribute stealing to some social, environmental or psychological trauma," he continued. "Instead, we emphasize choices and taking personal responsibility for each choice that is made."
In order to make the offenders aware of the fact that they have been in control of their actions" every step of the way," Houseworth demonstrates the existence of what he refers to as "cops and robbers thinking."
"Often offenders will tell me that they don't know why they stole something, that they weren't thinking straight, that it was out of their control," he explained. "But we make them see that by taking steps to avoid getting caught, they demonstrated that they were aware of and responsible for the actions."
Ultimately, Houseworth said, "THEFT TALK" challenges the theft offenders' belief
systems. "They have been walking around believing that 2+3=6, and no one has ever told them that they're wrong," he said.
"We filter out their justification and rationalization on for this and help them challenge the way they have been thinking."
While "THEFT TALK"s approach is contrary, to some of the long-standings philosophical models regarding work with theft offenders, many who work closely with this group seem comfortable with many of Houseworth's assertions.
Nancy White, a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Kansas City, Mo., who has taught shoplifting education classes for the KansasCity Municipal Court System, said much of what Houseworth purports about the mind-set of theft offenders rings true to her experience.
"They are not who you would think they are," she said of the theft offenders she encountered. "We had people of all ages, races and from all walks of life. We even had more than one member of a family in one case."
And again, far from the popular notion that most thieves are supporting some drug or alcohol addiction, people confessed to stealing for all sorts of reasons. "One woman admitted that she had never paid for any of her children's clothes," White recalled.
While she said that most would very consciously admit to taking things (some for many years), she added that oftentimes they would take pains to justify what they had done. "Some said that they believed what they had done was right because the merchandise they had taken was not worth what the store was asking for it."
Like Houseworth, White tried to make the offenders in her classes understand the ramifications of their offense, telling them about the need for stores to raise prices to compensate for stolen merchandise.
She also discussed their financial situations and how to budget money so that they could pay for items rather than steal them.
The court system was not set up to keep track of how many people who attended the class were later caught stealing again, but White believes this type of educational approach did have an impact on at least some of the offenders.
"If they were open to learning, it was there in front of them," she said. "And I think there were certainly some people who came to be ashamed of what they had done."
White, who is a member of the International Association of Addictions and Offender Counselors, expressed support for educational programs like the one with which she was associated and "THEFT TALK".
"Especially for first offenders, we need to give the education track a try," she said. My definition of a criminal is someone who doesn't care about hurting another person, and the people in my classes were not criminals.
"They deserve a chance to turn themselves around."
"THEFT TALK" -- Since 1983
An Outcome Alternatives™ program
West Linn, OR 97068
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