Few people could handle listening to men rationalize fondling or even raping children or telling you why they had 40,000 images of child pornography on their computer. Yet that's exactly what psychologist Michael Bourke, PhD, did for eight years at the Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, N.C.—part of the Federal Bureau of Prisons or BOP—where he gained a reputation for helping these men take responsibility for their thoughts and deeds, as well as for his abilities as an innovative program developer and researcher in child sexual abuse and an engaging public speaker on the topic.
So in 2008 when a new position opened for Chief Psychologist at the U.S. Marshals Service—a job that includes a new mission of scientifically understanding sex offenders, using that information to find those who are most dangerous and communicating the service's findings to treatment providers, judges, prosecutors and others—it seemed like a serendipitous fit.
"I feel blessed to have the opportunity to work with this agency, particularly given our newest charge," says the father of two. "If protecting children doesn't bring fulfillment and job satisfaction and fuel a passion to make a difference, I don't know what would."
Bourke brings tremendous enthusiasm and more to the job, says his mentor and former boss, Andres Hernandez, PsyD, who directs the BOP's Commitment and Treatment Program for Sexually Dangerous Persons at Butner. For one thing, he brings needed scientific credibility and understanding about sexual offenders to the law enforcement community and provides expertise that helps the Marshals Service allocate resources to pursue offenders. And given Bourke's knowledge of law enforcement—he earned his doctorate in clinical psychology with a law enforcement emphasis from Nova Southeastern University and has worked in a variety of law enforcement capacities—and his ability to talk "cop speak," Hernandez predicts he'll help improve psychology's image in law enforcement circles, where psychologists tend to be seen as "soft," he says.
"He will help to carve out a new pathway for professional psychologists."
A new mission
Bourke's role includes directing a new Marshals Service component called the Behavioral Analysis Unit, created in 2008 in conjunction with Bourke's hiring as part of the Marshals Service mission to enforce the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. That law names the service as the lead federal agency responsible for locating and apprehending sex offenders who violate registration requirements—a huge mission, as there are some 100,000 offenders who fit that bill, Bourke says. The legislation also charges the Marshals Service with establishing the National Sex Offender Targeting Center, a multidisciplinary center activated in September 2008 that brings together the resources and intelligence of relevant government law enforcement agencies, as well as of private entities, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
As head of the Behavioral Analysis Unit, Bourke provides operational support to his deputies, conducts research, does clinical interventions and trains officers and others to understand and communicate with offenders.
Although he wears a gun and badge and takes part in operational "sweeps"—missions to arrest a number of people on a "wanted" list—his primary job is to support Marshals Service investigators by providing them with psychological analyses of offenders. He offers them research-based behavioral profiles and evaluates potential risks to officer safety. Bourke also trains officers in interview techniques that help them identify victims of child exploitation.
"The Adam Walsh Act provides us with more opportunities to interview offenders than we had in the past, so we have a greater ability to discover hands-on victims during investigations," Bourke says. "We can then refer the cases to appropriate agencies for follow-up care for the victims and for further investigation of the perpetrators."
Bourke also runs studies to shed more light on sex offenders' risk of future offenses, including newer areas of study that still lack good data, such as online offending and sex tourism, where offenders travel to other countries to exploit children. A major focus will be learning more about the differences or similarities among sex offenders by looking at such factors as criminal history, whether they have been diagnosed with pedophilia or other sexual disorders, the types of deviant sexual behavior they've exhibited, and their mental health history, he says.
He also wants to extend research he and Hernandez conducted at Butner showing a high overlap between Internet child sex offenders and hands-on offenders (see Porn use and child abuse).
That information can be used to develop scientifically valid risk-assessment measures, currently lacking in the area. Eventually, the Targeting Center will provide a rich source of data that can add to these profiles as well, he says.
Bourke also is studying ways to protect investigators from occupational stress. "Besides the standard risks of law enforcement, our deputies confront potentially traumatic situations specific to the field of child exploitation, such as exposure to disturbing media," he says. Bourke helps officers via psychoeducation, training and ongoing monitoring.
One of his favorite job aspects is consulting with prosecutors, judges, treatment providers and investigators outside the Marshals Service. In this capacity, he recently visited FBI Headquarters, where he helped investigators think through ways to tackle a reopened 1988 case involving the rape and murder of a young girl, April Tinsley. The perpetrator, who is still at large, has re-emerged in an ominous manner, leaving threatening notes, pictures and used condoms at the homes and on the bicycles of young girls in the Fort Wayne, Ind., community where Tinsley was killed.
Bourke suggested a strategy to try to catch the man based on the perpetrator's psychological need for attention, and the bureau is now following up on his advice, says FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jennifer Eakin, who has collaborated with Bourke for nearly a decade.
"We like to think of ourselves as pretty imaginative, creative people, but Mike always comes at problems with fresh ideas," Eakin says. "That's one reason we love continuing our relationship with him."
Some light in a dark place?
Part of what helps Bourke manage his work is that he considers himself not just a psychologist, but a cop as well: He believes not only in helping these men face their issues and try to heal, but also that they should pay for their actions if they have been found guilty. "The ultimate goal for both psychologists and law enforcement professionals is public safety," says Bourke. "The issue is how to best balance punitive, rehabilitative and management efforts to achieve that goal."
While a few cases have made him shudder, many of those he's treated are remorseful and say they would do anything not to have these desires, he emphasizes. But remorse doesn't always translate into behavior change, says Bourke.
He remembers one Internet offender in the federal prison system who, in therapy, recognized the value of taking responsibility for his actions and disclosed the names of dozens of children he had molested—cases that had gone undetected or had not been prosecuted due to lack of evidence. The man subsequently confessed his crimes to other law enforcement officials, pleaded guilty to the offenses in court and is now serving a life sentence.
While sobering, the man's response to his sentence makes Bourke's work worth it, he says.
"He wrote us from behind bars and said, 'I know I'll die here,'" Bourke recounts. "'But I'm more proud of my decision to identify my victims and maybe get them some help than anything else I've done in my life.'"
Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.