Among the twisted offenders who commit crimes like breaking children’s fingers, burning them with cigarettes or locking them under a sink, Madison psychologist Anna Salter is interested in studying what makes these criminals tick.
Salter spends time with dangerous criminals, studying the depths of the disturbed human mind.
Salter said she has worked on many cases where kids are the killers. Most recently, she worked on a case about a boy named Austin Sigg, a 17-year-old that kidnapped, raped and dismembered the body of a 10-year-old little girl.
Another high-profile case Salter worked on within the last year took place in Iowa with a young boy who, when his father was gone, shot his mother 22 times in the kitchen while she was making food for him and attempted to rape the dead body.
“I’m always trying to understand how rapists, sex offenders, psychopaths, people who commit outrageous crimes justify it to themselves,” Salter said.
Salter began studying the mentality of sex offenders and psychopaths after graduating from college as a clinical psychologist and working at a community mental health center. While working at the health center, she said she realized every second or third child she came into contact with was being sexually or physically abused.
The clinic started to receive offenders of sexually and physically abusive crimes, which led to Salter acquiring a grant and traveling the country in search of programs that treated those types of criminals. She said her paper for this grant eventually turned into her first book, “Treating Child Sex Offenders and Victims: A Practical Guide.”
Salter said she constantly works with cases that are “extremely disturbing.” To deal with the mental burden of this work, she said she is a strong believer in meditation, mindfulness, exercise and keeping close and supportive relationships with friends and family.
When working with a case, Salter asks for an interview with the offender and analyzes their comments. She then extensively goes through all of the past records of the criminal, including evaluations and reports to understand things such as their thinking patterns, motivation and decision making.
Salter said the things that she looks for in her analysis may change from case to case. However, the methodology is always the same and always centered around the thinking of the offender. She does weekly evaluations of criminals at a maximum security prison in Wisconsin to help the facility assess the best ways to work with the offenders.
A concept she often studies is the hesitancy people have in thinking people are malevolent. She said many people want to believe that there is good in everybody, causing people to underestimate offenders.
“That’s a really nice laudable belief until you run into Ted Bundy,” Salter said. “That’s the problem, when you have people who torture children, who dismember children, who starve them, who deliberately put cigarette lighters on their skin.”
Salter said there is not good in everyone and people need to recognize that some individuals have a desire to purposely harm others. She said it is important to realize the limitations of treatment programs for offenders and the criminals that are beyond the range of help these programs can provide.