Monday, May 3, 2004

Therapy key for teen sex offenders

If caught early, most can be successfully treated, experts say.

US: One girl allegedly was raped in the boys' bathroom at Folsom High School on a warm midday in March. Another told officials the same boy, a freshman at the school, had tried to rape her days earlier in a girls' bathroom. Two other girls told investigators the boy had committed lesser sex crimes against them at school within the previous week. If true, such a pattern of escalation is worrisome, according to experts who study and treat sex offenders.

But as attorneys prepare for a pretrial hearing Thursday in Juvenile Court, therapists say the boy, even if convicted, is too young to be labeled a hardened predator.

"If you were looking at him as an adult, you would compare him to a serial rapist," said Robert Longo, a South Carolina therapist who co-founded the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Offenders 25 years ago.

"People might erroneously label him as a predatory offender. But he's 14. And we shouldn't use those terms on a 14-year-old offender because he's not fully developed."

Bronson Blessington speaks out

Statistics indicate a majority of juvenile sex offenders never are arrested again and those who receive specialized treatment may have even lower recidivism rates - one study indicates as low as 5 percent.

Those studies, combined with the experience of therapists, have led judges and others who deal with young criminals, [learners], to believe children who rape and molest can be redirected into normal sexual interests - if caught early and given proper treatment.

But in California, where more than 2,000 juveniles are arrested in felony sex offense cases each year, treatment can be controversial.

California law is predicated on the belief that juvenile delinquents are best reformed in the least-restrictive environment.

Whether that means behind bars depends on the perceived risk the juvenile poses to the community and a desire not to introduce a relatively naive child to the hardened criminal element in the California Youth Authority, where sex offenders may be targeted for abuse by other wards and made more dangerous.

Serial child molesters, for example, are almost always sent to the CYA, which has four specialized treatment programs for sex offenders.

"If there is a public danger, we'll be sending them to a residential facility," said Sacramento County Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth G. Peterson. "But for those that do not have so serious a violation, there is great success with juvenile sex offenders in local treatment programs."

In any scenario - whether in the CYA or a group home or outpatient therapy - youthful sex offenders are confronted and cajoled into talking about their past sex offenses. A key part of therapy is the participation of other young child molesters and rapists, who recognize when a peer is being deceptive and confront them.

Adolescents in group homes are considered a lower threat to the community. Typically, they have a single victim, have not attacked a stranger or used force, may themselves be victims of abuse, generally have decent grades and appear motivated to address their behavior.

Yet community treatment programs for sex offenders are coming under increasing fire from neighbors who object to having such group homes nearby and from politicians who have responded to their outcries. One pending bill would require that law enforcement authorities be notified when a sex offender is placed in a group home. Another, which failed last year, would have banned juvenile sex offenders from group homes altogether.

"It's a balance," said Dr. Fred Berlin, who founded the sexual disorders clinic at Johns Hopkins University. "And obviously, it can be vexing. Because you don't want to be wrong on either side. You don't want to stigmatize and burden a child when it isn't necessary. On the other hand, you don't want to miss the boat and allow society to be at an undue risk because you were too compassionate in the first place."

Diagnosing juvenile sex offenders is not always simple.

Research on young sex offenders is still in its infancy. Over the past quarter-century about 1,000 treatment programs nationally have emerged to focus solely on youthful sex offenders. Yet many questions remain unanswered.With an adult child molester, assessing risk to the community depends upon knowing an offender's sexual interests, which typically are well-defined and can be discovered through a variety of psychological tests.

But adolescents often have little sexual history to speak of and no set sexual orientation. Their interests can change daily. Often their victims are younger relatives of family friends who are accessible and compliant, but researchers say that doesn't necessarily correlate to a deviant interest in younger children.

"When you're talking about somebody who's 9 or 10 and people say 'predator,' it doesn't fit with (child) developmental literature," said James Worling, a Canadian researcher who has come up with one of the first studies of juvenile recidivism.

"He doesn't have sexual desire or attraction. He's still developing a sexual identity and a sexual script. And I think he's more malleable than someone in their 40s who's been offending for years."

Therapists who work with juvenile offenders have defined rough parameters to assess risk to the community. Teens who prefer forced or coerced sexual experiences to consenting ones are among those of special concern in treatment.

Tall and handsome with soulful brown eyes, 19-year-old Al is the kind of sex offender who makes his therapist worry. For months before he coerced the younger brother of a friend into sexual play three years ago, Al fantasized about the 10-year-old. Methodically, he gained the boy's trust, playing video games with him and paying attention to him. Gradually, he introduced pornographic magazines and eventually persuaded the boy to participate in sexual acts. Two months later, Al persuaded his young victim to draw another boy, also 10, into the secretive meetings.

"I thought with all the shame and embarrassment that goes with (being molested), that maybe I could keep them quiet," said Al, who was molested by a neighbor as a kindergartner.

Therapists say offenders like Al, whose name has been changed to protect his victims and himself, are especially crucial to get into treatment.

"There's nothing about being locked up in and of itself that erases sexual attractions or enhances a youngster's ability to resist acting upon inappropriate sexual impulses," said Berlin, the Johns Hopkins researcher. "You need both a criminal justice, [criminal law], and a public health approach. One without the other doesn't work."

By Mareva Brown Posted 3 May 04


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