A Look at the Juvenile Sexual Offender
by Phil Rich, Ed.D., MSW
The label "juvenile sexual offender" raises concern and even fear in the minds of parents, the community-at-large, and even some therapists and treatment programs. In part, this heightened level of anxiety is well founded and based on genuine concerns about what harm may be caused by the adolescent and what type of adult might the adolescent grow into if untreated and his behaviors remain sexually abusive (most adolescent sexual offenders are male). This fear is well founded, and many sexual crimes against children and adults (but mostly younger children) are committed by juveniles aged between 12-18; during 1999, juveniles accounted for 16% of all violent crimes in the U.S. and 17% of total arrests for forcible rape (Snyder, 2000; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001). On the other hand, for many juvenile sexual offenders, with recognition of the problem and help, the likelihood is that they will not "grow" into an adult sexual offender. From the research and statistics we have gathered, somewhere between 7-15% of juveniles treated for sexually abusive behavior will commit a further offense at some later point; this means that between 93-85% of adolescents treated for sexually abusive behavior are not likely to recidivate (commit an additional sexual offense).
From what we know, most adolescents who engage in sexually abusive behavior will not develop into adult sexual offenders, although many will continue to experience non-sexual difficulties with their emotions, behaviors, and relationships. With help, though, even these other, more likely problems may be addressed and remediated. In fact, most adolescents who engage in sexually abusive behavior are traveling along very different paths, are at considerably different points in their current lives than adult sexual offenders, and are motivated by many different current factors and experiences. For juveniles who sexually abuse, for instance, motivations and patterns of sexual arousal are less likely to be deviant in nature than in their adult counterparts, and their sexual interests and behaviors are far less likely to be driven by fixed attitudes, ideas, beliefs, and emotional needs. This does not lessen the very real impact of juvenile sexual crimes or the impact of such crimes on their victims and society, but it does mean that we can intervene and treat juveniles who sexually abuse with hope and often success, and in a manner to which adult sexual offenders are often not amenable.
However, although at substantially different points in their development and in their current lives, the roots of sexually abusive behavior are very much the same in juveniles who sexually abuse as in adult sexual offenders, and those adolescents who eventually evolve into adult offenders experience many of the same early childhood experiences as do their adult counterparts. Although sexual and/or physical abuse are not inevitable precursors to becoming sexually abusive to others, and many juvenile sexual offenders have themselves not experienced sexual abuse, it is nonetheless true that the early childhood experiences of many (if not most) juvenile sexual offenders are marked with abuse, neglect, and maltreatment. Although these factors alone neither cause, explain, nor justify sexually abusive behavior, it is nevertheless true that these children experience more abuse and maltreatment than non-sexually abusive children.
Nevertheless, as teenagers these children are still very much in the developmental and experimental stages of their lives with few truly fixed patterns of behavior, attitudes, and relationships. On the contrary, they are developmentally open to and capable of change and are thus often very responsive to treatment interventions that aim at rehabilitation and change, especially when delivered with structure, understanding, and genuine support and caring. These troubled children, no less than any other child, need and deserve the concern and caring needed by and afforded to all children.
Although far from a certain outcome, to be sure adolescent sexual offenders are at risk for becoming adult sexual offenders. Evaluation and interventions are critical if we are to prevent this possible outcome. However, we must neither over react to, nor judge, these children too harshly, as difficult as that may be for many. Without backing away from strong, focused, and often intensive treatment, we must also recognize that these adolescents are still our children and we, as adults and as a society, are responsible for who they will become and often for who they are now.
- Rich, P. (2003). "Understanding, Assessing, and Rehabilitating Juvenile Sexual Offenders." Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
- Ryan, G., & Lane, S. (1997). "Juvenile sexual offending: Causes, consequences, and correction." San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Snyder, H. N. (2000). Juvenile Arrests 1999. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2001). Youth Violence: A report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Phil Rich, EdD, MSW, DCSW is the author of "Understanding, Assessing, and Rehabilitating Juvenile Sexual Offenders," the eight books in "The Healing Journey" series of self help journaling books, and two books in the "Therapy Homework Planner," series, all of which are published by John Wiley & Sons. He is the Clinical Director of the Stetson School, a long-term residential treatment program for sexually reactive children and juvenile sexual offenders.
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