Several years ago, I was watching the news and saw the story of a father who had shot and killed his 14-year-old son because the son had sexually abused his younger sibling. That story was profoundly tragic to me. Not only did that family have to deal with the victimization of the sibling, but now they also had to deal with the death of the 14-year-old brother and the incarceration of their father. It is likely that the family had to deal with a lifetime of poverty because of the loss of the father’s income in addition to the trauma from the sexual abuse and the murder of a family member. While sexual abuse is extremely traumatic for families, that is not how this story had to end.
There is hope for these types of situations. As a juvenile court judge, I work with youth who have engaged in delinquent behaviors including sexual offenses. One of the most rewarding parts of working with youth who are struggling is seeing them recognize their mistakes, take accountability, participate in services that help them learn new ways of thinking or handling situations and then go on to be successful adults.
Approximately 12% of my current caseload involve juvenile sexual offenses. These are difficult cases which require specialized treatment to address the needs underlying the juvenile’s behavior. Unfortunately, youth with problematic sexual behaviors are commonly misunderstood by family, the public and professionals, with overly punitive responses based on approaches for adults with illegal sexual behavior. However, research shows that juvenile sexual offenders have some of the lowest rates of re-offending with an average of 5%.1 With proper treatment and parental support, approximately 95% of these youth will not ever offend sexually again.
My objective in writing this article is to help families and the community have a better understanding of how to prevent problematic sexual behaviors by youth and also how to handle sexual offending by juveniles appropriately. I will discuss steps parents can take to prevent inappropriate sexual behaviors and resources that can help families of youth who have
engaged in problematic sexual behavior.
WHY SHOULD I CARE—IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN TO ME
Research conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys will experience sexual abuse by age 18. I have frequently heard parents say that they did not think this could happen to them. They never leave their child with strangers and always have their child within eyesight. Sound familiar? Do you have friends or family over to your house? Do they play or have sleepovers at a neighbor’s house? According to the Department of Justice, victims know the perpetrator in 90% of cases and approximately 23% of perpetrators were children themselves.2 Juvenile sexual offenders are found in every socioeconomic class and every racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural group.
As a judge, I see many families come through the court who have had to deal with problematic sexual behaviors by their child. Many of these cases involve family members or friends. Usually the parents are devastated, overwhelmed and sometimes very angry with their child. An example of the types of cases I often see is the Smith family.3
The Smiths are a middle-class family—the father has a good job and the mother stays at home with the children. They have 3 children, 1 boy and 2 girls. They attend church every week and are actively involved in their children’s educational pursuits. Their children are involved in extra-curricular activities such as soccer, dance, church groups, etc. They eat dinner as a family every night and go on family vacations together.
However, they are unaware that their oldest child was accidentally exposed to pornography at age 10 while on the computer. He is now 13 years old and has been looking at pornography for the past 3 years. They just found out that there has been inappropriate sexual contact between their son and his 5-year-old sister and want to know what they should do to handle the situation appropriately.
As in the Smith case, exposure to pornography at a young age is a contributing factor in many of the cases that come before me. Because of the ease of access on the internet, pornography can affect any family.
In Utah, approximately 23% of youth ages 10-17 will have contact with Utah’s juvenile justice system by age 18—that includes nonjudicial and judicial interventions.4 Nonjudicial interventions are for low risk offenses such as shoplifting, tobacco use, or curfew violations. Judicial intervention is reserved for more serious offenses such as sexual abuse or chronic offenders.
Sexual abuse by juveniles is widely recognized as a significant problem and there are significant costs involved, not only to the victims but also to society as a whole.
The costs imposed by problematic juvenile sexual behaviors are considerable. For offenders who are able to have in home supervision, the cost is about $7500 per year in Utah. For offenders who require residential treatment (i.e. group homes), the cost is approximately $127,750 per year. The Utah Division of Juvenile Justice Services Total Annual Expenditure for 2016 was $94.8 million for all services.5
With the significant cost for juvenile justice services and the overwhelming numbers of children who are sexually abused, everyone should be concerned and taking steps to prevent these behaviors.
RISK FACTORS FOR JUVENILE SEXUAL OFFENDING
In order to help prevent sexual offenses, it is important to first understand some of the research showing risk factors of youth who sexually offend. While there are many factors that can play into these situations and there is no typical profile of someone who sexually offends, research has shown several recurring factors:
- They have been sexually abused themselves.
- They have had exposure to pornography or inappropriate sexual conduct by others (observing sexual acts or violence, etc.).6
- They have experienced early childhood maltreatment such as physical abuse, neglect, exposure to physical violence, abandonment, etc.
- They suffer from mental health issues.
Studies indicate that between 40-80% of juvenile sexual offenders have themselves been sexually abused, 20-50% of juvenile sexual offenders have been physically abused, 30-60% suffer learning disabilities and 80% may suffer from other psychiatric disorders.7 With these risk factors in mind, what steps can be taken to prevent problematic sexual behaviors?
STEPS PARENTS CAN TAKE TO PREVENT PROBLEMATIC SEXUAL BEHAVIOR
To address the risk factors identified above, there are many resources that can increase parents’ awareness and knowledge of protective measures they can take to prevent those risk factors from occurring.
1. CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE:
The first risk factor is being a victim of child sexual abuse. How can you prevent child sexual abuse? Research shows that two of the best ways to prevent child sexual abuse are to educate parents/adults and teach skills to children:
- Learn the facts – there are many helpful resources such as Prevent Child Abuse, National Sexual Violence Resource Center, American Academy of Pediatrics, Center for Disease Control, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, National Children’s Alliance, Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, National Juvenile Justice Network, etc.
- Take an active role in your child’s life – watch for grooming behaviors in adults who spend time with kids, watch for unusual friendships by older juveniles with young children.
- Minimize opportunity – know where your children are and what they are doing at all times.
- Recognize the signs – watch for emotional and behavioral changes
- React Responsibly – if a child tells you they have been sexually abused–stay calm, listen carefully, don’t interrogate, never blame the child, thank them for talking to you about it, and report the abuse immediately to the appropriate authorities.8
Teach Skills to children
- Teach kids appropriate body parts.
- Empower kids to make decisions about their body – let them know they can say no if they don’t want to be hugged or touched by someone.
- Teach children about the privacy of body parts.
- Teach children early and often that there are no secrets between children and their parents.
- Teach children that they can talk to you about anything.8
Additionally, research has shown that there are many protective factors for adolescents that can be implemented such as a supportive family, pro-social peers, educational programming, employment, extracurricular activities, faith community and a mentor.
The second risk factor is pornography. While not every youth who views pornography will sexually offend, pornography can increase the risk of sexual offending in some juveniles. Pornography is a significant problem because of the easy access and parents not understanding the dangers of their children’s internet usage.
In my experience with sexual misconduct cases both as a Judge and a Guardian ad Litem, pornography has been a contributing factor in most of those cases. Parents need to realize that their children will at some point view pornography. In fact, 85% of young men and 73% of young women have viewed pornography by 18 years old.10 Many of the families that come through my court are middle class families who attend church regularly, are interactive with their children and doing everything they can. However, one of the biggest problems is that they do not know about the dangers on the internet and how to protect their children from them.
In the YouTube Video “Social Media dangers exposed by mom posing as an 11 year old,” a group runs a test of how long it takes for predators to find children. In a fake account they set up as an 11 year old girl, it only took 20 seconds for a predator to reach out to the fake 11 year old. In fact, one of the predators sent pornography to the girl knowing she was only 11 years old. The biggest take away from this experiment is that it is critical that parents know what their child is doing on social media and the internet and then take the appropriate steps to block inappropriate content. There are numerous parental monitoring apps and DNS Filters that can help parents set limits on devices, install blocking software and monitor your child’s use of social media. The internet can be a dangerous place and children need to be protected. Talk to your children about what to do if they see inappropriate images on the computer. Open communication is one of your best defenses against pornography.
MALTREATMENT AND MENTAL HEALTH
The last two risk factors are being a victim of early childhood maltreatment and mental health issues. As a community, if you know or suspect a child is being mistreated, call the local authorities. Many times, people do not want to get involved because they are afraid. In my experience with families, most parents who are reported are initially angry, but after they complete services they are extremely grateful for the help they received.
As a parent, if you are having trouble parenting—ASK FOR HELP!! Reach out to friends or your local mental health agency or sign up for classes. In Utah, the Division of Child and Family Services will provide voluntary services for parents who need help at little or no cost. If you are dealing with a child who is difficult and do not know how to handle it or if you suspect mental health issues, call your local mental health agency or a licensed therapist. There are many forms of therapy and resources available. No child comes with a manual-every parent can learn additional skills and ways to handle their children’s behaviors so don’t be afraid to ask for help.
WHAT TO DO IF YOUR CHILD HAS PROBLEMATIC SEXUAL BEHAVIORS
When the Smith family found out about the sexual misconduct by their son, they were overwhelmed and did not know what to do. For parents dealing with similar situations, remember that the most important thing you need to focus on is supporting the safety and well-being of all your children. Both children will need your support now more than ever.
Make sure the victim is safe and gets therapeutic help. For the youth with problematic sexual behaviors, treatment and parental support are the keys to successful rehabilitation. There are effective, evidence-based treatments for juveniles with problematic sexual behaviors. It is important to remember that their sexual behavior does not define who they are. Recognize that youth are going to make errors in judgment—there is scientific evidence that juvenile brains do not connect the same as adults. While these behaviors are serious, research shows that with targeted treatment and good parental guidance, supervision and support, most youth will not engage in future problematic sexual behavior.
The Smith family wanted to handle the situation appropriately so after some research, they contacted an attorney to find out about the laws in their state. The attorney advised them to get their children in counseling and report the abuse to either law enforcement or the Division of Child and Family Services. He also advised them to put a safety plan in place so that their son was never left alone with younger children. Child Protective Services was called and completed an investigation. The County Attorney was notified and charges were filed in Juvenile Court. The son admitted the charges and the court ordered him to complete NOJOS (Network on Juveniles Who Offend Sexually) treatment, formal probation and follow a safety plan which included no contact with the victim until therapeutically recommended, no unsupervised internet usage and line of sight supervision. The family sent the son to live with grandparents while he engaged in NOJOS treatment and his sister engaged in her own therapy.
If you ever run into a scenario like the Smith family, what can you do?
Steps for parents:
- STAY CALM! Tell the youth that you want to get them help to deal with these behaviors.
- Put a safety plan in place with line of sight supervision, no unsupervised use of technology, no unsupervised contact with children 2 years or more younger, and no contact with the victim. (NOTE: if the victim is in the home, the perpetrator may need to live somewhere else while they are getting treatment.)
- Get Professional Help. This is not something to handle on your own:
a. You may wish to consult an attorney to find out the laws in your state. Each state has different laws and some states require sex offender registration for juveniles. Attorneys can also assist with reporting the abuse to the appropriate agencies.
b. Children’s Advocacy Centers can provide resources on handling these matters appropriately. To find a Children’s Advocacy Center, visit the www.nationalcac.org.
c. Consult with your local Mental Health Agency or a therapist to find out about treatment options.
- Report the alleged abuse. To find out about reporting and treatment in your area check with your local Child Protective Services Agency, Law Enforcement, Juvenile Justice Services, or a local Mental Health Agency.
First and foremost, stay calm! When talking to the victim, it is important to understand the situation but not to grill the child. Ask open ended questions such as “tell me more about what happened.” Once you are aware of inappropriate sexual contact, you should get professional help.
If you are the parent of the juvenile offender, let them know you would like to understand what happened. They may not want to disclose anything so do not press them. Let them know you will be reporting the incident to the proper authorities so that you can get appropriate help for the situation. One of the most important things you can do is to put a safety plan in place for your home. Make sure there is no unsupervised use of technology and that there is always line of sight supervision. It is also very important to get both children into therapy. Find a qualified therapist who is familiar with specialized treatments for juvenile offenders and victims.
In Utah, therapists are mandatory reporters so the abuse will be reported to the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS). Parents or other individuals can also directly report to law enforcement or the Division of Child and Family Services who will do an investigation and determine if delinquency charges will be filed. Parents may also consult an attorney when trying to determine how to best handle the situation.
Once delinquency charges are filed, the juvenile and his parents will receive a summons to come to a scheduled court hearing. A public defender is usually appointed to represent the minor. At court, the family along with the attorney will decide if they wish to have a trial or want to admit the charges. If the charges are admitted and adjudicated, then the court usually orders a Sexual Behavior Risk Assessment (SBRA). A SBRA is a tool to help determine what treatment is needed for the youth.
Utah has evidence-based treatment for juvenile sexual offenders called NOJOS (Network on Juveniles who Offend Sexually) treatment.11 NOJOS treatment is specifically tailored to sexual offenders. The SBRA helps the court determine what treatment level is needed and whether the juvenile can remain in the home or needs out-of-home care in a residential treatment facility. Treatment usually involves both the youth and the caregiver. Research shows that sexually abusive behavior in adolescents rarely persists into adulthood with proper treatment. We now have many resources to prevent sexual abuse and also effective treatments which can address problematic sexual behaviors to prevent future problems. In fact, currently the average base rate for sexual recidivism (or repeat offenders) for juveniles is approximately 5%.12 Most youth who successfully complete targeted treatment will not engage in future problematic sexual behavior.
There are many steps parents can take to prevent child abuse with the most effective being education on how to protect their children and teaching skills to children to help empower them. Prevention is always best, but if you do become aware of a juvenile who has sexually offended report it immediately, get professional help and be supportive of rehabilitation efforts. Most juveniles who sexually offend will be able to learn skills in therapy and never sexually offend again.
In the Smith case, the youth and family were able to follow through with NOJOS therapy and successfully complete the program. The siblings successfully engaged in reunification therapy (after the victim’s therapist felt it was appropriate) and the son was able to return to the family home to live. Contrast the outcome for the Smith family with the family whose father killed his son. How much different would the outcome have been if the family were knowledgeable about appropriate ways to handle the situation? With proper education and skill building, families and communities will be more prepared to handle these types of situations. Parents will be better able to protect their children from abuse and provide supportive interventions for juveniles with problematic sexual behaviors so that these challenging behaviors can be addressed appropriately. My hope is that with better education and understanding of juvenile sexual offenses, this type of situation with the father shooting the juvenile offender never happens again.
1 ATSA, Practice Guidelines for Assessment, Treatment and Interventions with Adolescents Who Have Engaged in Sexually Abusive Behaviors (2017), Page 5.
2 Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Preventing Child Sexual Abuse Factsheet.
3 Names and identifying facts have been changed to protect confidentiality.
4 Utah Juvenile Justice Services, Annual Report, page 8 (2016.)
5 Id at 13.
6 Hunter, J.A., Figueredo, A.J., Malamuth, N.M., & Becker, J.V. (2003). Juvenile sex offenders: Toward the development of a typology. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 15, 27-48. Hunter, J.A., Gilbertson, S.A., Vedros, D., & Morton, M. (2004). Strengthening community-based programming for juvenile sex offenders: Key concepts and paradigm shifts. Child Maltreatment, 9, 177-189. Knight, R.A. & Sims-Knight, J.E. (2004). Testing an etiological model for male juvenile sexual offending against females. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 13, 33-55.
7 National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth (NCSBY), Center for Sex Offender Management (CSOM) and U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, (2001). Juveniles Who Have Sexually Offended; A Review of the Professional literature Report; available at http://www.ojjdp.ojp.gov.
8 Darkness to Light’s 5 Steps to Protecting Our Children (2013).
9 American Academy of Pediatrics, Preventing and Identifying Child Sexual Abuse – Tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics (2011).
10 Protect Young Minds, 11 Startling Stats Every Proactive Parent Needs to Know, page 1.
11 The Utah Network on Juveniles Offending Sexually, Adolescent treatment/Placement Protocol and Standards Manual, Sixth Edition.
12 ATSA, Practice Guidelines for Assessment, Treatment and Interventions with Adolescents Who Have Engaged in Sexually Abusive Behaviors (2017), Page 5.