Juveniles who sexually offend: special considerations for a population difficult to define.

Author:Burke, Susan

When he was seven years old, Michael was sexually abused by his babysitter over a period of several months. The abuse consisted of fondling and viewing pornography. By the time he was 12, Michael had acted out sexually multiple times with classmates. It started with touching other youths, and then later groping another child. His parents eventually sought help for him, but minimized the behavior as "sexual curiosity." Michael never disclosed his prior abuse during counseling, and he successfully completed counseling that focused on controlling his impulses. When he was 14, he was arrested for committing a sex offense against a nine-year-old neighbor he was babysitting. He pled guilty, and during his presentence investigation, disclosed his own prior abuse. He was removed from his home and ordered into a residential juvenile sex offender treatment program. Regardless of how well he does in treatment, some states are required to release Michael when he turns 21. Other states have a "blended sentence" option that could allow his transfer to the adult system, where he would remain until released.


Compare Michael's story with Samuel's story. When Samuel was 14, he was arrested on two counts of aggravated sexual assault, forcible sodomy and robbery. Samuel had no prior history of sexual offending, but had a previous misdemeanor referral to juvenile court at the age of 12. The prosecutor moved to have Samuel's case tried in the adult system. Defense attorneys argued that he should remain in the juvenile system. They pointed to a history that included physical abuse, violence and repeated trauma such as witnessing the murder of his brother. They also cited his lower IQ, which was in the borderline range. A court report shows that at age 12 Samuel was first exposed to pornography and watched pornographic movies weekly. He reported he had his first sexual experience with an adult female when he was 12. Samuel's case is still pending. In the meantime, he waits in detention.

Both Michael and Samuel represent a challenging and difficult-to-define population. Both are sex offenders and both need treatment. Yet, their sexual histories and offending histories are very different.

Ron Mervis, LCSW, sex offender program manager for the Utah Division of Juvenile Justice Services, has worked with sex offenders for almost 25 years and has never found two cases alike. "Juveniles who commit sex offenses are a diverse and heterogeneous population," he said. "Some youths pose a greater risk than others, some youths have more treatment needs than others, some youths are more amenable to treatment than others, and some youths may have families that are more supportive and stable than others." For Mervis, the ultimate goal of working with juveniles who sexually offend is to prevent further sex offending.

Who Are These Offenders?

A review of sex offender typologies suggests that it is difficult to classify juvenile sex offenders. Some are classified based on victim age preference such as child molesters, rapists and nuisance offenders (e.g., voyeurs and exhibitionists). (1) Others have attempted a typology based on the youth's family background, temperament, socialization and other environmental factors.

M. O'Brien and W.H. Bera classified offenders by combining offense with background, resulting in seven categories: naive experimenters, undersocialized child exploiters, sexual aggressives, sexual compulsives, disturbed impulsives, group influenced and pseudosocialized. (2) To develop these categories, they examined the family background of juvenile sex offenders and considered temperament, socialization, mental status, peer influence, substance abuse, cognitive ability and conduct problems. (3) However, no empirical studies have evaluated whether these seven types are valid.

While there is no single agreed-upon typology, researchers universally agree that any typology cannot be separated from developmental theories of juveniles, where issues such as maturity and intent become much more convoluted as compared with adult sex offenders. Environmental factors also can differ for juveniles such as school, peer and family relationships.

There are, however, some commonalities. Approximately 90 percent of sex offenses committed by juveniles were committed by males. Male juvenile sex offenders appear to have higher frequencies of maltreatment in their backgrounds than nonoffenders, as well as frequent behavioral and/or...

To continue reading