FOR YOUTHFUL SEXUAL OFFENDERS
by Caryl Harvey
I am not an expert in sexual offenders. My article is based on my own experiences and on the research of others. I offer it
to you in hopes that it will stir up some thought, allay some fears and give some hope.
is nearly six feet tall with a lightning quick smile and dimples. He is an A and B student who makes friends easily. He is
a talented athlete and musician. And, at fifteen years old, he is a sexual offender.
sex offenders: a scary topic, especially for older parents and foster parents. What if an agency wants to place a sex offender
with us? What if we discover our own child is an offender? We all know sexual offenders cannot be rehabilitated, right?
We want to be clear about Devon. He
is not the typical, curious kid who, when he was five, got the neighborhood girl alone in a garage with the lure of “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine.” Devon offended against a young girl over
a period of several months. He knew what he was doing was wrong. It caused great harm to his victim. Devon is a sexual offender.
The good news is, youthful sexual
offenders can be rehabilitated, IF they receive the right counseling and IF there is a lot of reinforcement.
But there is a divergence today in treatment protocols for these kids.
Until recently, one of the main treatments used to intervene in youthful sexual offender cases was the CBT–SOS
or “Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy model.” Therapists who use this
method constantly confront their clients to disclose every detail of their offenses and often use a lie detector to
measure progress. The problem with this method is that it is designed for adult offenders (who are resistant to treatment)
and not kids like Devon.
Kids being treated under the
CBT-SOS method are encouraged to consider EVERY contact with some sexual component as a possible offense. A shirts/skins basketball
game in PE (initiated by the teacher) must be recounted if the youthful offender
accidentally touches the bare chest of a classmate. Did the client get any
pleasure from the contact? Did he plan the contact? What did he think after the contact?
to an article written by Lucinda A. Rasmussen, PhD, LCSW of the San Diego State University School of Social Work,
“ Progress in CBT-SOS groups
is typically predicated on sexually abusive youth explaining in great detail the ‘Sexual Abuse Cycle’ assumed
to be associated with their sexual offending behavior (i.e., triggers for offending, thinking errors, sexual fantasies, methods
used to manipulate and/or coerce the victims) (Lane, 1997; Lundrigan, 2001).
Discharge from treatment is usually
contingent on youth developing a detailed ‘relapse prevention plan’ describing specific strategies they plan to
use in order cope effectively with stressors, avoid “high risk situations” and avoid recurrence of sexually abusive
behavior (Gray & Pithers, 1993; Steen, 1993).”
Rasmussen goes on to explain that
CBT-SOS focuses on risk management and fails to teach offending kids how to live a healthy life. And because kids are still developing there is no way to know the direction their lives will take, findings
are invalid when developmental differences are ignored and they are treated as adults.
Another problem is that the parameters
of the polygraph tests are set for adult responses and the operators, however skilled they may be, are usually NOT trained
to assess the responses of children. Kids sometimes fabricate offenses to avoid consequences imposed by their therapists when
the polygraph reports they are being “deceptive.” In one instance,
a youth who failed a polygraph was later found to have high blood pressure, which could certainly have skewed the results.
Devon’s therapist used the
CBT-SOS model. When he talked with his caretakers about therapy sessions, they noticed that he was being encouraged to think
of everyday occurrences in sexual terms. In other words, encounters he would scarcely have recalled were being reframed to
him as sexual events where he had committed infractions. Instead of being taught to move to a life of healthy relationships,
he was being conditioned to view every friendship and encounter in sexual terms. HE WAS BEING TAUGHT TO BE DEVIANT.
More and more therapists are leaning
toward a “client-centered” approach with children. One of the new
Paradigms of treatment is the Trauma Outcome Process Assessment. Again, according to Rasmussen,
“The TOPA model holistically
considers the youth’s sexually abusive behavior in the multidimensional, ecological context of his or her neuropsychological
functioning, family history and dynamics, trauma history, and community context. “
In other words, it looks at the
child’s developmental level, his family history and other factors to format his treatment plan. The youth is taught
how his environment has affected his behavior and how to counteract that. The therapist builds a caring relationship with
his client to help him become aware of his own thoughts and sensations, and to understand how his own history and responses
to trauma shape his offending.
Look, I am not a psychologist,
nor even an actor playing one on TV. My goal is not to influence you toward one
treatment paradigm or the other. It is simply to make you aware that there is more than one method out there. And there is
hope that youthful offenders can get beyond their offenses, or even their desire to offend.
Would I take a youthful sexual
offender into my home? Yes, under certain circumstances. But I would not minimize the danger the child presents to my family.
I would not
Leave the offender alone with other children.
But I wouldn’t segregate him or her from all contact with them either. Supervised contact at family dinners and holidays
brings some normality.
Put the offender in a position of authority
over other kids. (Okay, Devon, while you and Johnny are on the field trip, you are in charge of the souvenir money.) Perceived
power is a dangerous thing.
Let the offender share a room with another
Allow the youth a lot of freedom (going
on walks, to friend’s homes, to “shoot hoops) unless I was kept advised of his constant where-a-bouts. If he leaves
the park, for instance, to go downtown for a soda, I want to know about it.
Go for weeks without touching base with
his/her therapist to see what progress is being made. Not that I want to know word-for-word what happens in sessions, but
caretakers need to know what direction therapy is taking and what milestones or roadblocks are met.
And I would NOT refrain from “side
hugs” and warm words and “non-threatening” displays of affection and warmth.
Usually, to parent or foster a
youthful sexual offender, you must first take some classes in supervision. Before I undertook the responsibility of such a
child, I would be sure that I was clear on all the requirements of such an undertaking, and I would be certain that the courts
and the therapists understood me and my home situation. I would take NOTHING for granted.
Be sure, the caretaker of a youthful
sexual offender is taking a risk. There are possible allegations that come from frightened “disclosures.” There
is the danger that the young person may offend again, against your own child or grandchild, or another child in your care.
But there is also the real potential
for restoring a child to a healthful and responsible life. For keeping a young person out of a correctional facility. For
reducing the risk that the youthful sexual offender will go on to prey on others.
The risk is real, but so is the
reward. Just don’t go into it with your eyes closed and your heart unguarded.