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Adolescent sexual offenders an overview

Grant Charles and Madelyn Mcdonald

Abstract: This paper provides an overview of the dynamics of adolescent sexual offending, including a discussion of the issues related to the treatment of this clinically challenging population. A number of recommendations are suggested for improving our collective response to concerns regarding adolescent sexual offending.

Societal Inattention To Adolescent Sexual Offenders
Significant growth has taken place during the past 15 years in the development of resources for victims and survivors of sexual assault and child sexual abuse. However, the same attention has not been given to sexual offenders. This is particularly true in the case of adolescent and pre-adolescent offenders. It would appear the primary strategy in dealing with victims has been to wait until an individual has been victimized rather than trying to prevent the occurrence.

Existing so-called prevention programs have tended to focus on treating the entire child population as a pool of potential victims rather than focusing upon those people who have the potential or desire to offend. Little funding is spent on the treatment of offenders. Although the current strategies of victim treatment, victimization prevention, and adult offender treatment programs are needed, a component is still missing. It is as if the medical community had decided to focus only on the prevention of cancer through public education and on the treatment of only those cancers in the later stage of growth. The cost of ignoring cancer in its early stages when it is more easily treated is high in both human and financial terms. The same is true of ignoring adolescent sexual offenders. Treating offenders at an age when they have been shown to be treatable can have the greatest impact on prevention. Treatment is less costly in human and financial terms in the early stages of the life of an offender rather than in the later stages. When there are scarce financial resources, the focus needs to be where the impact will be the greatest. Unfortunately, we do not appear to fully appreciate this fact.

Definitions Of Sexual Perpetration
Most jurisdictions define juvenile sex offenders as those between the ages of 12 and 18. Generally, the same criteria are used in regard to adults and adolescents in terms of what constitutes a sexual offense. Behaviours deemed inappropriate and illegal include fondling, frottage, digital, penile or object penetration of the vagina or anus, and oral copulation. Also included are such behaviours as voyeurism, exhibitionism, and obscene phone calls. However, although the criminal code details the behaviours considered as being on the continuum of sexual assault, not all sexual offenders fall under the jurisdiction of the law. For example, young people under the age of 12 cannot be considered because they are below the legal age defined within the Young Offenders' Act. Nevertheless, people under the age of 12 have been known to engage in sexually inappropriate behaviour.

It is, therefore, important to make a distinction between a legal definition and a social definition of what constitutes sexual offending. The Utah Task Force of the Utah Network on Juveniles Offending Sexually (Matsuda, Rasmussen, & Dibble, 1989) has developed a widely used definition of juvenile offending. It includes activity that falls within the appropriate criminal code, as well as any sexual act that occurs as a result of one or more of the following criteria:

Prevalence Of Adolescent Sexual Perpetration: The Problem Of Underreporting
Although the impact of adolescent offenders is felt throughout the country, there are no accurate figures with respect to prevalence. Adolescents make up a large, although not a majority, portion of the offender population in Canada (Homich & Bolitho, 1992). This is consistent with the findings in other jurisdictions (Kavoussi, Kaplan, & Becker, 1988). There is evidence to suggest that 20% of sexual assaults and between 30% to 50% of all child sexual abuse can be attributed to adolescent perpetrators (Matsuda et al., 1989). However, this information tends to be based upon adjudicated cases and does not take into account situations where charges were not laid or where charges were dropped.

Sexual offenses committed by adolescents are underreported. This is consistent with the general tendency for sexual offenses to be underreported because of the stigmatization and shame felt by victims or the use of threats by offenders. However, other factors are at work when dealing with adolescents. Many people, including those in the criminal justice and helping professions, are reluctant to label adolescents as offenders so as not to stigmatize the offending individuals (Graves, Openshaw, & Adams, 1992). Even in cases where the behaviour is clearly sexual and criminal, there has often been a reluctance to appropriately label the young people as offenders (Ryan, Lane, Davis, & Issac, 1987). Although this reluctance is understandable in terms of not wanting to label someone, it tends to support the minimization of the impact of the behaviour.

The offenses, rather than being accurately labeled, are often dismissed as being a product of normal sexual curiosity, as normal male adolescent behaviour, or as purely situational (Graves et al., 1992; Stops & Mays, 1991). Behaviours that would be deemed inappropriate or illegal if done by adults are condoned in adolescents purely on the basis of age. But the recipients of the behaviour remain victimized regardless of the age of the offender.

Some underreporting also happens because the offenses occur within families (Scavo & Buchanan, 1989). This may be motivated by a desire for parents to protect the offender or a desire to save the family from perceived embarrassment. It may also be because it is part of a purposeful shield of secrecy built around a family in which adult and sibling incest is occurring. In these cases, the parent(s) has a vested interest in not reporting the behaviour of the adolescent.

At other times, the behaviour is underreported because of a lack of training among professionals in the community (Lombardo & DiGiorgioMiller, 1988). People who have not been trained to deal with offending behaviour do not always recognize that it is occurring or else are prone to minimizing its impact. Indeed, there is a tendency for some professionals to be unable to accept that a young person can concurrently be a victim and a perpetrator. The impact of this underreporting is that the problem is more widespread than is generally known.


1. Male Perpetrators
Adolescent sex offenders are not a homogeneous group. As such, it is difficult to make generalizations about them. It is also important to note that the study and treatment of adolescent offenders is still in its infancy and that not a great deal is known about them. However, it would appear that many male offenders have some common characteristics.

Male adolescent offenders tend to display a range of troubled and troubling behaviours. Many have poor impulse control (Kavoussi et al.,1988), higher levels of anxiety (Blaske, Bordin, Henggeler, & Mann, 1989; Katz, 1990), and low self-esteem (Katz, 1990; Stops & Mays, 1991). Many male offenders have poor social skills (Becker, 1990; Graves et al.,1992; Katz, 1990) and, as a result, are unable to bond well with peers (Blaske et aI., 1989; Ellis, Piersma & Grayson, 1990; Freidrich & Luecke, 1988; Katz, 1990). Another common characteristic of adolescent offenders is a high incidence of emotional disturbances (Awad & Saunders, 1989; Blaske et al.,1989; Kahn & Chambers, 1991; Katz, 1990; Smets & Cebula, 1987) ranging from compulsive behaviours to, in rarer cases, psychosis. Adolescent sexual offenders are also reported to have higher incidences of learning difficulties (Awad & Saunders, 1989).

Many offenders also have a history of physical and/or sexual abuse as well as family dysfunctioning (Freidrich & Luecke, 1988; Kahn & Chambers, 1991; Katz, 1990). The sexually abusive experiences in these cases may have served to sexualize the aggressiveness that was already developing as a result of the environmental conditions (Freidrich & Luecke, 1988). Many also display a range of antisocial behaviours (Awad & Saunders, 1989; Becker, 1988) in addition to their offending. Indeed, there is a strong relationship between sex offending and other criminal activities (Kahn & Chambers, 1991).

Despite many common characteristics, the manifestation of symptoms varies greatly from individual to individual. Generally, adolescent rapists are more openly aggressive in their relationships than are adolescent child molesters. This tends to be part of an overall pattern of disordered and antisocial behaviour (Becker, 1990). Adolescent child molesters tend to be more introverted and, in part, engage in the molestation of younger children because of a fear of age-appropriate male-female relationships (Katz, 1990). However, both groups tend to start with low-level offending behaviour that appears to escalate if left untreated (Graves et al., 1992).

Although the causes of sexual offending are not definitively known, many adult offenders report that they were abused as children (Matsuda et al., 1989). Many adult offenders also reported that they started to offend against others while they were still adolescents (Kavoussi et al., 1988; Lombardo & DiGiorgio-Miller, 1988). It would appear that the earlier the person started to offend, the more entrenched the offending behaviour becomes (Kahn & Chambers, 1991).

2. Sexually Intrusive Children
A consequence of victimization on younger children is the tendency in some individuals to respond to their own abuse by abusing others or interacting with others in a sexually inappropriate manner (Ellis et al., 1990; Freidrich & Luecke, 1988). These children have come to be labeled as "sexually intrusive." This term was initially applied only to children who engaged in noninvasive, non-coercive, inappropriate sexual behaviour such as masturbating in public. However, the term is now applied to children who display a range of behaviours from general sexualized behaviour to behaviours that would be clearly labeled as being sexually assaultive if they were being committed by adolescents. On this end of the continuum, there are such behaviours as oral sex, fondling, penetration of the vagina or anus, and the use of threats or force.

Clearly not all sexually abused children become offenders, nor are all sexually intrusive young people victims of abuse. However, it is important to recognize that children who have been sexually abused may be at higher risk of becoming abusers. Some children who have been sexually abused reenact their own abuse on others in a perverse attempt to gain mastery of their own experience (Travin, Cullen, & Protter, 1990). Other young people are displaying learned behaviour (Freidrich & Luecke, 1988). Whatever the cause, what is known is that sexually inappropriate or aggressive behaviour in children should rarely be seen as being experimental in nature (Kavoussi et al., 1988). It is often an indicator of a problem and a potential indicator of later, far more catastrophic-related behaviours.

3. Developmentally Delayed/Low-Functioning Offenders
This group of offenders comprises individuals who meet the criteria for mild mental retardation. There is little mentioned about this group in the literature. However, some information has been published (Matsuda et al., 1989; Swanson & Garwick, 1990). The characteristics most often mentioned about this population are that they have a decreased ability for abstract thought and lack the necessary skills to interact positively in interpersonal relationships. These individuals also appear to be generally more aggressive and impulsive in their offending behaviour. If these characteristics are valid, it would suggest that this population differs significantly from the general male offender population.

4. Female Offenders
Female offenders make up only about 5-7% of the known adolescent offender population (Matsuda et al., 1989). However, the rate of female offending is underreported. This may be due to an apparent tendency to label some low-level forms of abuse by girls as being a type of intimacy or because of a general societal reluctance to view girls as being capable of committing sexual offenses. There may also be a reluctance on the part of professionals to report female disclosures of sexual offending (Travin et al., 1990). Male victims are also reluctant to report female offenders because of a sexual stereotype that suggests that males should consider themselves lucky to be sexually initiated by older women.

Little is known about the adolescent female offender population. The few studies that have been conducted with this population suggest that female offenders may have more severe levels of psychopathology (Higgs, Canavan, & Meyer, 1992) and may have experienced a higher level of personal victimization than their male counterparts (Travin et al., 1990). However, this may be more reflective of who is caught rather than who offends. Slightly more is known about adult female offenders, but not enough is known about either age group to be able to generalize between the two populations.

The adolescent sex offender population is not a homogeneous population. As such, it should be noted that a wide spectrum of services is required to ensure that the treatment needs of each individual can be met (Becker, 1990; Kavoussi et al., 1988). However, most adolescent offenders receive little or no treatment (McConaghy, Blaszcynski, Armstrong, & Kidson, 1989). The services that do exist in many jurisdictions often operate in isolation from or in competition with each other, because of the wide range of political, financial, and social agendas operating in regard to adolescent offenders. As with many other services to young people, there is an evident lack of cooperation among the various involved government agencies. High social costs are paid for this lack of cooperation and lack of services to adolescents (Blaske et al., 1989). The lack of services only invites further victimization and increases the pool of potential offenders.

It is necessary to adapt treatment strategies that mesh with the developmental needs of adolescents, In keeping with this, many services have moved to a greater emphasis on group interventions (Smets & Cebula, 1987) held in conjunction with family therapy (Sefarbi, 1990). However, different offenders will respond to different interventions, and so a range of services is required. Not enough is known about offenders, in general, and special population offenders, in particular, to be able to definitely state that there is one ideal form of intervention. Many offenders will need to access different forms of interventions through the course of their treatment.

Another important component of the treatment process is the use of accurate assessment tools to ensure there is a match between the needs of the offender and the resources of the service provider. There is a need for offender-specific treatment rather than the generic services that have often been offered in the past (Stevenson & Wimberley, 1990). Accurate assessment with a corresponding referral to an appropriate treatment program will dramatically increase the likelihood of successful intervention.

Regardless of the form of treatment utilized, there appears to be agreement on what needs to be addressed during the course of treatment (Lombardo & DiGiorgio-Miller, 1988; Matsuda et al., 1989). The offenders need to:

There has recently been a widespread debate regarding whether it is possible to effectively treat sexual offenders. This debate is somewhat misleading. A more appropriate debate would attempt to define treatment success. It may be that rather than aiming for the possibly unattainable goal of a cure for offenders, we need to develop strategies that combine appropriate treatment with effective ongoing monitoring. In this way, we will be able to break the cycle of abuse and offending.

The Value Of Early Intervention
Timing is of utmost importance in regard to intervention. Early intervention-as soon as the offending or intrusive behaviour has been identified is critical in terms of treatment success. It is important to begin treatment before the patterns of offending become ingrained in the young person. This holds true for the entire spectrum of offenders (Higgs et al., 1992; Ryan et al., 1987; Stops & Mays, 1991; Swanson & Garwick, 1990).

There are several advantages to intervening at an early stage with adolescents and sexually intrusive children. Individuals in the early stages of their development as offenders are more responsive to treatment (Stops & Mays, 1991). Those that have themselves been victimized are closer to their own abuse at this point. Dealing with their own abuse is an important step in the treatment process (Pierce & Pierce, 1987; Travin et al., 1990) Early intervention is also required in order to prevent the young offenders from developing additional deviant sexual interests or developing repetitive abusive sexual-interest patterns (Becker, Cunningham-Rathner, & Kaplan,1986). It also gives young offenders the immediate message that society is taking a stand with regard to their behaviour. It is critical that treatment occur before the young people become adults and as a result become less open to intervention (Stevenson, Castillo, & Sefarbi, 1989).

Conclusion: Dealing With Sexual Abuse And Assault Requires Dealing With The Offender
A range of treatment resources is needed to reflect both the requirements of the offenders and the diverse cultural, gender and geographical characteristics of the country. This should include:

Child sexual abuse and sexual assault will only be dealt with in this country when we begin to effectively deal with the offenders. Only when we are willing to openly and effectively deal with abusive behaviour will we begin to appropriately address the levels of victimization that are occurring in our communities. There is a need for the establishment of training programs for members of the helping and criminal justice systems, as well as education for the general public.

A variety of issues need to be addressed if we seriously wish to decrease the amount of sexual offenses committed by adolescents in our community and, hence, decrease the number of people being victimized. A variety of measures are needed to address the range of issues associated with offending behaviours. The following are recommended:

1. Treatment and Program Development

2. Assessment

3. Training

4. Research



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Madelyn McDonald, M.S. W., is the manager of the Phoenix Program for Adolescent Sexual Offenders at Woods Homes in Calgary, Alberta.
Grant Charles, Ph.D., is Director of Specialized Services and Director of the Centre for the Study of Sexual and Community Violence at Woods Homes in Calgary, Alberta.G C


This feature: Journal Of Child And Youth Care Vol. 11 No.1