The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is exploring a number of avenues, beyond mandatory prison terms, to rehabilitate people convicted of sexually abusing children.

It marks an apparent departure from the department's position during the 1988 Legislature, when it backed Gov. Cecil Andrus push for mandatory prison terms for all child sexual abuse convictions.Prosecutors opposed the legislation, which died in the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee.

Now mandatory prison sentences apparently no longer are the department's first priority, and other options are being examined focusing on treatment for offenders.

"It's just that we find no simple answers for these cases," said Ed Van Dusen of Health and Welfare's Child Protection Division.

Health and Welfare still wants offenders to serve some time in county jails to reinforce the seriousness of their crimes, he said, but then to get time off for work or therapy unavailable in prison.

That puts the department in line with many prosecutors and child-protection advocates who want to maintain flexibility in sentencing and avoid warehousing of offenders.

Van Dusen, victim's advocates and the Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which plans to meet in early August, each will submit formal suggestions for changing Idaho law to the interim legislative committee on child abuse chaired by Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo.

Another study group, the governor's Children at Risk Task Force, expects to offer Andrus its recommendations for changing state law by mid-September, said Chairman Ray Winterowd. He also is Van Dusen's boss, as administrator of Health and Welfare's Division of Family and Children's Services.

"What we are trying to do is come up with a complete set of recommendations," Winterowd said of the task force, which includes representatives from law enforcement, lawyers and children's advocates.

However, Winterowd said, "We have had a lot of input that something more stringent from what is happening should occur."