Blaine was a class officer, a likable kid, a good student.

When he was 14, he was arrested for molesting his sister and a friend of the family. It wasn't, he said, the first time he'd molested anyone; he'd been doing that since he was 9. It was just the first time he got caught.For more than a year, the 16-year-old has been in Nova, a residential program in Ogden that treats troubled youths, including youthful sex offenders. While he is one of only eight in that program, he is one of hundreds of young people in Utah who have found their way into the Juvenile Court system for sexual offenses against other children.

"I was a good kid," he said. "No drugs, no alcohol. Sex offenders come in all types, from all different backgrounds. You can't spot us by looking at us."

William J. Endy, clinical director of adult and adolescent services at the Intermountain Sexual Abuse Treatment center, agreed that a "typical kid" like Blaine may be a typical offender.

"Some of the kids we treat were never involved in any trouble. Some were continually in trouble. At (the center), 60 percent plus of the kids were never in trouble before."

"It wasn't an act of violence or aggression for me," Blaine (not his real name) said, "it wasn't even a `want.' It was more a need I couldn't control."

His inappropriate sexual behavior, he said, was something he spent most of his young life learning. "I was molested (by a family member) as long as I can remember - and we were always as a family `playing house' and things. I got it from my family and thought it was normal. Later, I knew I needed help, but I was embarrassed."

Although molestation was common in his family structure, his mother was shocked to discovered that he had become a sexual abuser.

"We talked and I told her I needed help. She found that the only way to really get me help was through the court system. I've been here over a year, and it's helped me. I want to get out, but I know I will get out when I'm ready."

"The fastest-growing adolescent offense is sex abuse," said Dave Fowers, director of the Millcreek Youth Center and member of the task force of the Utah Network on Juveniles Offending Sexually. "It usually starts at age 12 and up. Some start at 8. They come here for a number of types of sex offenses. We hardly ever get a first-time referral; they just haven't been caught before. When we check, we sometimes find hundreds of offenses.

"It's everything from intimidation - some use knives in the attacks - on down to offering candy as an enticement. Each case is individual."

Sexual abuse by juveniles in Utah has increased steadily, but a true picture of the problem is hard to pin down, partly because of under-reporting, a task force report says.

"Juveniles involved in sexually offending behaviors were not held accountable for the victim impact and criminal nature of their acts," the March 1989 report says. "Sexual be-haviors that were clearly exploitive and criminal were often dismissed as `adolescent adjustment reactions' or `exploratory experimentation.' "

The report suggests that, when juveniles are brought into the legal system, court action is often "grossly inadequate, with many cases being dismissed, redefined as non-sexual charges or plea bargained."

For that reason, the scanty numbers reflect only the most serious cases of known juvenile sex offenses (1,707 juveniles referred to the legal system since 1983, with a 55 percent increase over a five-year period).

"By law, anyone who is made aware of the abuse of children, sexual or not, is obligated to report it," said Sgt. Virgil Johnson, Salt Lake County Sheriff's Department. "You report it to law enforcement or the Division of Family Services, and we notify each other and work in a team effort to determine if an offense has been committed."

One of the investigative team's major tasks is differentiating between "natural experimentation" and "exploitation." Factors that separate the two include use of greater age, size and strength, prestige, intelligence or another source of power to coerce the victim into a sexual act to which he might not otherwise consent.

Once investigators determine that the sexual act was abuse, Johnson said, the most important thing is to make certain that the victim is safe, even if it means taking the child out of his home.

With adult offenders, punishment may take priority, but with a juvenile offender, "depending on his past rec-ord, we are more interested in rehabilitation," Johnson said. "They're usually put in counseling programs." *****

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Abuse statistics

Available statistics on adolescents referred to the legal system for molesting children show that:

-Ninety-three percent of the offenders were male; 7 percent female.

-Children under 12 represented 16 percent of offenders; the average age was 14.5.

-Between 12 percent and 19 percent have been reported for multiple offenses, and research indicates that number is low.

-Seventy percent of the reported offenses were felonies, not misdemeanors, indicating that few "hands-off" offenses like voyeurism and exhibitionism are referred to the courts.