"I know that sex can have no part in my life right now. Not if I'm going to have the life that I want, with college and a family down the road. I don't want my kids to go through what I went through." - Blaine, a 16-year-old sex offender.
Blaine has spent more than a year in a residential treatment program for committing serious sexual offenses against children.The highly structured program sometimes feels like a prison to the young offender, but he knows he's lucky. He's getting help.
Treatment options for adolescent sex offenders include residential, outpatient and secure-facility placement (the court usually decides). There are about 85 outpatient slots, 25 residential and 20 secure inpatient beds. Those numbers total less than one-third the number of referred adolescent sex offenders in Utah's court system in 1987, the last year figures were available. The number has increased every year.
Five years ago, adolescents suspected of sexual abuse seldom made it to court, said Dave Fowers, director of Millcreek Youth Center. "Maybe it was the boys-will-be-boys mentality. Whatever it was, society wasn't comfortable acknowledging that kind of behavior in children, so where possible we ignored it."
"In Salt Lake County last year, we found that one-third of our perpetrators were under 18," said Barbara Thompson, director of the Salt Lake County Child Abuse Coordinating Committee. "We certainly don't want to imply that anyone who makes obscene phone calls needs treatment. But if he makes 30 calls, maybe he should be assessed to see if he does need help. If enough people take a `boys-will-be-boys' attitude, the problem will become really major."
People are still uncomfortable dealing with sexual offenders, Fowers said, but "it hits all races, religions, economic and social levels and walks of life. Almost everyone has been touched by it - or knows someone who was, so there's no point hiding it. We should be getting the help that's needed, instead."
Research clearly demonstrates prosecution is important in dealing with an adolescent sex offender.
The National Task Force on Juvenile Sex Offending says prosecution prevents more victimization, protects the community, assures a thorough investigation, shows the offense is serious and will not be tolerated, forces the offender to take responsibility for his actions, supports the victim's rights and reduces denial by an offender.
It also makes it easier to enter an appropriate program, and probation or parole afterward assures proper supervision and follow-up care. Finally, prosecution leaves a trail to document the offender's record.
The offender sees diversion from prosecution as a reduction of consequences, so he minimizes the impact of his action.
Utah law provides the first step in ending sexual abuse: Anyone who suspects child abuse must notify the police or the Division of Family Services. They, in turn, will investigate. Serious cases by juveniles will be referred to Youth Corrections and the Juvenile Court system.
A fast cure doesn't exist. Blaine has been in residential treatment for over a year already. Outpatient treatment is a long-term project. But abusive behavior itself most often escalates over a long period of time. Research suggests it is easier to treat juveniles than adults.
The task force's study makes a plea for resources to deal with adolescent sex abuse, which the report says has been virtually ignored.
The study also highlights weaknesses in the system, like inconsistency in how different areas handle the problem.
Underreporting is a serious problem. Investigation and prosecution are both inadequate for a number of reasons, including reluctance by investigators to call sexually offending behavior criminal. There's not enough training in treatment and risk assessment. There isn't enough prevention or follow-up and the consequences aren't serious enough for those who don't participate or make progress. The list is long.
For Blaine, molestation was a family pattern. Even if the perpetrator was never a victim, family is an important part of treatment.
He's optimistic about his future. "I want to get my problem solved, graduate, then go to college and get a law degree."
Blaine's not as sure about his family's future. "They are getting help. But right now it's kind of in the middle. I think things could go either way." *****
Recommendations of sex-offender report
-Pass a Juvenile Sex Offender Act that would create an agency to direct procedures and resources
-Funnel money into a broad range of projects
-Establish a board uniting private and public sectors to address sexual abuse by juveniles
-Sponsor research into the effectiveness of treatment programs
-Have the state establish guidelines for the wide range of treatment programs needed to cope with the problem.