TEENAGE SEX OFFENDERS:
A Handbook for Parents and Caregivers
Ryan D. Nash, M.Ed.
August 6, 2001
Ó 2004 The British Columbia Probation Officer's Association
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This handbook is prepared for the parents and caregivers of adolescent sex offenders. It has been my experience that parents are often forgotten when the discovery is made that their teen has committed a sexual offence. It is the intent of this handbook to throw light on some of the issues regarding sexual assault, to help parents and family members understand how this problem can occur, and to suggest what can be done to prevent it from happening in the future.
It is normally assumed that the damage that results from sexual abuse is usually limited to the victim, and according to the evidence, the consequences to the victim are extensive and traumatizing. As devastating as the offence is for the victim and members of the victim’s family, the impact on the offender’s family is also extremely profound.
Families, in particular parents and caregivers of adolescent sex offenders, play an integral role in either the maintenance or control of inappropriate sexual behaviour on the part of their teen. It is a common response for many parents to deny that their teen has played any role in a sexual offence. Many parents have been where you are today and many have overcome the shock, pain, and embarrassment, and have rebuilt their lives in positive directions. You and your family members play an extremely important role in helping your teen by offering them the support and encouragement needed to address their offending behaviour.
It is my belief that a youth who has committed a sexual offence is worthy of receiving as much support as possible and is deserving of the best help available. A youth
who has committed a sexual offence is often referred to as being a sexual offender. As true as this may be, it is also important to recognize that the youth who commits a sexual offence is much more than that. This youth is also a child, friend, student, employee, and much more. Making this distinction is important because it allows those working in supervisory or helping capacities to recognize that your teen is not just a sexual offender but rather a person who has committed a sexual offence.
I wish to honour the many parents who are struggling to deal with the problem of adolescent sexual offending. As a probation officer, I have worked with many youth and their families who are struggling as you might be right now to come to grips with this reality. There are going to be difficult times ahead and a great deal of uncertainty as to the intent of the many professionals involved in your teen’s life. It is my hope that this handbook alleviates some of these concerns and offers you a sense of hope and support.
Ryan Nash, Author
TEENAGE SEX OFFENDERS:
A Handbook for Parents and Caregivers
WHAT IS A SEXUAL OFFENCE?
A sexual assault occurs when one person forces another person to engage in a sexual activity, or bribes, coerces, intimidates or tricks another into participating in sexual activity.
Sexual offences may include behaviours such as:
Children under the age of 14 cannot legally consent to any form of sexual activity or contact, the assumption being that children are not capable of making decisions regarding sexual activities given their level of psychological and physiological development. As such, society has established a number of laws in order to protect children and others from sexual offences and at the same time hold accountable those who violate children.
Sexual offences are not considered to be normal exploratory behaviour. Many parents, upon discovering that their teen has committed a sexual offence, attempt to explain the behaviour as simple child’s play or even experimentation. As many of us may recall, children often played games such as playing house or playing doctor. For many of us, this generally involved showing each other our private parts. As long as this behaviour did not progress beyond such activities it was considered to be normal developmental behaviour. However, a 15 year old playing these games with a 5 or 6 year old is not normal sexual behaviour. Once this has occurred it has moved into the realm of abusive and exploitive behaviour.
Many adolescent offenders will bribe, threaten, intimidate, coerce or scare children into participating and then into maintaining the secret sexual relationship. Offenders knowingly engage in behaviour that is unlawful and generally go to great care to avoid detection, as is evidenced by the fact that most will attempt to prevent their victims from reporting the offence. It is understandable then, why so many parents have difficulty accepting that their teen was capable of committing a sexual assault offence. Fortunately, as more and more children are educated about sexual assaults and unwanted touching, they are more apt to tell someone.
The Criminal Code of Canada provides the legal definition of what constitutes a sexual assault. Many people get confused by the term sexual assault as in the past there were various definitions and types of offences (e.g., rape, rape with violence, fondling). However, recent changes to the Criminal Code define two basic types of sexual offences:
In the first category, any sexual activity with anyone under the age of 14 is considered to be an offence. This can include touching of the child’s genitals or other parts of the body for a sexual purpose or having the child touch the offender’s genitals. This category can also include more serious and violent offences such as actual or attempted anal or vaginal intercourse, oral contact, etceteras.
In the second category, non-consenting or coercive sexual activity can be against anyone of any age and of either sex. In other words, it is an offence to engage in any sexual activity that is forced on a person or when a person cannot or does not give their consent. This form of sex offence is referred to as sexual assault.
If your teen is before the courts he could likely face any one or more of the following charges as found in the Criminal Code of Canada:
Section 151 – Sexual Interference:
Anyone who for a sexual purpose, touches directly or indirectly, with a part of the body or an object, any part of the body of a child under the age of 14.
Section 155 – Incest:
Having sexual intercourse with a blood relation (parent, child, brother, sister, half brother/sister, grandparent, grandchild.)
Section 159 – Anal Intercourse:
Prohibited with anyone under the age of 18.
Section 173 (1) – Indecent Acts:
Performing an indecent act in a public place in the presence of one or more persons. Exposure (exhibitionism), and masturbation in public are good examples of offences under this section. This section differs from section 173(2) CCC in that this section would apply in those incidents where the victims are over the age of 14 years.
Section 173 (2) – Exposing Genitals to a Child:
Any person who exposes his genitals to a child under the age of 14 for a sexual purpose.
Section 271 – Sexual Assault:
Applying force to another person directly or indirectly, without consent, and consisting of a sexual nature.
Section 272 – Sexual Assault with a Weapon, Threats to a Third Party or Causing Bodily Harm:
Committing a sexual assault while carrying, using or threatening to use a weapon or imitation of a weapon, or threatening bodily harm to a person other than the victim, or being party to this offence with someone else.
Section 273 – Aggravated Sexual Assault:
Wounding, maiming, disfiguring or endangering the life of the victim while committing the sexual assault.
These sections of the Criminal Code do not represent all of the sections of the Criminal Code dealing with sexual offences (e.g. bestiality). The above noted offences are generally the most frequently used charges against adolescent sexual offenders. Should you have more questions regarding these offences or court proceedings, you and your teen should seek legal advice.
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INITIAL REACTIONS: WHAT ABOUT MY FEELINGS AND REACTIONS?
When parents first come to the realization that their teen may have committed a sexual offence most will react with shock and disbelief. Many parents often feel guilty, wondering what they did wrong and do not want to believe that this is happening to their family. Still others feel alone, ashamed and worried that no one will understand or accept their family again.
Many parents may experience intense thoughts and can become preoccupied with questions like: "Why did my child do that?", "Could this have really happened?", "How can we live with this?", "Are my other children safe?". If you have not yet been able to accept that your teen has committed a sexual offence you may be thinking "Not my child!", "Boys will be boys", or "It’s nobody’s business what happens in my family".
If you have accepted that your teen has committed a sexual offence, having these questions and emotions is evidence that you are working to come to terms with your teen’s behaviour. There are generally eight stages that you will go through as you deal with the sexually abusive behaviour of your teen. Some parents may go through these stages quickly while others may take considerable time to move from one stage to the next. These stages are as follows:
Stage 1 – Shock
Your initial reaction is one of shock. Everything you know about your teen is destroyed. Psychologically, you are not prepared to deal with this realization and shock to your family. You are not able to comprehend what has happened and what the future may hold for you or your teen.
Stage 2 – Disbelief
Once you have overcome your shock, it is common to move into the disbelief stage and to take a defensive posture. This disbelief leads you to question the allegation, stating "Not my child!" Finally, disbelief then becomes denial.
Stage 3 – Denial
It is a normal response of many parents to deny that their teen had anything to do with a sexual offence. You may take the view that if you close your eyes the problem will go away. Unfortunately, this denial does nothing to help your teen and does not prepare you to deal with the legal issues that you and your teen are now presented with. As the parent, you need to understand that the majority of victims (usually children) do not lie about sexual offences. Once you have begun to move beyond the denial stage and begin to reach a level of acceptance, you enter the "why" stage.
Stage 4 – Why
This stage is where most parents begin to vent their anger and in some cases rage towards their teen and themselves. The very nature of this stage is the number of unanswered questions. "Why did you do this?" "How could you have done this to us?" "How are we going to tell our family, friends?" The "whys" leave you feeling hopeless. At a time when you want to be in control you are not. Recognizing the need for outside help can be a positive step and a sign of strength at an already difficult time. When parents can not answer the "why" questions, many tend to project blame or responsibility for their teen’s offending onto others. This can be a very normal response, but you must be careful because you may inadvertently reinforce your teen’s projections.
Stage 5 – Projection
When we project blame on to others it allows us to avoid taking responsibility for our behaviours. By now you may be accepting the fact that your teen has committed a sexual offence, but at times you may feel you are under attack as other people begin to press you for an explanation for your teen’s behaviour. A normal response to this experience will be to blame others for your problems as this temporarily removes some of the stress.
The victim is often blamed for the sexual assault. The young offender may use statements such as, "she led me on," "he wanted me to do it," "she asked me to do it to her," "he did not resist or say he didn’t like it." These are common projections used by the youth to divert responsibility, regardless of the age of the victim. Do not fall into this trap. If you reinforce your teen’s projections you are not helping him/her face and deal with reality.
It is extremely important for the offender to be held responsible for his/her behaviour and therefore you may find the probation officer or therapist challenging these projections. As well, the probation officer or therapist will also confront you, as the parent, on your projections. Although it may not seem like it at the time, this is part of the helping process and as time moves on it will become easier to identify these projections and correct them.
Stage 6 – Minimization
As you gradually begin to accept the reality of your teen’s sexual offence, you may find yourself attempting to diminish the full impact of your teen’s behaviour. This is the partial acknowledgement of responsibility. You will come to recognize this stage when you hear yourself or your teen say, "he did it, BUT…", "he only…"
Typically, parents or the offender try to minimize their involvement or the impact on the victim. Minimizations may include, "he only touched her once," "at least he did not have sexual intercourse with him/her," "it could have been a lot worse." Although there may be degrees of sexual assault, all sexual assaults must be taken seriously, not minimized, and must be viewed in the context of the long and short term consequences for the victim and the victim’s family. When an offender minimizes, parents may find the probation officer or therapist carefully confronting the youth and reminding him of the serious consequences of his behaviour and impact upon the victim.
Stage 7 – Acceptance
This is usually the first big step in the helping process. In order for any changes to take place you must accept what has happened and recognize that your teen has committed a sexual offence. It is also the acknowledgement that this behaviour has had a grievous impact upon the family and that the family also needs help and support. Do not hesitate to take advantage of the help that is available and offered.
Your teen will require expert help in dealing with his sexual behaviour problems. Acceptance is the recognition of this need for help and should be viewed as a sign of strength and determination at overcoming this difficult time. Because you recognize the need for intervention, it does not mean you are accepting your teen’s inappropriate behaviour. You will need to continue to accept your teen as a unique individual with the same emotional needs as every other teen (e.g. to be loved, cared for, protected, supported, etc.) Once you and your teen have accepted this reality, you are in the unique position to actively participate and begin to contribute to the helping (treatment) process.
Stage 8 - Problem Solving
It is at this stage that the youth will likely begin to enter a treatment programme. In British Columbia, young persons convicted of a sexual offence will be referred by their probation officer to the treatment programme (residential or non-residential) offered through Youth Forensic Psychiatric Services. Most treatment programmes take an average of 8 to 10 months to complete. The duration of the programme is contingent on many factors, for example, motivation, support from family, acknowledgement of responsibility, victim empathy and in some cases the offender’s own victimization.
The feelings and thoughts you are experiencing as you move through these stages are going to be difficult moments in your family’s life. While you may feel alone at times, it is important to know that you are not alone. Many parents have experienced what you are feeling today and many more have successfully navigated their way through the barrage of feelings and emotions. Counseling and treatment will help you, your family and your teen, move through these stages and begin to heal.
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WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE ADOLESCENT SEX OFFENDER?
There is no single explanation for why some youth are capable of committing sexual offences against others. In the past, adolescent sexual offenders were simply dismissed as having engaged in sex play or experimentation and little was done to address the problem.
Unfortunately, what we do know is that the majority of adult sexual offenders began as adolescents. According to the research, anywhere from 47% to 61% of adult sexual offenders admit that they committed their first sexual offence prior to the age of 18. Even more surprising is that youth are responsible for the majority of sexual offences against children (over 50% of all child molestation cases). Many people would have you believe that adults perpetrate the majority of offences against children; this, interestingly enough, is not true. Your child is in the unique position to deal with their sexually offending behaviour. They are in a position to break the chain of abuse and to stop the sexual abuse of others.
As I have previously noted, there is no one single explanation for why some youth commit sexual offences. However, there have been a number of studies within the last decade that have looked at the origins of sexually abusive behaviour. Adolescent sex offenders generally share similar characteristics that predispose them to sexual offending. It is important to keep in mind while reading the characteristics listed below that although it is common for sexual offenders to share these characteristics, it is possible for someone to have similar experiences and characteristics and not be a sexual offender.
History of Sexual Abuse
Childhood sexual abuse has often been considered an important factor in adolescent sexual offending. In fact, it is estimated that anywhere from 20% to 60% of sexual offenders were sexually victimized as children. It is important to remember that although these numbers may be staggering there is no causal relationship between having been sexually abused and having committed a sexual offence. Even if 100% of sexual offenders had been victims of sexual abuse, it would not indicate that their histories caused them to offend, for many individuals do not repeat the victimization they experienced. From the research noted above, one could conclude that approximately 1 in 4 male victims of sexual abuse might commit a sexual offence in their lifetime.
Studies have shown that certain factors in a child’s life can contribute to the likelihood of them committing a sexual offence as an adolescent or an adult. Such things as sexual and physical abuse, emotional abuse, abandonment, neglect, exposure to a sexualized environment, family violence, conflict, poor communication patterns, rejection and parental drug abuse are often present in the histories of many adolescent offenders.
This is important information because in terms of research and literature, especially with regard to incest, one can not overlook the role the family plays in maintaining and contributing to the adolescent’s sexual offending. Living in a chaotic family environment, feeling bad about oneself, and not knowing how to relate to others within the family are also common.
Although there is some level of family dysfunction in every home, it appears to be more apparent in homes where sexual abuse has occurred. It is for this reason that parents and families need to come together to support one another and the offender. Family therapy is an integral part of assisting the offender and his family in addressing family dynamics that may have contributed to the offender’s behaviour.
Family patterns should be re-organized so that verbally, physically and emotionally abusive parenting and communication patterns can be reduced or diminished. However, sex offender treatment should not focus exclusively on issues of family dysfunction, as individual sex offender treatment is equally important.
Social Competence, Confidence and Isolation
Of all the characteristics of adolescent sexual offenders, the most widely supported generalization is that this population of youth tends to experience:
These feelings of low self-worth and inadequacy can be extremely difficult and lonely emotions. It is hypothesized by a number of researchers that these offenders may commit these sexual offences as a way of trying to restore their sense of self. In some incestuous cases where the youth is experiencing parental rejection, low self-esteem, etc., the youth may turn to their siblings for affection and support. Unfortunately, in some cases this relationship can have a negative outcome, as it may become sexual.
In other cases it has been noted that sex-offending youth lack assertiveness and other social skills that might cause them to fear rejection and isolation from their peer group. It is apparent that many adolescent offenders, particularly those who offend against young children, tend to operate outside the social mainstream.
Opportunities for sexual offending behaviour may be facilitated by the offender’s willingness to accept babysitting positions which are offered readily by parents due to the offender’s availability because of limited social interaction and their seemingly good ease of interacting with children.
Clearly, there is evidence to support the concept that attachment problems, loneliness, poor social interaction, etc. play a significant role in the lives of adolescent sex offenders. It is also clearly evident that there is the need for adequate treatment programmes that can assist offenders in developing the social skills and peer interactions they require to prevent further sexual offences.
For the most part, the research in this area indicates that most adolescent sex offenders have some problems in school. However, school performance appears to be no more problematic than any other sample of young offender who had never committed a sexual offence. In one study, over 80% of the sex offenders had experienced some learning and/or behavioural difficulties during some part of the school year.
Generally, there is little evidence to implicate poor intellectual functioning or scholastic performance as a specific causal factor in sexual offences.
Pornography can lower barriers to offending by "adding fuel to the fire." Youth who have themselves been victims of sexual abuse, been exposed to parental or peer violence, etc., and also have access to sexually explicit material, increase the risk for sexually offending behaviour. This can become even more problematic if the offender then reinforces these images through masturbation. Furthermore, some studies suggest that adolescent sexual offenders who have a history of viewing X-rated videos while masturbating have significantly more victims than those who have no access to X-rated material.
Alcohol and Drug Abuse
Despite the fact that alcohol and drugs have disinhibiting effects, there is very little evidence to suggest that substance abuse plays a prominent role in sexual offending against children. Even adolescent sexual offenders who have an acknowledged history of alcohol and/or drug abuse deny that substance abuse played an important factor in their offending behaviour. On the other hand, adolescent sexual offenders that committed rape offences show substance abuse exceeding 50% with a large portion of these offenders under the influence while offending.
There are a number of other factors that could be included in this section (sociological factors, peer influences, etc.). However, in terms of parenting and understanding the adolescent sex offender within your home, the above influences are likely the most significant.
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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS AND COMMON MYTHS:
Most of us have very little information about the normal sexual behaviours that we might expect from our children and youth. Most parents find it difficult to discuss sexuality with their children/youth and almost all of us carry some misconceptions about what sexual behaviour is normal in childhood/adolescent development.
Children do normally engage in some sexual behaviour(s) with other children, and in fact do have sexual feelings. Children who experience sexual feelings will on occasion act on those feelings. However, a commonly held misconception regarding "normal" sexual development is that sexually offending behaviours are only attempts to learn about sex. Many parents who are struggling to accept that their youth has committed a sexual offence will often look for explanations for the behaviour. Many will believe that the youth charged with a sexual offence was simply involved in innocent sex play, experimentation, or was involved in a "normal" process of sexual maturation.
What is true is that taking advantage of a younger child, repeated incidents of exposing one’s genitals, rape and the other sexual offences do not represent normal sexual development in adolescents. Youth who use verbal coercion, threats, intimidation or force during sexual behaviours are not engaging in normal sexual behaviour. If these behaviours are left unchecked and untreated they may develop into a well-established repertoire of sexually deviant behaviours.
As you may know there are a number of commonly held misconceptions and "myths" regarding adolescent sexual behaviour. Some of the common myths are listed below:
Myth: A youth who commits a sexual offence has to have been sexually abused themselves in the past.
Fact: As you have read earlier in the handbook, one does not have to have been sexually abused to commit a sexual offence. There are a number of factors that are usually at play on the pathway to sexual offending. Although having been sexually abused puts one at higher risk for committing a sexual offence, it does not mean that everyone who has been sexually abused will commit a sexual offence. Regardless of how your teen learned these behaviours, acting out sexually or aggressively is an inappropriate way for youth to get their personal needs met.
Myth: The sexually offending behaviour will go away with maturity, or the youth will simply grow out of it.
Fact: As reported earlier in the handbook, evidence from adult sexual offenders contradicts this belief. With over 50% of adult sexual offenders reporting having began their sexual offending pattern in adolescence, it is even more important to provide treatment to youth early to help prevent further offending behaviour. While some very young children may "self-correct" this behaviour, others simply stopped the behaviour for a while, only to resume the offending behaviour during adolescence when they felt greater sexual interest and arousal. The evidence suggests that there is no "cure" for sexual offending behaviour. This underscores the importance of treatment and long-term maintenance through relapse prevention.
Myth: The offender does not know his victims.
Fact: Offenders are often known to their victims as trusted people, such as family members, babysitters or neighbours.
Myth: If a youth is arrested and dealt with by the courts as a "sex offender", the label itself may predispose the youth to re-offend.
Fact: Some parents will believe that labeling their teen as a sex offender will cause lifelong problems. Some parents hold the position that the sex offender label is far more damaging to the youth and outweighs the risk that the youth will re-offend. In reality, an adolescent sexual offender who persists with this behaviour can be expected to create over 380 victims during his lifetime. Unless the offender is appropriately identified he will not receive the necessary treatment and will likely continue to re-offend. There is no particular evidence to suggest that a youth continued to offend only because of the burden of having been identified as a sexual offender.
Myth: Sexual offences are the result of sudden, uncontrolled urges.
Fact: One of the most difficult realities for sexual offenders and their families to admit is that there was a level of planning that occurred prior to the offence. The fact is, most sexual offences are planned. Most adolescent offenders do not lash out at their victims and offend. They tend to behave in a "rational" manner and sexually offend when an opportunity presents itself. Most offenders will perceive this as meaning the offence was "spur of the moment". However, the majority of offenders will admit that there was previous fantasizing and deviant thought patterns prior to the offence taking place. Offenders need to examine their history in order to find the pattern that exists within their offending.
Myth: The first sexual offence for which the youth is apprehended is generally his first offence.
Fact: Adolescent offenders usually have committed a number of offences against either the same victim or multiple victims. The earlier offences may have merely gone undetected or mislabeled as experimentation.
Myth: "My child would never force another child to do anything like that. My child never gets into fights and wouldn’t hurt anyone. There couldn’t have been any force."
Fact: Force or coercion takes many forms. Force can include pressure used to overwhelm another person’s ability to resist. Force can also include verbal pressure, repeated harassment or threatening gestures. Your teen may have used bribes or "tricks" or "games" to pressure a child into having sex.
Myth: "My child will listen to what I have to say, this won’t happen again."
Fact: While your teen may conform to your expectations they will still experience uniquely individual thoughts and feelings. Should your teen continue to harbour thoughts and feelings about sexually offending against others, this behaviour is likely to re-occur. These youth need help that goes beyond any parental discipline. They need to be able to talk about their sexual thoughts and feelings, and this can be difficult for many youth to do with their parents.
The tendency to keep things ‘secret’ is an important contributor to the problem.
In addition to the numerous myths that exist regarding adolescent sexual offending, there are also some common questions that are frequently asked by parents. The following are a list of some of those questions:
Is it really necessary to seek outside help? Why can’t the family deal with this on our own?
The therapists and probation officers working with your teen are specially trained to work with adolescent sexual offenders. Families can benefit from having an avenue to address their anger, frustration, and hurt in a positive and constructive manner. In fact, some parents themselves have been victims of sexual abuse. Their adolescent’s sexual offending may bring to light past hurt and unresolved emotions and memories. The involvement and support of the therapists and probation officer can be very important at an already difficult time.
Why should my son have to go to court?
The answer to this question is relatively simple. There are laws in this country that reflect the responsibilities people have to each other, and when someone violates those laws there are consequences. The YCJA makes clear that the nature of the system’s response to an offence should reflect the needs and individual circumstances of a young person. The youth Justice system is to protect the public and that is best achieved through prevention, meaningful consequences for a full range of youth crime and rehabilitation, so youth can turn their lives around. Most adolescent sexual offenders are not locked up after their first offence. Instead, they are likely placed on probation with specific conditions designed to meet the needs of the youth as well as to protect the community. There will likely be conditions on the probation order requiring the youth to attend counselling, report to a youth probation officer, conditions restricting contact with the victim(s) and possibly younger children. The court process conveys to the youth the seriousness of their behaviour and holds them accountable.
Will my son have a Criminal Record?
The shortest answer to this question is no. Young offenders do not have Criminal Records they have an " Offence History". Assuming that the youth completes their period of probation without incident, the youth’s court history is "sealed" and can not be disclosed pending a 3-5 year waiting period. However, should the youth commit a new offence of any kind (Criminal Code of Canada offences) during the 3-5 year waiting period, their youth court history will follow them into the adult system.
Will I be able to trust my son again?
Trust is generally something that can take months or even years to establish, but can take only a second to destroy. As you begin to understand the issues that led your teen down the path of offending and the more you participate in the supervision of your teen and in the helping process, you will gradually begin to trust your teen again. This will of course be more difficult and complex if the victim was a brother or a sister. You will find that it will take longer for you to trust your teen to be alone again with his siblings. The whole family will play an important role in ensuring that proper supervision is in place. The probation officer can be a valuable support to you and your family in establishing new rules and responsibilities within the family. All family members play an important role in protecting victims in the home and those in the community.
What do I tell my other children?
Once you have come to the realization of the implications of your teen’s offending, you are likely to ask yourself this question if there are other children in the home. I would encourage you to share with the other siblings age-appropriate information about what is happening with their brother/sister. If you do not, you run the risk of having the other children thinking that what is happening is their fault. It is important for family members to understand that there is a problem that is sexual in nature and that there will be people involved who are trying to help.
Do I have to talk to my teen about this behaviour? Can’t I just leave this to the probation officer or therapist?
Your role in the helping process and in the supervision of your teen is critical. This subject can be very difficult to discuss with your teen, but he needs to know that you are comfortable discussing this topic and that you are able and willing to be of support during stressful and difficult times. If you do not pursue this topic with your teen, you run the risk of reinforcing the belief that what is happening is not important. Your teen may also perceive rejection on your part should you choose not to discuss their sexual offence. Keep in mind that, although your teen’s probation officer and therapists will work hard to assist your teen in managing his life, you also play an extremely important role.
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WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP MY TEEN?
Initially, not denying that there is a problem is a good place to start. The natural reaction of many parents will be that of disbelief and shock at the realization that their teen may have committed a sexual offence. You may find yourself defending your teen and attempting to find alternate explanations for their behaviour. Many parents often wonder if their teen was misunderstood or perhaps that someone was exaggerating what actually happened.
Denying that there is a problem or that your teen actually committed a sexual offence may help to keep things appearing normal within the family, however, the dysfunction within the home will still exist. Denying that your teen committed a sexual assault may protect the family from confrontation and minimize conflict within the home. In turn, the youth may deny the allegation in an attempt to preserve the image of the family and to protect his/her self-image. The positive function that denial may initially play in the family is that it "buys time" for the family and offender to adjust to the reality that the offender actually committed a sexual offence.
Although most families will admit to the offence, many will also minimize that their teen committed a serious sexual offence. Many parents become angry when they hear that their teen engaged in some planning before committing the offence, having assumed (or hoped) that the offence was spontaneous and therefore "less serious". What is also very common is that most youth will withhold aspects of their offence from their parents that they might disclose in more detail to professionals. This of course elicits further confusion and anger within parents.
As difficult as it might be to accept that your teen committed a sexual assault, the evidence is quite clear with regard to the importance of working through and attempting to understand your motivations for denying the sexual offence. Families play a powerful role in either assisting the offender to admit responsibility for the sexual offence or to further entrench the denial within the offender. As long as there is denial within the family, efforts made by therapists and probation officers to assist offenders to move from manipulative and controlling behaviours will not fully take place.
During this extremely difficult time, your teen may be trying to cope with a wide range of emotions and fears, particularly feelings of shame, embarrassment, and guilt. Families can be a very powerful source of support and stabilization. As you have already read, poor attachments with caregivers and/or parents can contribute to the likelihood of social isolation, loneliness and ongoing problems in relating effectively with peers and adults. Poor attachments to parents can also lead to low self-confidence, poor social skills and lack of empathy with others. The significance of the family, especially the role of the parents, underscores the importance for parents and caregivers to establish and maintain secure emotional attachments to their teen.
In addition to accepting the fact that your teen has committed a sexual offence, there are other important strategies you can do to help your teen within your home: (The following interventions within the home was summarized from Pithers, Gray, Cunningham, and Lane (1993, p. 30-32)):
Teach Sexual Safety and Privacy Rules
Encourage Open Communication
Limit Experiences That Increase Sexual Thoughts
Interrupt and Redirect Misuse of Power
Correct Faulty Thinking Patterns
And of course the most important of all these is to co-operate with your teen’s probation officer and therapists. Although it may not seem like it at times, they do have your teen’s best interests at heart.
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THE IMPORTANCE OF ADOLESCENT SEX OFFENDER TREATMENT
Because we know that over 50% of identified adult sexual offenders acknowledge committing their first sexual assault when they were teens, and that these sex offenders can create an average of 380 victims in their lifetime, the need for sexual offender treatment is paramount. It is extremely important to concentrate sexual offender treatment on juvenile offenders in order to intervene with this problem early and prevent or reduce later victimization.
Early intervention and treatment are crucial during adolescence in order to interrupt the deviant cycle of sexual offending before it becomes engrained. The rationale for early therapeutic intervention in adolescence is very clear and extremely compelling. Because the deviant sexual patterns and distorted thinking patterns are not as well entrenched in adolescence they are easier to interrupt at an early age. Additionally, youth are still at a stage where they are experimenting with a variety of sexual patterns, which offers alternatives to deviant sexual activities or thought patterns. Finally, youth are good candidates to learn new and acceptable social skills and improve peer interaction. This underscores the importance of intervening effectively with adolescent sexual offenders in order to protect children from victimization, to assist offenders in leading healthy, functioning lives, and to prevent adolescent offenders from progressing into adult sexual offending.
The primary goal of sex offender treatment is to prevent further sexual offending behaviour. It is practically impossible to address the sexual offending behaviours without addressing the patterns that led to the behaviour and interrupt the deviant cycle of abuse. With this in mind, choosing the most effective avenue to sex offender treatment becomes particularly important.
Many parents would prefer that their teen participate in an individual sex offender treatment programme where an offender can work one on one with a trained psychologist or therapist. However, studies have shown that the most effective approach to addressing sexual offending behaviour is through group counselling (or multisystemic therapy). In one study completed in 1990, researchers found that only 12.5% of those adolescent sexual offenders who completed a group treatment approach committed new offences (re-offended). This is compared to the re-offence rate of 75% for those offenders who only completed an individual therapy programme.
By placing an offender in a group treatment format with other offenders, the therapists can reinforce interventions and encourage progress when the offender hears similar scenarios and circumstances from more than one person. Because youth desire to form close associations with their peers, group therapy can be an ample tool to maximize the benefits of peer pressure to confront denial and minimization. As the treatment process begins to progress, most youth begin to let down their guard and can begin to face the actual truth of their offending in a safe, non-judgmental environment.
Despite the evidence of the importance of early and effective intervention with adolescent sex offenders, many parents continue to be resistant to sexual offender treatment. Many parents believe that the court and probationary process is abusive and that the real victim of the process is the offender. These parents will place blame with the victim and will look for excuses to dismiss the offending behaviour and may take the stance that "This is my child, and I will make the decisions for him." Parents who take this position run the risk of reinforcing the minimization and avoidance behaviours that led to the teen’s offending behaviour in the first place. It is important for parents to catch themselves when they find themselves blaming, excuse making, lying by leaving information out, or justifying the offender’s.
Why does treatment need to be mandated by the courts?
Because most adolescent sexual offenders do not normally volunteer to participate in treatment, treatment must be mandated by the courts to be effective. The prosecution of the adolescent sex offender can serve the purpose of accountability, informing the offender that his behaviour is not acceptable and will be sanctioned, as well as serve to afford protection to potential victims. The court order provides the necessary backup and leverage therapists need to motivate the young offender’s co-operation with treatment. Offenders need to be sent a strong message from the court that offences will not be tolerated and that they need to comply with treatment. The probation order and the threat of further court proceedings can be crucial levers for motivating young offenders to remain in therapy.
Most adolescent sexual offender treatment programmes can take anywhere from 8 months to 2 years to complete, depending on the offender’s circumstances and characteristics, waiting lists, and in cases where the offender is in custody. In order for the offender to receive the maximum benefits of the sex offender treatment programme, the probation order must be a minimum of two years in length. This will ensure that offenders do not leave treatment early and will accommodate long term therapy and relapse prevention.
The purpose and goal of sex offender treatment is to lessen the offender’s risk for re-offence by teaching them to master cognitive and behavioural management techniques (better control their thoughts and their behaviour). When an offender leaves treatment, they are better able to recognize and interrupt the signs of potential re-offence and can better utilize appropriate behaviour management/control techniques to prevent re-offending behaviour.
Use of the penile plethysmograph in adolescent sex offender treatment programmes
One of the most controversial aspects of adolescent sexual offender treatment is the use of the penile plethysmograph or PPG. The PPG is an assessment tool used by numerous treatment programmes to assess the characteristics of sexual arousal that are likely to be the most problematic for the offender. What is controversial is the manner in which the assessment tool is administered.
The penile plethysmograph (PPG) is used to measure the sexual or erectile response in males. When a male becomes sexually aroused to a stimulus (pictures, thoughts, images, stimulation, etc.) he experiences an erection; the purpose of the PPG is to measure the level of sexual arousal.
Many parents have concerns regarding the intrusive nature of such a measurement tool and have concerns regarding the impact this assessment may have on their son. However, it has been my experience that youth generally do not suffer any ill side effects from having gone through the assessment procedure. Many youth have found the process to be an educational experience having learned more details regarding their ability to rate their level of arousal and to understand more about their sexual preferences and activities.
Because denial is a common construct of the adolescent sexual offender, the PPG can be a valuable tool in corroborating or challenging the offender’s self-reports regarding their sexual preferences and areas of arousal. Additionally, the PPG can be useful in evaluating change in the offender’s deviant arousal patterns. By measuring the offender’s ability to control his level of arousal to inappropriate sexual stimuli, the offender and therapist can compare results prior to treatment and following treatment. This will allow the therapist and offender to focus on problem areas that require the most amount of attention.
What the PPG is NOT:
In terms of the research conducted on adolescent sexual offender penile plethysmography, the evidence suggests that the (PPG) assessment produces reliable results for those sexual behaviours in which the youth engaged. In other words, the PPG appears to be an important and valuable assessment tool in the treatment and control of adolescent sexual offending.
For further information or for a further description of the PPG, please consult with your teen’s probation officer who can then put you in touch with a therapist from the Youth Forensic Psychiatric Service. The therapist will be more than agreeable to answer your questions and/or concerns.
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THE ROLE OF THE YOUTH PROBATION OFFICER
Sometimes one of the most difficult moments in the journey from trauma to understanding involves interactions with police, probation officers, social workers and the courts. The goal of each of these agencies is to protect the public and to help your teen not repeat sexually abusive behaviour. Following the initial police involvement and in some cases the child protection social worker, you and your teen will likely have the most interaction and involvement with a youth probation officer.
A youth probation officer is a community justice worker that has both the status of a peace officer and is an officer of the court. The youth probation officer acts as a liaison between the courts and the community and is subject to the direction of a judge. The youth probation officer has a number of duties and functions as are described in the Youth Criminal Justice Act (Sec. 90 of the Youth Criminal Justice Act).
One of the primary responsibilities of the youth probation officer is to supervise young offenders (aged 12 – 17 years, or older) who may be subject to a bail or probation order, an Extrajudicial Sanction, a Deferred Custody and Supervision Order, or in cases where a youth is released from custody subject to a Community Supervision or Conditional Supervision order. The probation officer’s role is to provide as much assistance and guidance as is necessary to ensure that the youth follows the conditions of the court order and to ensure that he is managing effectively in the community. However, in cases where an offender is not complying with the conditions of bail, probation, Community or Conditional Supervision and his non compliance increases risk to public safety, the probation officer enforces conditions of bail, and probation by preparing a Report to Crown Counsel or, in the case of a Conditional Supervision Order, a Warrant of Suspension to the Parole Board. The Report to Crown Counsel will compel the youth to return to court for either a review of the probation or bail order or for a new charge of breach of probation. An approved Warrant of Suspension will revoke the youth’s Conditional Supervision Order and could have the offender back in custody or returned to the community on the same or varied conditions.
Another important function of the youth probation officer is to prepare reports for the court at different stages of the judicial process. For example, if a youth is arrested on a new charge and is held in custody to appear before a judge or a justice of the peace, the youth probation officer can prepare a pre-bail report. The pre-bail report can assist the judge or justice in determining the appropriate release or detention options for the youth. These considerations generally include the suitability of the accused person’s residence and the ability of the parent(s) or caregivers to provide adequate supervision in the community. Other considerations include the seriousness of the charge, previous court history, the likelihood that the youth will comply with release conditions and the availability of programmes to assist the youth to remain in the community.
When a youth is either found guilty or enters a guilty plea, the youth probation officer may be required to prepare a Pre-Sentence Report. A Pre-Sentence Report or PSR is prepared at the request of the judge to assist the judge in determining the most appropriate sentence for the youth, taking into account the special circumstances of the youth and the protection of the community.
A PSR is prepared by a youth probation officer and generally takes 4-6 weeks to complete. The probation officer will interview the youth, the youth’s family/caregivers, school, any outside agencies that may have worked with the youth or the youth’s family, and so on. The purpose of the report is to provide the judge with as much information as necessary to assist the judge in making an informed decision regarding the most appropriate means of addressing the youth’s illegal behaviour. The probation officer will generally make recommendations which are compatible with the guidelines and restrictions under YCJA. The judge may include these recommendations as conditions on a probation order.
There may be times during the probation supervision of your teen where the probation officer may make case management decisions that you are strongly opposed to. For example, the probation officer, for safety and/or enforcement reasons may do a school notification. This would be done in cases where your teen is attending a school where elementary schools, day cares or children’s parks may be near by. The purpose for the notification is not to further stigmatize your teen, but to ensure that proper supervision is in place and to ensure that your teen is not put into a high-risk situation that might have been prevented through proper school notification. In some cases, the offender may be placed outside the home to access residential treatment programmes or in cases where there is severe family dysfunction or sabotaging of treatment or supervision.
Intervening with adolescent sexual offending must be considered a public safety issue and community protection must be the highest priority. It is these circumstances where most parents become frustrated with probation officers and with the level of supervision. This becomes an issue primarily when the safety of the community conflicts with the rights or needs of the offender. In these cases, protection of the community is deemed to be the higher ethical concern. As difficult as this might be for some parents, the role of the parent in the supervision of their teen is paramount, in particular the necessity for co-operation with the probation officer.
Co-operation with the probation officer should be seen as a team approach to help your teen learn to function in a more effective and socially acceptable manner. This co-operation will assist the probation officer in monitoring the outside activities of the adolescent sex offender. Examples include co-operating to ensure that the youth is attending school or work, not putting himself in high risk or dangerous situations and to encourage extra-curricular activities such as athletics, church groups and social events. The success of your teen at home and in the community depends on this relationship.
The probation officer will generally establish a network of relationships with other members of the community to encourage information sharing that may indicate if the youth is returning to a high-risk state in which he may re-offend. The youth’s family, boy or girlfriends, teachers or principals, therapists, employers, etc. are an important network of individuals that can assist in maintaining a healthy lifestyle and are likely the first to recognize significant changes in the offender’s behaviour, hygiene, mood, etc. If there is adequate information sharing, planned intervention and supervision with those involved in the youth’s life, the offender can increase his likelihood of successfully managing his behaviours in the community.
As a parent you should insist that your teen be supervised in the community by a probation officer that is trained in the supervision and control of adolescent sexual offenders. Ideally, the probation officer should be involved from the point of initial contact with the justice system (judicial interim release or bail). The probation officer can provide information and make recommendations at the time of intake, sentencing, admission to treatment, release planning for incarcerated youth and relapse prevention. The overall intent of the youth probation officer will be to ensure that community protection is served by providing the youth with the necessary strategies to remain successful in the community.
It is my hope that this handbook has offered you a source of hope and new understanding. Sexual offending is a very complex and difficult matter that can create a great deal of stress and difficult emotions. These difficulties can be made easier if you are willing to take this journey with companions. Trust your family, your therapists, the probation officer, or a support group who are willing to travel with you to hear your concerns and fears when difficult times arrive. Remember that you are not alone. Many others have been where you are today and many more have overcome the shock and the pain and have rebuilt their lives in positive directions.
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FURTHER READING AND SUPPORT
If You Are a Survivor
Adults Molested as Children: A Survivor’s Manual for Women and Men, by E. Bear with P. Dimock, 1988, 76 pages. Brandon, VT: Safer Society Press.
Family Fallout: A Handbook for Families of Adult Sexual Abuse Survivors, by D.B Landry, 1991, 76 pages, Brandon, VT: Safer Society Press.
If You Are A Parent
The Adolescent Sex Offender: Not My Child, by Gary Brayton, 1991. ISBN: 0-9694963-0-3.
From Trauma To Understanding: A Guide For Parents Of Children with Sexual Behaviour Problems, by Pithers, Gray, Cunningham and Lane, 1993, 33 pages, Brandon, VT: Safer Society Press.
A Guide for Parents of Young Sex Offenders, by Eliana Gil (1987). Launch Press, P.O. Box 5629, Rockville, MD 20855
If You Are A Probation Officer
Assessment & Treatment Of The Adolescent Sex Offender, by Perry and Orchard, 1992, Professional Resources Exchange, Inc., Sarasota, FL.
Supervision Of The Sex Offender, by Cumming and Buell, 1997, Brandon, VT: Safer Society Press.
Treating Adolescent Sex Offenders In The Community, by Steen, Monnette, 1989, Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, Il.
Ó2004 the British Columbia Probation Officer's Association
Permission to quote or reprint this article may be obtained by contacting the author through the BCPOA Secretary
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