In the early 1980s, a therapist named Robert Longo was treating adolescent boys who had committed sex offenses. Their offenses ranged from fondling girls a few years younger than they were to outright rape of young children. As part of their treatment, the boys had to keep journals — which Longo read — in which they detailed their sexual fantasies and logged how frequently they masturbated to those fantasies. They created “relapse-prevention plans,” based on the idea that sex-offending is like an addiction and that teenagers need to be watchful of any “triggers” (pornography, anger) that might initiate their “cycle” of reoffending. And at the beginning of each group session, the boys introduced themselves much as an alcoholic begins an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: “I’m Brian, and I’m a sex offender. I sexually offended against a 10-year-old boy; I made him lick my penis three times.”
Sex-offender therapy for juveniles was a new field in the 1980s, and Longo, like other therapists, was basing his practices on what he knew: the adult sex-offender-treatment models. “It’s where the literature was,” Longo, a founder of the international Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, told me not long ago. “It’s what we’d been doing.”
As it turns out, he went on to say, “much of it was wrong.” There is no proof that what Longo calls the “trickle-down phenomenon” of using adult sex-offender treatments on juveniles is effective. Adult models, he notes, don’t account for adolescent development and how family and environment affect children’s behavior. Also, research over the past decade has shown that juveniles who commit sex offenses are in several ways very different from adult sex offenders. As one expert put it, “Kids are not short adults.”
That’s not to say that juvenile sexual offenses aren’t a serious problem. Juveniles account for about one-quarter of the sex offenses in the U.S. Though forcible rapes, the most serious of juvenile sex offenses, have declined since 1997, court cases for other juvenile sex offenses have risen. David Finkelhor, the director of Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, and others argue, however, that those statistics largely reflect increased reporting of juvenile sex offenses and adjudications of less serious offenses. “We are paying attention to inappropriate sexual behavior that juveniles have engaged in for generations,” he said.
The significant controversy isn’t whether there is a problem; it’s how to address it. In other words, when is parental or therapeutic intervention enough? What kind of therapy works best? And at what point should the judicial system get involved — and in what ways?
Longo and other experts have increasingly advocated for a less punitive approach. Over the past decade, however, public policy has largely moved in the opposite direction. Courts have handed down longer sentences to juveniles for sex offenses, while some states have created tougher probation requirements and, most significant, lumped adolescents with adults in sex-offender legislation.
The best-known example is Megan’s Law. Since 1994, federal legislation has required many sex offenders to register with the police, which can aid sex-crime investigations. But Megan’s Law, which went into effect in 1996, mandates that law enforcement also notify the public about certain convicted offenders in their communities. One of the ways states do this is through publicly accessible Web sites. At least 25 states now apply Megan’s Law, also known as a community-notification law, to juveniles, according to a recent survey by Brenda V. Smith, a law professor and the director of the National Institute of Corrections Project on Addressing Prison Rape at American University’s Washington College of Law. That means on many state sex-offender Web sites, you can find juveniles’ photos, names and addresses, and in some cases their birth dates and maps to their homes, alongside those of pedophiles and adult rapists.
Now that concept has reached the federal level. In May, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales proposed guidelines for the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, named for a 6-year-old boy (and son of John Walsh, the host of TV’s “America’s Most Wanted”) abducted from a Florida store and murdered in 1981. Among other things, the legislation, sponsored by Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican, and signed into law by President Bush last year, creates a federal Internet registry that will allow law enforcement and the public to more effectively track convicted sex offenders — including juveniles 14 and older who engage in genital, anal or oral-genital contact with children younger than 12. Within the next two years, states that have excluded adolescents from community-notification laws may no longer be able to do so without losing federal money.
For the remainder of this article: by MAGGIE JONES