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Juvenile Sex Offenders: Opportunity for Early Intervention
10 CEUs Juvenile Sex Offenders: Opportunity for Early Intervention

Section 18
Juvenile Sex Offenders: Perceptions
of Social Work Practitioners

Question 18 | Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Conduct Disorders CEU Courses
Psychologist CEs, Counselor CEUs, Social Worker CEUs, MFT CEUs


This paper reports on a small-scale study of social work reflections on previous intervention with young abusers. A large number of perpetrators who sexually abuse children are themselves juveniles. A study by Glasgow, Horne, Calam and Cox (1994) of all instances of sexual abuse reported in Liverpool to three agencies during a 12-month period found that over one-third of all alleged perpetrators were 17 or younger. This figure is consistent with that reported by the National Children's Home Report (National Children's Home, 1992) and by Williams (1995).

Working with juvenile sex offenders presents particular challenges to those working with both offenders and victims. Previously it was possible for professionals to dichotomize sexual abuse issues into abusers (who warranted treatment, punishment or both) and victims (who required protection and treatment). In recent years, however, increasing evidence that a large proportion of juvenile abusers have themselves been the victims of abuse has made that dichotomy less tenable.

Longo (1982) reported 47%, Becker, Cunningham-Rathner and Kaplan (1986) reported 23% and Fehrenbach, Smith, Monastersky and Deisher (1986) reported 19% of their samples of adolescent sex offenders as having been abused themselves. In studies of intrafamilial abuse, Pierce and Pierce (1987) observed that almost always the abusers were themselves victims of abuse (63% had been physically abused, 47% sexually abused and 30% neglected); only 8% had not been abused at all. Johnson (1989) notes that all of her rather small sample had themselves been sexually abused. Clinical experience (Davies and Leitenberg, 1987) also suggests that male adolescents who molest younger boys may have a particularly high rate of having themselves been sexually abused when younger. Fillmore (1987) suggests that offending at a very young age is an indicator of victimization of the child him/herself. As described by Calder (1997), there is still considerable disagreement as to how to intervene with young abusers.

Seven child protection social workers with previous experience of working with juvenile sexual abusers were interviewed to explore their definitions of abusive behavior, views as to the causes of young people abusing others, social work intervention and personal resources needed to work with young abusers. They came from three specialist child protection teams operating within one local authority. There were 11 cases recalled, involving work with 13 perpetrators, 12 male and one female. While the limitations of the retrospective and subjective nature of this approach and the study's very small sample are appreciated, there is considerable value in reflecting on previous practice with the benefit of current knowledge. The large majority of cases recalled were worked with in the 1970s and the 1980s.

Definitions of Abusive Behaviour
Those interviewed were asked: `What do you consider to be ``abusive behavior'' when talking about children and young people who sexually abuse other children?'. All practitioners included the `abuse of power' as a key feature, differentiating `power' according to age, gender difference, physical size, sexual awareness, psychological awareness and understanding of the act.

Most agreed that abuse was beyond the abused child's normal, age-appropriate developmental state and was unwelcome; was initiated by the one and imposed on the other. Issues of sexual gratification were not a common focus of attention, but issues of consent were. No practitioner stated a specific age-gap as being definitive of a power imbalance.

Despite the limited knowledge about the boundaries between what is `normal' and what is `abusive' sexual behavior between children and young people, practitioners could easily recognize the extremes of such behaviors, but were confused about the middle ground. The material of Smith and Grocke (1995), which addresses children's sexual knowledge in ordinary families, was not available to practitioners at the time. Had it been, it would possibly have been easier for practitioners to address some of the `grey areas', such as making age and class distinctions in behavior. Smith and Grocke found, for example, that family practices and behaviors changed as children grew older (often initiated by the children's own increasing modesty), and that manual social class families tended to be more restrictive in their practices and attitude.

Perception of Causes of Juvenile Sexual Abuse
Practitioners adopted a range of perspectives to understand the causes of abuse by juveniles. The most common causes described were felt to be that they had not learnt boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior, that the abusers had themselves been abused, that their curiosity had gone wrong, because of family dysfunction and because of power imbalance between men and women. Although these understandings appear to relate to explanations of abuse put forward by several theoretical perspectives on abuse, practitioners largely operated without the benefit of an explicit, sound, theoretical knowledge-base. Children under 12 who displayed inappropriate sexual behavior were generally seen as not being `responsible' for their behavior. This perception of the lack of responsibility of children is entirely understandable in the context of social workers learning, in the early years of sexual abuse training, about the myth that children can invite abuse. The response to that myth was to learn that children are never responsible for the sexual abuse they suffer at the hands of adults. Abusers were seen as responsible for teaching the victims about sexuality. The implication of this is that it may be very difficult to switch from seeing children as not being responsible when they are being abused by an adult to being responsible when it is they who are doing the abusing.

In attempting to explain why, in the past, there had been delay in responding to the issue of young abusers, practitioners felt this stemmed from `minimization' of the abusive behavior by parents and by professionals (particularly the police); together with a lack of clarity about what constituted `abusive' behavior. There was a general agreement that societal preference for seeing children as `innocents', and not sexual beings, coupled with the discomfort of professions about matters of sexuality, had hindered the identification of the issue and delayed response to it.

Social Work Intervention
Getting through the denial of both parents and perpetrators was described as a major obstacle. Parents of perpetrators, especially very young ones, were described as frequently expressing denial, and often closed the door firmly on social work intervention. Not allowing the child to be interviewed was one response. Another was to claim that they, the parents, could supervise the child and so prevent further incidents. When parents allowed the child to be seen, the first interview was occasionally very difficult as parents were able to `coach' the young person. By the time of the interview, s/he already knew the wrongness of the acts committed. Some of the children or young people had already been `in the system' before coming to the notice of practitioners for sexually abusing other children. One worker noted that one 14-year-old perpetrator had been displaying traumatized behavior since the age of 2, suggesting the need for an earlier and more thorough assessment.

Practitioners felt that their lack of skills in working with young abusers immobilized them; comprehensive assessment was felt to be beyond their capabilities, given the lack of skills knowledge and support available to them. While practitioners generally felt willing to undertake investigation and assessment of abuse, they saw assessment without adequate resources as untenable. The Children Act (1989) was said to be unhelpful in not identifying this client group as children `in need'. Some felt that assessment was better undertaken by Juvenile Justice, because `society had already indicated needs for sanctions when individuals offend norms'. This may simply be an attempt to push away the problem to someone else, a reflection of lack of sufficient training, or an inability to be able to appropriately draw on previously learnt skills. Nevertheless, it highlights the underlying sense of lack of necessary ability.

Personal Resources Needed to Work with Young Abusers
Lack of skills in challenging the denial of abusers and caregivers was a major concern for practitioners. Other perceived gaps in skills were how to assess risk of reoffending and, more generally, what pertinent questions to ask when undertaking a comprehensive assessment. Practitioners felt an urgent need to be updated generally on the knowledge currently available from research and practice experience. All workers believed that a multidisciplinary team, drawn
from statutory and voluntary agencies, incorporating the different strengths of each, would be the ideal solution in meeting the `focused needs' of young abusers.
- Ladwa-Thomas, Usha and Robert Sanders, Juvenile Sex Abusers: Perceptions of Social Work Practicioners; Child Abuse Review, Jan/Feb99, Vol. 8 Issue 1, p55-62, 8p

Personal Reflection Exercise #4
The preceding section contained information about using limited choices to avoid power struggles. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

QUESTION 18
What was described as a major obstacle? Record the letter of the correct answer the Answer Booklet.

 
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