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Lock-a-bye Baby
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Sunday, 29 October 2006 07:14

Although the story of Just Joe seems to epitomize the issue of juveniles at risk there was scant information regarding his trajectory as a juvenile sex offender within the mental health system. Regardless, the present-day perception of the lay-public appears to reflect a commonly held view that Joe was born a sexual predator.

While research certainly indicates a genetic component as it pertains to antisocial behavior and sexual predilections, no one lives in a vacuum. The remainder of this article will therefore explore the biopsychosocial model of behavior as it pertains to youths at risk.

The issue of youths at risk, specifically juvenile sex offenders, has been percolating in the halls of forensic psychology research for close to two decades. Davis and Leintenberg (1987) noted, "20% of all rapes and about 30% to 50% of all cases of child sexual abuse can be attributed to adolescent offenders" and that "50% of adult sex offenders report that their first sexual offense occurred during adolescence."[1] Of the type of sexual offenses, the authors referred to a study done at the University of Washington, whose outcome resulted in categorizing 3 primary offenses, fondling (59%), rape (23%), exhibitionism (11%), and "other noncontact offenses" (6%). (418) Over a decade later the United States Department of Justice (USDOJ), Office of Juvenile Delinquency and Prevention (2001) released a literature review report regarding juvenile sex offenders. In their forward, they noted close to 16 to 17 percent of arrests involving forcible rape and other sex offenses, respectively, involved individuals under 18, further noting that 50% of "adult sex offenders began sexually abusive behavior as a juvenile." Although the USDOJ report, noted that juvenile sex offender treatment programs began promulgating the landscape in the early 1990s,[2] since that time intervention and treatment considerations seem to be only secondary to the primary research focus, that of risk factors and risk assessment.

Among the risk factors considered are early-onset and chronic aggression,[3] [4] cultural factors,[5] [6] sociocultural, cognitive, and historical factors,[7] [8] neurological factors,[9] and trait factors.[10] In addition to identifying risk factors, other researchers are exploring various risk assessment tools such as the "Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Youth Version (PCL: YV)",[11] [12] the Juvenile Sex Offender Assessment Protocol II[13] and a variety of risk assessment tools that are presently utilized to assess adult offenders.[14] In the area of intervention researchers seem to collectively recognize the challenge of taking into consideration developmental trajectories as they pertain to intervention and treatment.

While the psychology field has long debated the nature versus nurture model of behavior, recent research has progressively moved toward the biopsychosocial model of behavior. The biopsychosocial model is supported by aforementioned research and indicates that risk of sexual aggression is not an either/or proposition rather it is a both/and proposition. That, although an individual may be predisposed to sexual aggression, physiological, cognitive and sociocultural dynamics play a part tilting the scales toward increased or decreased risks of sexually acting out. In addition to this framework, the researchers unanimously agree that labeling a youth as a sex offender may play an integral part in increasing the risk factor of future sexual aggression. This is especially so in that young people are in the process of identifying self.[15]

The research also resonates with our theory that we define, refine, fine tune, and act out, scripts that reflect our perception of ourselves within society. For example, consider that using the label "juvenile sex offender" to describe a youth may set in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy proposition while underlying problems--boundary & impulse control issues, emotion modulation, and basically learning to deal with everyday stress--remain unaddressed. Even so, Davis and Leintenbergs research[16] along with the more recent research published by the USDOJ[17] reports that at least half of adult sex offenders had engaged in sex offenses as juveniles. These results along with Brennan[18] and Broidys[19] research support our contention of a dual taxonomy model wherein one taxon reflects aggression in response to situational stress (that which is largely externally and developmentally driven) and the other taxon, which is pathological in nature, reflects predisposing factors (that which is largely internally and biologically driven) thereby resulting in possible early-onset and chronic aggression of which sexual acting out is but one component. Dodge and Pettit[20] identify biopsychosocial risk factors that may play into the aforementioned taxonomies noting that the "Transactional Definitional Models" describes a metaphorical social feedback loop wherein a juvenile responds to their environment from within their developmental and experiential context while societys response can reify or negate the juveniles aggressive behavior.

A prime example of the situational stress model is an incident that occurred earlier this year. On May 10, 2006, the mainstream media reported that "A second grader was assaulted by 12 boys." The 12 boys ages ranged between 6 and 8 years old, and the victim was 8-years-old. The district attorney reportedly told the press they would press charges of sexual abuse.[21] If the boys are charged and found guilty, the chance for being remanded to a juvenile sex offender program is high. This scenario presents a number of problems the least of which involves the likelihood that the boys did not cognitively comprehend the sexual nature of their aggressive behavior. Additionally, the focus on sex as opposed to generalized assault obscures the very real issue of respecting others boundaries and appropriate social interaction. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the assault was collectively initiated by all 12 boys. For example, their developmental age suggests the incident involved a pack-like behavior as opposed to planning and execution of the aggression. And finally, due to their young age along with the potential for victimization within a juvenile sexual offense program, the risk for learning sexually aggressive behavior increases.

In the instance of chronic sexual aggression, the perception of juveniles as sexual predator comes together with genetic weighting resulting in a high-risk model. Although research suggests juvenile sexual aggression is transitory rather than chronic in nature, there does appear to exist a sub-population of juveniles who meet this definition or otherwise fall into the pathological model of behavior. Even so, it would behoove society to approach labeling these youths as juvenile sex offenders with considerable caution. Why? Simply because sexual aggression is about violence and control, not sex. And juveniles who fall within this taxon, more likely than not, aggress in numerous ways, among which but one component of that aggression is sexual in nature. To ignore this salient fact is to court disaster. For, by focusing only upon the sexual component, we give sex power. We communicate that sex is the ultimate weapon and form of control. We tell these youths that we fear sexual aggression moreso than we fear any other form of aggression, thus ensuring they will increasingly act out in sexually aggressive manners.

In the context of the aforementioned proposed taxons, the present day approach to treating juveniles who sexually offend often involves commitment to inpatient or outpatient treatment facilities whose primary focus is sexual offending. Yet, unlike their adult counterpart, researchers unanimously agree that juvenile sex offenses appear to be transitory in nature in response to the juveniles developmental trajectory.[22] If this is indeed the rule and not the exception, why then do we have specialty units whose primary goal involves "rehabilitating" juvenile sex offenders? Arguably, the existence of these units may very well reflect our society's obsession with sex. Additionally, remanding a low risk juvenile to these specialty treatment programs wherein neither patient nor staff is safe from the more violent sexually aggressive youths has the potential to reify the perception of the juvenile as a sexual predator through both self-identification and modeling of increasingly aggressive sexual behaviors, thereby perpetuating rather than deterring sexual offending behaviors.

To obviate the aforementioned risks as much as is possible, it is suggested that unless the youth is diagnosed with conduct disorder or oppositional defiant disorder, the treatment regime should focus upon teaching the offending juvenile how to recognize and respect others boundaries, ways to manage impulse control, modulating emotions, and learning constructive tools for dealing with everyday stress. Such a regime would be highly structured and include teamwork exercises, coping skills, modeling components as well as cognitive behavioral components. While sexual aggression should not be completely ignored, the goal for this type of program would be to treat the sexual offenses no different than other physically based offenses. In this way, the juvenile has the potential to learn pro-social behavior for not only staying out of prison but also functioning within society in a fulfilling and productive manner.

In summary, research indicates that juvenile sex offender as a psycho-legal definition may prove to be counterproductive with regard to intervention and treatment of youths whose aggressive offending includes a sexual component. Furthermore, juvenile sex offender centric facilities carry with them the risk of teaching increasingly sexually violent behaviors. And finally, while it is important to address sexually aberrant behavior, we propose an intervention and treatment model that addresses cognitive behavioral, social and physiological issues within the biopsychosocial context.


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