Impacts of programs for adolescents who sexually offend: literature review
Despite the growing concern about sexual offending within our community, much remains unclear about both the etiology of the problem and the most effective way to respond to it. The last twenty years, however, has seen an increase in the United States (and, to a lesser extent, Australia) in the amount of research about etiology, rates of sexual recidivism, the accuracy of predictions of sexual violence as well as the efficacy of sex offender treatment programs.
Over the last 20 years it has also become apparent that not only is significant harm caused by the sexual abuse of children, but that many of the perpetrators of this abuse are themselves young. Figures from New South Wales (NSW) Health on initial presentations to Sexual Assault Services indicate that in 1995-96, a male child under the age of 16 was the assailant in 16.2 per cent of cases of child sexual assault (Spangaro, 2001). Male adults who are known to the victim are the most common assailants in cases of child sexual assault in NSW. For three out of the last four reporting years, however, the second most common assailant for girls was a male child under the age of 16. Similarly, in recent reporting years, the second most common assailant for boys was a male child under the age of 16, except for 1994/95, when a male child under the age of 16 was the most common assailant (27.1 per cent of cases).
In recent years, a number of treatment programs have been established for adolescents who have sexually offended. The first treatment program in Australia was the Trek program, funded by the NSW Department of Health in 1990 and based on the Central Coast of NSW. The NSW Department of Juvenile Justice established a program in 1991 and a recent publication identified 14 current programs operating in Australia for young people with sexual behaviour problems/offences (Flanagan, 2003).
As the field of sex offender treatment began to consider adolescent sex offenders during the 1980s, the emphasis was firmly on the fact that they were sex offenders, rather than adolescents and intervention programs based on work with adult offenders were routinely adopted. Given the relatively large volume of literature on developmental psychology, personality development and even general juvenile delinquency (eg Loeber & Farrington, 1998), it is perhaps surprising that this should be the case. It is also a situation that has not gone without comment in the field, with many commentators now calling for a re-thinking of clinical approaches to working with this population (Chaffin & Bonner, 1998; Letourneau & Miner, 2005). The field is also at somewhat of a cross-roads in terms of the increasing call to resist the “trickle down phenomenon” of keeping young people who have committed sex offences in treatment longer than necessary using adult-based models of intervention. There is also now an increasing emphasis on developing valid and reliable adolescent-focused typologies, assessment methods and interventions (Freeman-Longo, 2003).
Unfortunately, however, the empirical basis for work with this population is not yet well advanced and many programs either rely on a range of assumptions about the nature of this work, or model their programs on treatment with adult sex offenders.
Nisbet, IA, Rombouts, S & Smallbone, SW 2005, Impacts of programs for adolescents who sexually offend: literature review, Report commissioned by Research, Funding and Business Analysis Division and Child Protection and Early Intervention (CPEI) Directorate, NSW Department of Community Services, Ashfield, NSW. ISBN: 0731043790
Report available online at http://www.community.nsw.gov.au/DOCSWR/_assets/main/documents/adolescents_literature_review.pdf