I don’t know much about youthful sex offenders, either by training or personal experience. However, I can tell you based upon my job that the numbers out there are exploding. What is a youthful sex offender? It can range from a minor who rapes a child to one who sexually fondles one – much the same as with an adult. The ages are getting younger and younger and the behavior we are talking about is frequently quite “advanced.” Not to offend anyone, but bestiality apparently happens all the time in my neck of the woods (A few years ago, one of the parents of my ward’s solution to the problem was to simply get rid of the dog. They got a new dog, instead). Incest among siblings and pseudo siblings (and you can mix and match genders) is also at epidemic levels. At least with my population. It frequently goes on for years and years.
Back in the day, it didn’t surprise anyone that children “played doctor.” A lot of parents assume when they come across sexualized behavior in their children that this is what is happening. We’ve all been advised to keep calm, not blow it out of proportion, reassure the child that we aren’t mad at them, redirect their behavior and avoid, at all costs, freaking out so much that it becomes a bigger deal than it needs to be. Personally, I think that is good advice, 99% of the time.
That being said, before you automatically dismiss it as normal childhood behavior, consider the child’s age, whether she is being secretive, whether he is acting in an overtly sexualized or provocative manner with others, and whether he wants to hang out, alone, with younger or smaller children. Predatory behavior is something the sex offender evaluators get pretty concerned about. I’d keep an eye on them for awhile and make sure they are supervised. If they seem to want to slip off to the bathroom with a friend, you might, MIGHT, have a problem. (As it turns out, the bathroom turns out to be a common place for mom to walk in on a pretty startling scene). Get rid of the locks on the inside doors. Sure, you can bust them down, but the real problem is that it gives the children a feeling of privacy that encourages them to act out.
I haven’t studied why youthful offender behavior is up but I can tell you anecdotally what I am seeing in my practice. First of all, children of young ages are being exposed to sexual behavior at a rate unheard of in the past 75 years. A lot of people automatically think we are talking television or the internet. Certainly that is part of it, but that is just part of it.
Personally, I lay the problem of the increase in youthful sex offenders at the feet of the breakdown of the family, as trite as that sounds (and I cringe when I say it). We all know how much fun it is to be in love and how a new love interest takes up so much time and attention. Lust in the courtship stage is exhilarating and a lot of adults, even those with children, can’t keep their hands off each other. Ever felt uncomfortable when a smooching couple was going at it right in front of you? Yeah, well the children in that living arrangement are seeing that, and more. Oh, they might not see the whole enchilada, but they are exposed to the full blast of lust in their homes on a regular basis. A long term, intact family may be a little bit more boring, but the hormone level that drenches everyone in the house is not there, either. Serial boyfriends/girlfriends and dating keep the hormone levels high for extended periods of time. Not to mention, the drama of dating, breaking up and making up puts the whole sexual component of human behavior front row center in some homes. Making a living, getting an education, feeding the dog, repairing the car’s engine and doing the yardwork aren’t nearly as exciting.
Moreover, while boyfriend and girlfriend are giggling and smooching on the couch like teenagers, his 11 year old and her 8 year old are off in the other room getting to know each other. And if girlfriend is a hot tamale and getting lots of attention as a result (my mother-in-law used to refer to this as the “net casting” stage), what do you want to bet that the other little girls in the house are going to start acting and dressing the same way? When a child starts equating being sexy with approval, you’re going to get predictable results. And you are setting her up.
With so many mixed and matched households, we see an increase in older children being left in charge of younger ones who they aren’t related to. That is a recipe for disaster. Moreover, if neighborhood kids are coming in and out of the house while the parents work, you are giving them plenty of opportunity to take advantage of a young child, often in the guise of sharing nifty keen “games” that they learned at their cousin Sophie’s house.
“Yeah, but, that isn’t going on at my house!” a lot of you say. Nope, but what about at the neighbor’s house, the daycare, the cousin’s house? Single moms, who are struggling to make ends meet and working long hours, frequently end up dropping off the kids with virtual strangers on their way to work. Do they really know who goes in and out of the day care provider’s house? Do you know what the other children at the day care have been exposed to? Sex play spreads like wildfire once it starts. I see horribly abused children at day care providers, even nice, bright chain day care providers, all the time. I know, in part, what they have been exposed to. They are playing right alongside the children whose parents won’t even let them watch the evening news because it is too violent or raises issues they don’t want their child exposed to.
My blood runs cold at how many of my parents who are found to have abused or neglected their child work as NANNIES!!!! This happens so often it is unbelievable. Seriously, I’ve personally had 5 cases of children taken from their parent just in the past 3 years whose mother is concurrently working as a nanny. Moreover, a number of the removed children are youthful sex offenders with a history of being exposed to sexualized behavior back in the day when mom was a prostitute (her job before becoming a nanny – seems to be a frequent career path). Moreover, I have had mothers who have lost their children go on to become nannies while their children are in foster care and their employers have no idea. Confidentiality keeps CPS from picking up the phone and telling them. Parents have to do their own homework. You probably won't find these nannies on sex offender registries (since they aren't registered sex offenders - they are just lousy/abusive parents) and they don't list abusive parents online. When children are involved, as in CPS cases, confidentiality laws protect the privacy of the child (and the parent).
What happens when a little girl is sexually victimized? Well, there is no hard and fast rule but here is what I frequently see:
At first, she tells no one. The abuse may be from an older family member. We often hear about fathers, grandpa, uncles and step dads but it is also frequently a brother or the child of her parent’s paramour of the month. She cooperates in the abuse for a time, perhaps even years. Puberty hits and she gets defiant; runs the streets; has distain for her parents (she frequently competes with her mother or father’s wife/girlfriend); is incredibly rude to her grandparents and teachers; she engages in very risky sexualized behavior; and is promiscuous, frequently with older boys/men. The things that come out of her mouth are enough to make your own jaw drop. She seems to have no regard for anyone but herself and her latest boyfriend. And don’t try to tell her anything. She is one enraged young person.
By the time the sex abuse comes to light, her own grandparents have frequently already written her off as just a bad seed. Had the abuse been brought to their attention when she was a sweet 8 year old, they’d be horrified that she was victimized. Sadly, years later when she is 14 – 15 and so completely unpleasant, the relationship has become so negative and fragmented that sympathy often just isn’t there.
My advice to parents whose daughter has been sexually abused is to get her into counseling and at least see if she will participate. Frankly, a lot of girls aren’t ready at the beginning but that doesn’t mean there is no damage. A lot of parents hope they have dodged a bullet because she seems fine and doesn’t want to talk about it. They hope she’ll just forget about the whole thing if they remove the offender and avoid the subject. Alternatively, they want to act as her therapist. I discourage that with my families. They are way too close to the situation and the child is likely to feed off her parents’ own pain. A specialist is your best bet. A lot of times, years pass before you see the predictable symptoms of sexual abuse. I suggest that if a parent starts seeing this sort of behavior, get your girl back to the therapist. She might have reached a point where she is ready for help.
How do the boys act? In my practice, I’ve not seen such a consistent pattern so I’ll just leave it that it varies with the child. I will say that I see much more predatory behavior with males than females but that is not always the case, at all. A lot of families worry that their son will “go gay” if their abuser was male, which it frequently is. My suggestion is to speak to a specialist about their concerns and they will be able to address whether they are valid and help the parent to avoid projecting those fears onto their son.
Depending on the jurisdiction, the juvenile justice system vigorously goes after youthful offenders, even very young ones. Don’t automatically assume this is puritanical finger wagging. The popular belief (which I share) is that the younger you get a youthful offender into sex abuse therapy, the more likely they are to learn their “triggers” and avoid re-offending. The success rates for a youngster are said to be much greater than for that of even a young adult. Moreover, the victim is frequently still in the home (often a step sibling) and needs to be protected.
The typical disposition in my jurisdiction, if there is such a thing, is to separate the youthful offender from the victims; get a sex offender evaluation; get them into counseling. If the abuse takes place between step siblings, the level of tension in the home is often worse since the child of one parent abused the child of the other. If the parents join forces, either the offender or the victim is left out in the cold. If CPS is involved, the victim and the parents are also going to be ordered into counseling but with just criminal charges, you generally can’t insist on that.
Many children whose behavior has been predatory end up in a sexual offender residential program that is pretty intense but often has excellent results. For those children, going home is often not an option anyway you look at it because the victim may still be there. It is not perfect but it beats the hell out of throwing them in jail and then turning them loose at 18 with no treatment.