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Posted 02.07.07


Juvenile Sex Offenders Require Comprehensive Treatment, Study Finds

COLUMBIA, MO - Juvenile sex offenders often are provided specialized treatment aimed at remedying their problem; however, a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher disagrees with that approach. Charles Borduin, professor of psychological science in the College of Arts and Science, said such offenders are very likely no different than other serious offenders in the juvenile justice system; nor do they require special treatment, which is generally too narrow in scope and delivered in institutional settings.

Charles Borduin."Everybody assumes there's something unique about juvenile sex offenders, they have deviant sexual beliefs or something else that makes them need specialized services," Borduin said. "Is there something unique about juvenile sex offenders, or is there a common core of problems among offenders of all types in the juvenile justice system? To answer the question are juvenile sex offenders unique, probably not."

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Borduin and Scott Ronis, an MU doctoral student, recently completed a study, "Individual, Family, Peer, and Academic Characteristics of Male Juvenile Sexual Offenders," which Borduin calls the most comprehensive of its kind. It provides an overall behavioral analysis of 10- to 17-year-old males - most of whom had long histories of arrests for serious crimes. A total of 115 youth participated and were grouped into five categories: sex offenders whose victims were peers or adults; sex offenders whose victims were children; nonsexual offenders with histories of violent crime; nonsexual offenders with histories of nonviolent crime and youth without criminal records. Participants, along with their parents and teachers, completed questionnaires that assessed peer relations, academic performance, and emotional and behavioral problems such as anxiety-withdrawal, attention problems, conduct disorder and socialized aggression. Parents and youths also were videotaped completing a structured family-interaction task that was scored by research assistants.

Overall findings from the study showed that juvenile sex offenders and nonsexual offenders were alike in many ways. Both groups had more overall behavioral problems, lower family bonding and adaptability, higher involvement with deviant peers and more aggression toward their peers in general, and poorer academic achievement than youths without criminal records. Those commonalities, combined with similar patterns of criminal offending, strongly support Borduin's theory that sexual offenders and nonsexual offenders are more similar than different.

He proposes a unilateral switch to a more comprehensive, community-based treatment approach such as multi-systemic therapy, which focuses on the offender and social networks: family, peers and academics. Borduin said the usual treatment approaches, which include group and individual counseling, are often delivered in residential settings that aim primarily to change how sex offenders think about their crime or its impact on their victims. There is little evidence these approaches are effective, perhaps because they neglect the importance of parents, peers and teachers in the lives of the offenders, he said.

"Juvenile sex offenders have the same problems that other kids in the juvenile justice system have - family problems, school problems, behavior problems. The sex offense is only how they got caught," Borduin said. "When you address the broad range of problems in the lives of these youths, and do so using a community-based approach, you can then provide successful treatment. If you provide treatment in an institutional or residential setting, the kid goes back into the community, and the family situation hasn't changed, the school situation hasn't changed, the peer group hasn't changed. None of the key factors driving the offenses have changed. If you don't provide successful treatment, you pay in the long run. Then, juvenile sex offenders become adult sex offenders. If you can address all of the important factors, you can be successful with these kids."

The study was published in the Jan. 20 issue of the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.



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