Profile of Teen-Age Sex Offenders Holds Paradox: 'Nice Kids' From 'Strict' Homes

Wharton is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Most of the teen-agers know their victims well. They victimize children they are baby-sitting, neighborhood kids, even their own siblings.

One 15-year-old boy raped a 3-year-old neighbor girl. Another boy repeatedly fondled a 5-year-old girl because, he said, "she liked me."

Kids molesting kids isn't anything new, police and probation officials say. What is new is a concerted effort to study and treat the problem. Law enforcement officials recite alarming statistics:

There are more than 100 juveniles on probation in the San Fernando Valley for sexual offenses, according to the county Probation Department. Another 300 will appear in Valley juvenile courts this year to face charges of sex crimes.

Statewide, almost 900 juveniles are serving time in California Youth Authority facilities or are on parole for sex offenses.

Los Angeles Police Department records showed that, citywide, juvenile arrests for sex crimes increased 38% from 1982 to 1985.

Counselor's Discovery

Richard Embry first became aware of the problem while counseling young children who had been molested. The victims, many as young as 5 or 6 years old, were telling Embry that they had been molested by teen-agers.

Searching for further information on the subject, the Northridge social worker found scant published research and only a handful of therapists or programs that dealt specifically with teen-age sex offenders. So, in late 1984, he established a group therapy program at the San Fernando Valley Child Guidance Clinic.

In the last two years, Embry and co-worker Linda Knapp have counseled 20 Valley youths on probation for sex offenses. More than a third of these teen-agers committed their crimes while baby-sitting the victims. The average age of the juvenile sex offender was 14. The average age of the victim was 6.

Breaking Through Myths

"People, when they think about sex crimes, they think of lurking, hard-core rapists or adults who slink around schoolyards," Embry said.

"Teen-agers are committing these crimes," he said. "They are not particularly monsters. And they don't always look like delinquents or use drugs."

Most of these youths are well-behaved at home and have earned high marks in school. They are what one probation officer calls "nice kids." And a surprising number, officials say, come from strict, religious homes.

"These are the kinds of kids that people are going to trust to baby-sit their children," Embry said.

But the youths suffer from underlying problems: low self-esteem, few friends and no dating skills. Many of them spend free time playing with younger children. Most commit at least two offenses before they are caught.

"For the most part, it's not addictive behavior with these kids at this point. It's not like the adult rapist," Knapp said. "But it can become addictive. We try to stop that."

More teen-age sex offenses have been reported recently because of a growing social awareness of child molestation, officials said.

"I know this was happening 10 and 15 years ago," said Deputy Probation Officer Ellen Koch, who is studying juvenile sex offenders while earning a master's degree in social work at UCLA. "It's just that, with the general raising of consciousness, people are reporting these things."

Concern for Offenders

Deputy Dist. Atty. Marguerite McKinney said she interviews at least two Valley children who have been molested by juveniles each week. She is worried by the youthful offenders she prosecutes.

"Some have very deep-seated problems," McKinney said. "Sometimes I wonder if we are seeing the birth of a child molester or rapist."

Most youths convicted of a sex offense, unless it is a rape in which excessive force and violence was used, are given probation and ordered to seek therapy, said Superior Court Commissioner Jack Gold.

Yet, there are few places for juvenile sex offenders to go for specialized treatment. In the Valley there are the Child Guidance Clinic, Forensic Psychology Associates in Sherman Oaks and scattered private therapists. Throughout the county, there are only a half dozen more, said Koch, who refers juveniles to such programs.

"Our work with these adolescents is in its infancy," said Joseph Michelli, a psychotherapist at Forensic Psychology Associates. "It's scary stuff, and the research is limited. There's not a lot out there to tell you how to treat adolescent sex offenders."

Piecing Together a Program

The therapists said they have developed treatments by taking bits and pieces from adult sex-offender therapy and therapy for other juvenile delinquencies such as drug use or continual criminal behavior.

Eight teen-agers are now attending Embry and Knapp's weekly group sessions at the clinic. Because the program is still experimental, only boys are admitted. (Los Angeles Police Dept. records show that, of the 195 juveniles arrested for sex crimes in 1985, 172 were males and 23 were females.)

All the youths in the program must attend therapy as a condition of probation for a sex-offense conviction. They will remain in the group for nine to 18 months. The kinds of crimes they have committed range from obscene phone calls to fondling to sodomy and rape. Rarely is violence used in these crimes and the youths are rated as having only a low or moderate risk of repeating their crimes. High-risk cases are usually sentenced to serve time in a California Youth Authority facility.

First Step

In Embry's therapy group, the youths are first made to openly admit to their crimes.

"They have a tremendous shame about getting caught . . . the kids deny or minimize what they did," Embry said. "But shame is a self-centered feeling. It's a concern with how other people are going to think of you. We want the kids to move from shame to guilt, which is a concern about the victim."

Often, Embry or Knapp will interview the molested child and then go back to the group and tell the offender how his actions have affected the victim's life.

Next, the counselors try to determine what psychological factors may have led to the boy's desire to molest a younger child. Had the teen recently moved to a new town? Did he have few friends or dates? Does he harbor a pathological hatred or fear of women?

Specific incidents that may have triggered the crime are also discussed in the group. Such events could include a fight with parents or breaking up with a girlfriend. The counselors then try to help the teens develop self-esteem, better social skills and a more reasonable view of human sexuality.

Goals of the Program

Equipped with such social skills and a better understanding of what caused them to molest a child, the youths will be able to control urges to repeat the crime.

At least, that is what Embry and Knapp hope.

"There is very little known about teen-age sex offenders," Embry said. "As far as we know, none of the kids in our program have repeated. But we'll have to wait and see."

Michelli voiced similar worries about the effectiveness of treatment. However, he said that, of the eight juveniles treated at his clinic, none has repeated as far as he knows. And there are encouraging signs from a recent state pilot program involving 25 juvenile sex offenders released from state institutions. The youths were given special treatment and monitoring. In the last year, only one has been arrested for a repeat sex offense, state officials said.

Almost as alarming as juvenile sex-crime statistics are some figures that Embry and Knapp have gathered from their work regarding the offenders themselves.

Past Victims

A quarter of the kids who had committed sex crimes said they had been sexually molested in the past. The counselors said they suspect that three or four more also were but would not admit to it.

As for the parents of these youths, Embry and Knapp found that 25% of the mothers had been molestation victims and at least 25% of the fathers had perpetrated sex crimes ranging from child molestation to rape. More than half of the families involved had experienced prior sex crimes in the household or family background.

Religious Households

Another trend that court officials and therapists are seeing is that many of these youthful sex offenders come from extremely religious homes. Commissioner Gold recalled a recent case where a boy from such a family was convicted of repeatedly molesting several neighborhood girls.

"These kids live in corsets," said Deputy Probation Officer Koch, of youths she has seen from strictly religious homes. "It's a real release for them."

Even with the growing recognition and treatment of the problem of juvenile sex offenders, a lot of people are not sure how to react to the youths, Embry said.

"A lot of the courts, therapists and families look at this as a 'boys will be boys' kind of behavior," Embry said. "It can be just teen-age experimentation, but it needs to be looked at."

Koch agreed: "Some courts are hesitant to label kids as child molesters. And, if they do, what do they do with them?"

The courts and Probation Department, and even therapists, have in the past let these offenders off without requiring prolonged treatment, because often the convicted juvenile has no record and exhibits good behavior at home and in school.

"The youngster has to be treated to find out what is going on in his head," said Commissioner Gold.

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