An Oklahoma program treats juvenile sex offenders as kids, not criminals

Shedding the stigma and reducing recidivism through support, education and therapy – not prison time

Amanda and her family in a suburb of Oklahoma City, Okla.
Garett Fisbeck for Al Jazeera America

OKLAHOMA CITY – Sex offender. The phrase conjures pariahs living under bridges. Adults "grooming" children for devastating abuse. Violent men who take what is not freely given. Broken people.

And yet, here comes Tyler, bounding down the hall with his dusty blonde Justin Bieber haircut and chunky sneakers. He turned 16 today. He and his family have just come from Chuck E. Cheese. Tyler’s mom smiles as she tells the other parents in her support and education group at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center, "Teenagers can regress back to Chuck E. Cheese if they want."

"A grown man can regress back to Chuck E. Cheese if they want," laughs Dr. Michael Gomez, who leads the group.

Under Oklahoma law, Tyler is a sex offender. But here at the University of Oklahoma’s Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, he’s "an adolescent with illegal sexual behavior." Doctors here teach kids like Tyler that 'sex offender' "isn’t their identity," Tyler’s mom, Amanda, says. "It’s a mistake you made." A serious mistake requiring treatment, but one that need not define them. "Kids are kids and should be treated as kids," says Jaclyn Rivera, assistant district attorney in the juvenile division of the Oklahoma County District Attorney Office. Rivera tries many of these cases and, whenever possible, makes treatment here a condition of probation. "You don’t want to be throwing around labels when you’re talking about kids," she says. 

We’re not mixing chlorine and hydrogen. We’re just saying, ‘Stop it.’

Barbara Bonner

program founder

Founded in 1986, the University of Oklahoma’s program has pioneered the use of a weekly family-oriented support, education and therapy group to treat these children. Based on simple behavioral-therapy principles like positive reinforcement, positive social involvement with peers and clear structure and expectations, the program has had astounding success. Its recidivism rate – the proportion of kids from the program who go on to commit another sex offense – is 3 to 5 percent, about the same as the rate of sex offenses among the general population.

"You need to have good sense and you need to know the literature. And you have to like adolescents," says Barbara Bonner, the child psychologist and professor of pediatrics who founded the program and still runs it today. Other than that, Bonner says, it’s not the highly specialized, extremely difficult intervention that is often necessary for adult sex offenders – and that most state systems assume is necessary for kids. "We’re not mixing chlorine and hydrogen. We’re just saying, 'Stop it.'"

From the time he was little, Tyler had a classic case of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He couldn’t sit still. He had no impulse control. He constantly got in trouble at school. Nothing serious, but "a pileup of littles," says Amanda, like leaning back in his chair, pushing in line. "He didn’t have any friends, because kids didn’t want to get in trouble with him." When Tyler was 7, his older sister – 11 at the time – abused him. The children gave each other oral sex, which workers from the state’s Department of Human Services characterized as "an extreme case of 'I’ll show you mine, you show me yours,'" Amanda recalls. She felt guilty about not being aware of the abuse sooner, but DHS set both kids up with counseling, and Amanda hoped the family could put it behind them. Criminal charges were never filed. "We treated it, I thought," she says. "But adolescence started kicking in."

When he was 14, Tyler began doing to his younger siblings what his older sister had done to him: He asked his younger sister to touch him and his little brother for oral sex. She was 7; he was 5. Amanda again called DHS, which investigated and then referred the case to the police. Last year he was adjudicated delinquent – the juvenile-court equivalent of "found guilty" – of lewd acts with a child under 16.

Harsh measures

Nationwide, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of childhood sexual abuse. Juveniles commit more than one-third of this abuse and account for 17 percent of sex crime arrests each year. Researchers say these teenage sex offenders – there were about 89,000 of them the last time comprehensive data were compiled, in 2009 – are almost too diverse to describe in any meaningful way. They come from every race and socioeconomic stratus and with varied family histories. Their motivations range from sexual curiosity and poor impulse control to mental illness to – rarely – true predation. Some 93 percent of them are boys. A large number were sexually abused themselves, and many of their victims are siblings or other close family members. What qualifies as a sex offense varies from state to state and ranges from rape to unwelcome groping. About half of juvenile sex offenders were convicted for fondling alone. Sex offense laws also cover less clear-cut crimes like statutory rape, streaking and, lately, sexting.

In many other states, Tyler would be subject to the same harsh justice meted out to adults. Some states may require prison or inpatient treatment in locked facilities for any sex crime. In 38 states, he would be required to register as a sex offender for years (in six states, for life). In 27 states, the registry is searchable online, meaning Tyler’s name, address, date of birth and other personal information would be publicly available alongside a picture and his charge. (This is particularly misleading in states where the registration is for life, since, even when he’s 40, Tyler’s listing would still say "lewd acts with a child under 16," implying he is a pedophile when the reality is more complicated.) Many states would also have imposed a residency restriction – limiting where he could live or work – and prohibited him from attending school with other children. Youth on sex-offender registries suffer from high rates of homelessness, hopelessness, unemployment, suicide and even violence at the hands of vigilantes. "I wish I was executed because my life is basically over," one 16-year-old told Human Rights Watch.

If these severe measures showed any demonstrable safety benefit, they might be worth the pain they cause to offenders and their families. And yet, the data show that teenage sex offenders have some of the lowest repeat-offense rates of any type of teenage criminals. Even among teenage sex offenders who don’t receive any treatment at all, long-term future sex offense rates range from 5 to 15 percent. A recent study found that juvenile sex offenders were subsequently no more likely to commit a subsequent sex crime than any other juvenile offenders were. Compare this with recidivism rates for other violent crimes by teenagers: 60 percent, according to one study that tracked re-offense rates for sex-related and non-sex-related violent crimes.

There was really strong pressure at the time to view this as this special, deviant kind of thing … [that] these are basically just like incarcerated pedophiles.

Mark Chaffin

University of Oklahoma

In fact, researchers have reason to believe that these highly punitive responses to sex crimes result in more crimes, not fewer. "There are good public safety reasons for not turning children and youth into pariahs," writes Mark Chaffin, one of Bonner’s University of Oklahoma colleagues, in a recent journal article. Adolescence is a formative time, when kids get involved with institutions and people who will set their life course. At detention facilities, kids spend the bulk of their time not with "prosocial friendship networks" – groups of friends for whom an awareness of, and concern for, other people is the norm – but with other teenagers who have committed serious crimes and have a developing (if not already entrenched) disregard for morals and the law. Echoing many of his colleagues, Chaffin points out that if all the "healthy social anchors" that give people incentive to make good choices – school, family, "fitting into a neighborhood, having prospects for marriage or committed relationships and raising a family" – are severed, kids may feel they have nothing to lose when they break laws or don’t abide by community norms.

In the 1970s, the cultural understanding of sexual assault in the United States was "boys will be boys": It was an inevitable nuisance. The 1980s saw the evolution of the current understanding of the deep harm that sex crimes cause, and criminal-justice policy changed accordingly. As laws – and their enforcement – became increasingly punitive, child sex offenders got swept up in the "tough on crime" rhetoric too. It was only in the 1990s that researchers began to study this unnoticed population. 

Teenage sex offenders are different from adults: Their motivations are different, their ability to change is different and the treatments that work for them are different.
Garett Fisbeck for Al Jazeera America

"When you’re faced with a population that’s relatively new, you look for a template or model and try to apply that," says Chaffin. "There was really strong pressure at the time to view this as this special, deviant kind of thing … [that] these are basically just like incarcerated pedophiles."

That model prevailed, even as late as 2005 when Amie Zyla, who had been abused as a child, testified before Congress: "The simple truth is that juvenile sex offenders turn into adult predators," she said. "Isn’t it time to put our kids’ safety before the rights of sexual offenders, adult or juvenile?" Zyla was testifying in support of the Adam Walsh Act, a portion of which was ultimately named for her. Passed in 2006, the act vastly expanded punitive measures against both adult and juvenile sex offenders.

As a result, a generation of these kids has been court-ordered into treatment programs that rely on aversion therapy, Alcoholics Anonymous-style self-identifications ("I am a sex offender and I always will be"), pressure to "confess" to additional acts and additional victims (with threats of polygraph testing for those suspected of lying) and the guiding principle that "hard, in-your-face confrontation is synonymous with good therapy," as Chaffin and Bonner have written. The probationer "will wear a rubber band for one week and keep a daily log," reads the protocol from one court-ordered treatment program in Jefferson County, Texas. Each time the probationer "has a negative or deviant thought, he will yell 'stop' to himself and snap the rubber band. He will then make a mark on his daily log." To this day, many states can require that kids stay in treatment for years – sometimes indefinitely – until their treatment provider declares them safe.

But 10 years of data from the Oklahoma program and a handful of others have shown that this template was wrong. Research has borne out what Chaffin suspected years ago: For the most part, teenage sex offenders are different from adults. Their motivations are different, their ability to change is different, and the treatments that work for them are different. The template people should have adopted, he says, was delinquency. "Teenagers … do stupid things," he says. "With a certain amount of accountability and guidance, most of them will redirect and do just fine."

Appropriate boundaries

At the University of Oklahoma, one can see this model in action. Groups meet for 90 minutes each week in a series of nondescript conference rooms (industrial carpets, heavy plastic folding tables) in the Health Sciences Center. The parents meet in one room, the kids in another. The boys range from pimply faced prepubescents to broad-shouldered young men. (The program only gets referrals for two to three girls a year; they receive individual and family counseling and education.) The parents’ group includes moms who are single, others who are married, a grandmother, a foster parent and two dads.

The program treats up to 25 teenagers a year, for a total of about 400 since the program’s inception 28 years ago. Bonner says so few kids fail that she can remember each of their faces specifically. They’re there for a wide range of acts, most commonly fondling a child victim or having a child fondle them, but also occasionally intercourse or attempted intercourse with a child or the rape of a peer. These teenagers and kids like Tyler, Chaffin says, have similar needs: "becoming more sensitive to the harms and rules and correcting mistaken thinking involved and getting some better self-control."

Each week the two groups cover topics like the principles of healthy sexual behavior, parent-teen negotiation, and restitution and apology. Some of the components are specific to sexual behavior, but many are basic lessons in good decision-making and problem-solving. Parents learn and practice skills like rule-setting, rewards and consequences, and how to talk effectively to your kids. Because research demonstrates that involving both kids and parents leads to the best outcomes, Oklahoma juvenile-court judges can actually hold parents in contempt of court – which can mean jail time – if they don’t actively participate in the program.

You’d think they had a date with Madonna. They love it. That positive approach makes a big difference.

Barbara Bonner

program founder

Kids rate their own progress from one week to the next, while in the next room parents rate their children’s progress. In the last 15 minutes, both groups come together. Similar reports suggest the kids are learning to see themselves clearly and take responsibility for their actions. Kids who are doing well can be elected group leader – a title that doesn’t mean much in practice, but has huge symbolic value.

"Here’s these 16-year-old boys who get to take a clipboard and go into the parents’ group and get the parent reports," Bonner says. "You’d think they had a date with Madonna. They love it. That positive approach makes a big difference."

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, one of these young men – short beard, stylishly shaggy hair, high-top Nikes – saunters into the parents’ group with his clipboard.

"Can you tell us why you came in here?" Gomez asks, for the benefit of a new parent.

"I came in here to get the parent reports for Group 2," he says. "I’m a group leader."

"Why are you a group leader?"

"Because I was voted group leader," he says modestly.

"That’s a great reason," Gomez says, smiling. "Why were you voted group leader?"

"Uh, respectful, responsible and …"

"And you make your mother proud," Gomez says, nodding at the boy’s mother, her brown hair pulled in a tight ponytail. She sits at the table in a New England Patriots T-shirt, beaming.

The boy nods shyly. "And I make my mother proud." The room erupts in applause.

It’s kids like this who Assistant District Attorney Rivera has in mind when she says, "Not all kids are predators. … [Most] just need to be taught appropriate boundaries."

Tyler has found forgiveness for his older sister, his mom says.
Garett Fisbeck for Al Jazeera America

For Tyler, that lesson began when his mom discovered him abusing his younger sister on a family road trip. Her husband was driving the RV while their kids played in back; Amanda noticed that Tyler and his sister kept disappearing into a curtained bunk and then peeking to see if anyone was coming. Later, Amanda says, Tyler told a counselor that "in hindsight he was relieved he was caught so it could stop."

Sometimes it’s the University of Oklahoma program that stands between a kid like Tyler and lockup. Jane Silovsky, a clinical psychologist who runs the university’s program for young children, says she gets at least two phone calls a week from therapists and child advocates in states with no good outpatient programs. Without a program like theirs, Silovsky says, a kid who probably would have done fine in a low-threshold outpatient program like this one often ends up going to a more intensive, expensive residential one instead.

Tyler went to live with his maternal grandmother and continued to attend school while his siblings attended counseling. (When the school, in a wealthy Oklahoma City suburb, tried to expel Tyler, psychologists at the university’s program helped his mom fight back. They sent two letters insisting that Tyler was "no more and no less of a risk to his fellow students than his fellow students on average pose to each other or to him.") The judge ordered both Tyler and his parents to attend the Oklahoma program; he will be on probation until he "graduates," which usually happens in about a year.

Once Tyler began making progress and Amanda trusted that he would follow their safety plan, she moved him back home. "Casting him out of our family – I never wanted that to be a solution," says Amanda. Tyler’s room is in the basement, and his younger siblings’ rooms are on the second floor; their mom’s is on the ground floor, so she can keep an eye on his comings and goings. Tyler is never allowed upstairs, and his siblings are never allowed in the basement; his older sister doesn’t live with them anymore, but she and Tyler have a good relationship. Tyler, his brother and younger sister are also close, and often spend time together in the family’s public spaces, like the living room. Tyler "found forgiveness for his older sister," Amanda says. "And I’m like, 'Your siblings will find forgiveness for you.' And they have."

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