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Read an email conversation between the author of this site and Mark Chaffin

Ethical Treatment for All Youth

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By Mark Chaffin & Barbara Bonner
Published in Child Maltreatment, vol. 3, no. 4 (Nov.), 1998, pp. 314-316.

The field has evolved conventional wisdoms that, like all conventional wisdoms, became accepted as fact when repeated and reinforced often enough. In some cases, they may shade into dogma. These might include beliefs, for example, that sex offender-specific treatment is the only acceptable and effective approach...that a history of personal victimization is usually present...that denial must be broken; that hard, in-your-face confrontation is synonymous with good therapy; that treatment must be long term and involve highly restrictive conditions; that deviant arousal, deviant fantasies, grooming, and deceit are intrinsic features...that the behaviors always involve an offense cycle or pattern...that they have a compulsive incurable, life-long disorder; and that these youngsters are such dangerous predatory criminals that neighborhoods must be notified of their presence. Despite their wide acceptance, it is our opinion that clear, empirical scientific support for each and every one of these conventional wisdoms is either minimal or nonexistent...
We should be on guard against the potentially punitive, aversive, and absolutist tone inherent in some of our treatment beliefs. Punitive or aversive treatment approaches must be considered within the context of a current political climate that exaggerates our fear of juvenile crime and energizes corresponding movements to punish children and youth as we would hardened adults (what some commentators have termed the war on children). This, combined with the emotionality and zeal surrounding sexual abuse and sex offenders as well as with the positions of power we assume in treating coerced patients under the auspices of official authority, should alert us to the potential for harming youthful patients by swatting flies with sledge hammers.
...we have been concerned to see children as young as 10 or 12 subject to sex-offender registration laws and neighborhood notification; to have seen a 10-year-old coercively interrogated by police without parents or attorneys present, shackled and chained, and then placed in lock-up facitilies where he was beaten and sexually assaulted by older inmates until becoming suicidal; or to see parents told that their 7-year-old child could never return home again after two incidents of genital fondling of a 5-year-old sibling--all in the name of controlling sex offenders...
Where we previously encountered public reluctance to identify the problem, we now sometimes encounter not only willingness but also zeal. We see the labels of offender and perp placed on preschoolers. In many instances, this has extended to affixing the label of sex offender, even in advance of any actual inappropriate behavior...in at least one state, legislation has been proposed that would mandate that some sexually abused children be labeled as posing a risk to to other children and segregated away from other children...
We have encountered young teenagers (13 to 15) who, as part of their treatment, have been compelled to recite daily lay-outs or creeds including phrases such as "I am a pedophile and am not fit to live in human society...I can never be trusted...everything I say is a lie...I can never be cured." We have encountered residential programs where teenage boys were sanctioned if they looked at girls, were required to look at the floor when they passed females in the hall, and where the message was conveyed that all forms of teenage sexuality were offending. We have listened to teenage boys hesitantly confess that they admitted to offense histories and deviant fantasies they did not have, simply because it was expected and required before they would be eligible for release from residential programs. Our impression is that these incidents cannot be dismissed as isolated examples of overly zealous practice but are directly derived from an uncritical application of prevailing treatment models.
...Empirically, we cannot say whether treatment helps, hurts, or makes no difference...there is little evidence to support the assumption that the majority of juvenile sexual offenders are destined to become adult sexual offenders...perhaps it is time to emphasize some flexibility and compassion in which treatments we choose and to which individual youngsters we apply them and to realize that individual need, not dogma, should dictate what must be accomplished...we should not forget that these are our children. And, as professionals committed to children's rights and welfare, we should think carefully about their rights and welfare before responding to their behavior.