Help for parents

Legislative Update


Understanding the issue

Personal stories

Media coverage

Criticism from experts

Juvenile sex law

Get involved

Discussion board

Reading list

Organizations and links

Research on youth sexuality

Order An American Travesty here at the University of Chicago Press.

Ethical Treatment for All Youth

About the author

By Franklin E. Zimring
Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2004.

From Chapter 4:  The Emergence of Juvenile Sex-Offender Treatment (pp. 69-99)

This chapter's focus is on the principles and practice of a national network of juvenile sex-treatment professionals [the National Adolescent Perpetrator Network] that has been active and influential since the late 1980s.  This vocal and well-organized network of treatment units for juvenile sex offenders is not a standard group of mental health professionals by any means...For juvenile sex offenders, it would change most of the priorities and tactics of the juvenile court…[it] teaches important lessons about the conflicts and dangers produced when punitive and treatment agendas are mixed.

Policy by Assumption

[The NAPN's 1993 report] announces that it is based on 387 unproven assumptions…almost all the members of the Task Force were practitioners active in treatment rather than researchers, and this generates a natural bias toward lower standards of evidence...The medical profession and medically trained personnel are also notably absent…the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association is nowhere referred to in the body or references of the Task Force report, despite its use of medical terms and diagnoses…The legal profession is also not well represented…Also absent among the Task Force members are experts on the history and functions of juvenile justice…

A New Order

…Treatment would be combined with punishment (this encourages “accountability”) and would continue as long as was thought necessary.  The Task Force report also advocates long-term registration and tracking of all juvenile offenders, and toward this end would allow for revision of the current legal protection of juveniles without any stated limit.

…any conflict between the offender’s interests and community safety should in all cases be resolved in favor of community safety because “the community is the client” in this branch of the healing professions. (How that policy might ever permit the release of subjects from restraint or treatment is not addressed.)…Prosecution is explicitly called for in all cases…

Some Critical Assumptions

…it is asserted that “sexually abusive youth require a specialized response from the justice system which is different from other delinquent populations.”  But the Task Force never describes what it considers the proper response to other delinquent youth or the reasons for believing that sex offenders are different from other young offenders...the report retreats to a standard that defines all illegal behaviors as abusive, including that by children otherwise too young for their acts to qualify as illegal…

Indeed, with all the statutory age-of-consent limits imposed on consensual youngsters by the criminal laws concerning indecent liberties and statutory rape, there is no logical reason to support an inference of sexual abuse from the violation of a criminal standard.  Petting and intercourse involving fifteen-year-olds is felonious in most states.  It is only “sexually abusive behavior” because the Task Force defines it as such…If therapists should treat every person who commits a sex-law violation in the United States, why shouldn’t they also treat all burglars (who abuse property rights and scare homeowners) and car thieves?...there is no necessary connection between law violation and the existence of any sexual disorder that should require treatment.

…there is no reason to suppose that sex-law violators are any different from shoplifters, adolescents who commit aggravated assault, or drug-law violators…Without extensive screening it is probably the case that a clear majority of unlawful sexual contacts involving teenagers lack a “victim.”…Certainly the term “sex abusers” sounds dangerous, but its use as a way of defining all sex-law violators robs the term of any real dangerousness…The data reviewed in chapter 3 on arrest samples of juvenile sex offenders show low sexual re-offending rates combined with higher levels of general delinquency.  This suggests great continuity between current sex offenders and other delinquents rather than any special dangerousness of the sex offender.  Adding millions of sexual-status offenders into the mix, as the Task Force recommends, would make sex offenders less dangerous than other delinquents.

The Adversarial Therapist

Another critical assumption of the 1993 Task Force is that an adversarial relationship between a therapist and an adolescent offender is appropriate and effective.  The treatment process as described by the Task Force is certainly one designed to ensure that such an adversarial relationship exists.  The therapist’s real client is said to be the community and the therapist’s principle goal is sex crime prevention.  Her tools include polygraphy, confrontation, and no obligation of confidentiality to the client…there are powerful indications in the text of the 1993 report that adolescent offenders are regarded as enemies by the therapists.

…blaming, the stigmatization, and the permanent labeling are the encouraged standard practice with offenders over age eleven…It turns out that none of the solicitous attention to development that is usual in therapeutic relationships with children and adolescents is advocated by the Task Force.  Instead, adolescent developmental needs are a casualty of the war the Task Force seems to declare on teen offenders.

New Frontiers of Sexual Deviance

...language is used in ways that are symptomatic of significant problems of judgment and perspective…The second definitional misstep in the report is a more frightening abuse of language and clinical knowledge…It mixes harmful behavior with obnoxious behavior, attempts to request consensual sex between peers with exploitative sex, unlawful behavior with allowed behavior.  It degrades a legal and moral classification, and it is pointless.  When this type of Orwellian misuse of language is made explicit by definition in this official report of an association of sex treatment professionals, it imperils the credibility of the group.

By the standards of the National Task Force on Juvenile Sexual Offending, a majority of American men and boys have committed multiple acts of child molestation by the time they reach their twenty-first birthdays…This aggregation of such behavior into a single category of “child molestation” is an extraordinary abuse for an organization of therapists.

The Ends and Means of Juvenile Sex-Offender Treatments

The report does not distinguish between sexual abuse (its primary topic) and sexual deviancy.  Yet treating an entire population for problems and impulses that only some of them have is more than inefficient; it is potentially catastrophic and cruelly confusing to the target of treatment…false-positive labeling is a genuine problem that must be confronted by conscientious professionals.

…the prosecution and punishment of sex offenders in court is claimed to be itself therapeutic…But no data is provided to indicate that accountability has positive behavioral effects.  There is also no awareness in the Task Force report of the inconsistency of this assumption with the predictions of labeling theory…Why is a list of thirteen reasons to prosecute juvenile sex violators given prominent attention in a manual on treatment of offenders that is compiled by a group of clinicians?  And when did these therapists become expert in the operation of law enforcement and juvenile justice agencies?

The willingness of treatment staff to participate in punishment, in labeling, and in the denunciation of treatment subjects is a remarkable part of the 1993 Task Force’s version of sex-offender therapy…mixed treatment and control agents are usually state employees who officially represent the interests of social control. Here, those so enthusiastic for social control are to be found in the ranks of treatment professionals…

The central standards of the Task Force that sex therapy seeks to enforce are not rooted in psychology nor in any behavioral science. This is therapy in the service of legal standards. Sex abuse is whatever the law prohibits. What is being treated is not a deviation from clinical standards but a deviation from legal standards...

Comparisons and Contexts

There are substantial discontinuities between the attitudes of the 1993 Task Force toward adolescent sexual offenders and the usual orientations of mental health and social work treatment professions toward adolescent patients with conduct disorders and criminal records.  The sharpest difference is the strong identification of therapists with the needs and subjective emotional well-being of their patients, even in adolescent drug and alcohol treatment programs that make confrontational demands on patients…This reorientation toward treatment as control of juvenile sex offenders began during the same era as the sevenfold increase in imprisonment of adults for nonrape sex offenses and the fourfold increase, during the years after 1972, in overall rates of incarceration in the United States…I think, however, that the unmitigated hostility of the 1993 Task Force report to the juvenile sex offender sets that branch of coercive therapeutics apart even from the drug treatment approach and its clinical adherents.  The tone and priorities of the 1993 report when dealing with adolescent offenders sets this theory of offense-specific treatment apart from any previous community-based therapeutic alliances with agencies of social control.