Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court is hearing arguments on whether teens found guilty of certain types of sexual offenses must be registered on public sex offender lists.
In some cases, that label can last for a lifetime. Pennsylvania adopted the federal Adam Walsh Act in 2012, which means that juveniles between 14 and 17 convicted of certain categories of sex crimes must register as sex offenders.
The challenge to the current registratrion requirements has brought more attention to the issue of juvenlie sex offenders — some of them are as young as 10 — and it raises tough questions: Where do kids learn to act that way? And how do judges and therapists currently treat sex offenders who are also children?
Natalie Dallard is a therapist at the Joseph J. Peters Institute in Philadelphia, an organization that provides treatment for survivors and perpetrators of sexual abuse. A variety of factors influence kids’ behavior, she said.
“Probably nine out of 10 of the girls that I’ve worked with have been victims,” said Dallard. “With boys, not as much as people think. Generally with boys there’s a lot of other anger issues, and a lot of exposure to pornography, poor boundaries, and association with older peers, negative peers.”
If kids are charged with a sexual assault, disclosing their own sexual trauma or family environment may actually backfire, said Megan Perez, a supervisor with the Public Defenders Association of Philadelphia. She said that if her clients have themselves been abused, she would not share that information in the courtroom.
“A lot of people assume that people who have been perpetrated against are more likely to be a perpetrator themselves,” said Perez. “I think our Family Court judges in Philadelphia would look at a factor like that as more indicative of guilt than of innocence.”
Consequences to fit the crime
There is a lot of evidence that kids’ brains work differently than those of adults, especially when it comes to understanding consequences and controlling behavior.
“Impulse control develops as you get older,” said Dallard. “You have a greater ability to manage some of these feelings. And young kids are also a lot more susceptible to outside influences, and they don’t have that critical thinking to think out outcomes.”
Dallard believes that sexual offenses elicit such an emotional response in people that it clouds their understanding of who the offender is.
“People are always asking me how I do what I do, but, at the end of the day, I’m helping children. Sex crimes are so stigmatized that people fail to see that these are children,” said Dallard.
She recommends teaching boundaries and reducing access to pornography as keys to reducing assaults by young people.
In Pennsylvania, juvenile sex offenders who are found guilty are typically ordered to receive treatment — the minimum is six months of individual and group therapy. Depending on their own history of trauma, treatment could continue for two years.
Juveniles commit around 30 percent of sexual assaults against victims 18 and younger. Statistically, sex offenders – particularly young ones – are not likely to reoffend.