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2002 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 7, No. 2
May 2002

Working with Juvenile Sex Offenders: Special Practice Issues

Working with a foster child who has committed a sexual offense raises many practice issues. Areas worthy of special consideration include your interactions with the child and the child’s family, the safety of the child and everyone around the child, issues related to placement, and concerns related to confidentiality. Although it cannot provide definitive answers, this article provides some direction on these issues.

Interacting with Child and Family

Child welfare workers are not usually qualified, nor do we have the time, to provide clinical treatment to juvenile sex offenders. In most cases, our role is to find appropriate placements and services for these children. However, we can take steps to make our relationship with juvenile offenders a positive experience for all concerned. To do this, we must model appropriate behavior. A good example of this would be to always ask before touching other people—even before shaking hands or patting someone on the back. Sex offenders respond best to us when we are emotionally even and stable, when we set clear boundaries, and when we are open and honest with them about their behavior, treatment, and other matters concerning their circumstance (Digiorgio-Miller, 1998).

Workers should not be open, however, about personal information. It is unwise and potentially dangerous to tell a sex offender where you live, your phone number, the names of your loved ones, or any other personal information. Again, boundaries are of utmost importance.

Safety and Placement

Like all children in the child welfare system, sexually aggressive foster children and teens need a home that will be safe for them. But unlike many of the kids in our care, special precautions must be taken to assure that offenders do not have the opportunity to molest other children.

Child welfare workers, then, have a responsibility not just to the offender in need of placement, but also a responsibility to ensure the safety of other children in the adolescent offender’s family (foster or biological), school, or residential placement. Adolescent offenders, like adults, are most likely to abuse relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Victims can be younger children, peers, and less commonly, adults (Fehrenbach et al., 1986; Johnson, 1988; Allard-Dansereau & Haley, 1997). These facts must be considered when placing children in foster or group homes.

Juvenile perpetrators, especially those who have not received treatment for their offenses, generally should not be placed with other children. They should never be placed in the same home as children who have been sexually abused. Ideally, these children will be in specialized group homes or with foster parents who have had special training in working with children who sexually abuse.

Juvenile perpetrators need a highly structured, stable environment, with caregivers who will set clear boundaries and foster open communication to help them avoid offending again (Epps, 1994; Pithers et al., 1998; Smith & Israel, 1987). Treatment models that emphasize clear boundaries, explicit planning for safety, behavior monitoring, and emotional stability are essential to help juvenile sex offenders learn to live without abusing others (Epps; Digiorigo-Miller). Therefore, a placement for a juvenile sex offender, whether with the family of origin, in foster care, an adoptive family, or some other setting, must be assessed for these qualities. Chaotic placements, or those with minimal supervision, are not appropriate. Plans to ensure safety must be created, and this should be accomplished with the help of a clinician trained to work with juvenile sex offenders. Ideally this person will be familiar with the child at hand, but even if this is not the case, a therapist trained to work with this population can provide a great deal of help.

Confidentiality

Child welfare workers must consult with other professionals when deciding on a placement for juvenile sex offenders. Ideally, clinicians with experience treating young sex offenders will be involved in identifying and making placement decisions for such children. At this point, confidentiality becomes an issue, so child welfare workers should be familiar with North Carolina’s relevant laws on this topic [G.S. 7B-302 (e)]. All North Carolina general statutes can be found at <http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/>). Having a copy of N.C.G.S. Chapter 7B in your office is a good idea.

Potential foster and adoptive parents must be informed about the past behaviors of juvenile offenders, even if the offender has received treatment. Juvenile sex offenders should be told from the start that disclosing past abuse is essential if they are to gain the trust of others, such as caregivers and therapists. But they must also understand that disclosures will, at times, have to be shared with other professionals. Foster parents, guardians ad litem, judges, law enforcement, court counselors, probation officers, and others entitled to confidential information should be made aware of sexually offensive behavior once qualified professionals determine it has occurred.

Confidentiality in social work is never an absolute, but it is especially important to use caution with this population. It may be tempting to talk about the disturbing behaviors of these children, but this should only be done when it is absolutely necessary, such as by court order, in discussion with a supervisor, or when seeking potential foster or adoptive caregivers. To protect a child’s confidentiality, potential caregivers should be given only as much information as they need to decide whether they are willing and able to care for a sex offender. Once foster parents agree to care for a child, however, share as much information with them as you can, omitting only identifying details.

Confidentiality is never an easy issue. Be honest with children, and tell them the limits of confidentiality up front.

Reporting Requirements

In North Carolina juvenile sex offenses may be a matter for law enforcement. Law enforcement agencies are responsible for all criminal cases involving offenders in non-caretaking roles. Thus, if you become aware that one child has physically harmed another, you are obligated by law to inform law enforcement [N.C.G.S. 7B-307(a)].

Although technically DSS must be notified and investigate only when the offender is in a caretaking role with the child (Mason, 1996), it can and often does become involved with juvenile sex offenses. This usually occurs in cases where the caretaker knew of the juvenile sex offender’s past yet failed to protect younger children in the home from the offender. If you become aware of a situation such as this you are obligated to report it to DSS as child neglect.

It is also possible that a juvenile sex offender may disclose to you that he or she has been the victim of sexual abuse or that they know of other children at risk of sexual abuse—for example, an offender’s siblings who are still at home with a sexually abusive parent. In this situation you are required to make a report to DSS.

North Carolina Assessment Resources

Note: The following passage of this article differs from the printed version. It has been changed based on new information received after the newsletter went to print.—08-13-02.

If you discover you are working with a juvenile sex offender who is also a victim of sexual abuse, as an initial step you may wish to have a child medical exam and/or child mental health evaluation conducted for that child. North Carolina has two programs designed to assist you with this: the Child Medical Evaluation Program (CMEP) and the Child Mental Health Evaluation Program (CMHEP). It is important to note that these services can be accessed only as part of an active investigation.

The Child Medical Evaluation Program provides medical screening of children in your local area to help DSS make a determination of abuse or neglect. Cases must be in the investigative stage for a child to recieve a medical evaluation under the CMEP. The evaluations are performed at no cost to the family. The physical exam may help to determine if there is injury, pregnancy, or a sexually transmitted disease.

To access this service, child welfare social workers make an appointment with a physician or provider to complete the exam. The social worker then completes the portion of the Medical Report (revised 04/01, replacing the 2487 Medical Report) and the form DSS 5143 (Consent/Authorization for Medical/Mental Health Evaluation). The social worker then gives both of these forms to the physician when she takes the child for the medical evaluation. (Note: Payment cannot be made if the 5143 is not filled out and dated on or before the date of the exam. Always keep a copy. You must provide the SIS#, date case opened, and whether or not the child has Medicaid.)

Whenever possible, accompany the child to the appointment—you may be able to provide valuable information and insight during the appointment and give support to the parent. Attending the appointment will also enable you to receive immediate feedback from the physician and interviewer. The physician will complete the exam, may schedule a case conference, and will return the forms to the CMEP office. You will receive a copy of the Medical Report from the physician.

The Child Mental Health Evaluation Program with a Child Forensic Evaluation Program (CFEP) component, effective October 2000, provides brief forensic evaluations for children and adolescents being investigated by child protective services as possible victims of abuse or neglect. Mental health professionals with specialized training in conducting abuse-focused evaluations are rostered to perform these evaluations. The CFEP will replace the Child Mental Health Evaluation Program, which is expected to be phased out by July 2003.

The CFEP component focuses on whether the child has been abused or neglected, who the perpetrator might be, and the nature and extent of the abuse/neglect. If you have questions for the Child Forensic Examiner, be specific—questions must relate to the determination of abuse or neglect. The Child Forensic Examiner may also answer questions about the child’s safety from further abuse/neglect and possible changes needed to ensure the child’s well-being.

Funding is provided for a brief forensic mental health evaluation of the child (up to 12 hours for one child in the family and an additional 8 hours for each additional child) as part of the investigation and case disposition.

Because of the forensic focus of the CFEP, the following are not part of the CFEP component:

  • Custody evaluations where the primary purpose is to provide recommendations about placement and/or visitation arrangement

  • Psycho-educational or developmental testing

  • Psychological treatment

The CFEP cannot be used to replace medical evaluations and interviews or to fund the examiner’s court testimony.

To access the CFEP, social workers should complete the Authorization Request for Child Forensic or Mental Health Evaluation and the form DSS 5143 (Consent/Authorization for Medical/Mental Health Evaluation) and fax or mail these forms to the CMEP office. After the case is approved for funding, the form will be returned to you. You may then schedule an appointment with a rostered CFEP examiner. Take the authorization form and the 5143 to the provider. The completed report will be sent to you from the provider.

A list of CME and CFEP providers throughout the state is available at the CMEP/CFEP office (tel: 919/843-9365; fax: 919/843-9368; http://www.med.unc.edu/peds/cmep/welcome.htm).

Treatment Referrals in North Carolina

Juvenile sex offenders need treatment to prevent future offenses. Today in North Carolina there are at least 10 programs specializing in the treatment of juvenile sex offenders. For information on the program nearest you and to learn how to make a referral, contact the Safer Society Foundation’s Sex Offender Treatment Referral Service. A nonprofit agency based in Brandon, Vermont, The Safer Society Foundation provides this service via telephone or fax at no cost, Monday through Friday from
9 a.m.–4:30 p.m. EST. To obtain a referral fax form, call 802/247-3132 or access the form via their web site <http://www.safersociety.org/sofrmlst.html>. For a telephone referral, call 802/247-5141 during business hours. Ask for Tammy Kennedy, the referral specialist.

Sex Offender Registration

In working with juvenile sex offenders it is also helpful to know how they are affected by sex offender registration laws. In North Carolina, state law (N.C.G.S. 14-208.5) requires any person who is a resident of North Carolina and who has a reportable sex offense conviction to maintain registration with the sheriff of the county where the person resides. This information on offenders (name, address, photograph) is then collected by the state and made available to the public. North Carolina’s registry can be found online <http://sbi.jus.state.nc.us/DOJHAHT/SOR/Default.htm>, or by submitting a written request to the appropriate county sheriff for a county-wide registry.

North Carolina law considers a juvenile who has been tried and convicted as an adult for committing or attempting to commit a sexually violent offense against a minor to be an adult. Like all other adults in this category, these juveniles must register with the local sheriff’s department and their information is made public through the sex offender registry.

North Carolina juvenile sex offenders who have not been tried as adults may or may not have their names placed on the state’s sex offender registry. If a youth has been adjudicated delinquent for a sex offense, the court must consider whether the juvenile is a danger to the community. If the presiding judge finds the juvenile is a danger to the community, the court may order the youth to register with the local sheriff. In these cases, the chief court counselor is responsible for registering the juvenile with the appropriate authorities.

Though popular with the general public, some question the wisdom and efficacy of sex offender registration laws. One critic notes that aside from one study, which found that Washington State’s public notification law had not reduced the number of sex crimes against children, there has been no evaluation of the effectiveness of these laws (Longo, 2000). Registration and public notification laws may also be changing the way juvenile sexual offenses are handled. In order to avoid the impact that public notification would have on families and to prevent youthful offenders from being branded as sexual offenders for the rest of their lives, many family members and victims are choosing not to press charges, or charges are plea-bargained down to nonsexual offenses. As a result, these “diverted” juvenile sex offenders are not getting the treatment they need, putting them—and society—at higher risk for additional sexual offenses.


References for this and other articles in this issue
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