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2002 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 7, No. 2
May 2002

Understanding Juvenile Sex Offenders

As a child welfare professional, you know that some children and teens sexually abuse others. Some of these children live in homes you investigate for abuse and neglect. Others are in the custody of your agencies, and you are working either to reunite them with their families or to place them in adoptive or other permanent homes.

To ensure the well being and the safety of these children and teens, as well as the safety and well being of those around them, you must know some basic facts about juvenile sex offenders. The following will give you a basic understanding of this troubled population.

Scope of the Problem

Research shows that sexual abuse of children is a widespread phenomenon. It is estimated that there are somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 cases of child sexual abuse each year in the U.S. The estimated number of sex abuse survivors in the U.S. is over 60 million (NRCCSA, 1994). Although numbers of this magnitude shock us, they are familiar to most working in child welfare.

The significant contribution of juveniles to these overall numbers is less well known. It is estimated that in the United States juveniles account for up to one fifth of all rapes and up to one half of all cases of child molestation committed each year (CSOM, 1999).

Juvenile Sex Offenses

Although children and youth do engage in sexually aggressive and abusive behaviors, from a North Carolina legal standpoint these offenses are not sexual abuse, even if they are committed against another child. Technically speaking, in North Carolina sexual abuse of children can only be committed by caretaking adults (parents, foster parents, etc.) [see N.C. G.S. 7B-101(d)]. When children do sexually offend, North Carolina law considers their offenses to be sex crimes no different from those committed by adults [see N.C. G.S. 7A].

Legal definitions aside, experts in the field agree that sexually abusive behavior—juvenile or otherwise—is contact that is sexual in nature and that occurs without consent, without equality, and as a result of coercion, manipulation, game-playing, or deception (Shaw, 1999; Longo, 2002).

Sex offenses can include behaviors sometimes treated lightly, such as repeated obscene phone calls, exposure, frotteurism (rubbing against another against his or her will), and other forms of harassment. However, most adolescent offenses appear to be more serious, and adolescents are actually more likely to attempt intercourse and other forms of genital/genital or genital/anal contact than are adult offenders (Fehrenbach et al.; Allard-Dansereau et al., 1997).

The age of a perpetrator should not fool workers into ignoring unusual or aggressive sexual behavior. Nor should less severe behaviors be dismissed. Exposure (flashing), touching over the clothes, obscene, pseudo-mature language, possession of pornography, and “boys-will-be-boys” type coercion can all be signs of an abuser or potential abuser (Fehrenbach et al.; Johnson, 1988; Allard-Dansereau).

Causes and Patterns

There are a host of theories that have been proposed to explain why some children and teens sexually abuse others. Although there is no clear and simple formula for how this happens—sexual offending behaviors are extremely complex—the theory most widely accepted today is known as the “learning theory,” which holds that sexually abusive behavior in children is linked to many factors, including exposure to sexuality and/or violence, early childhood experiences (e.g., sexual victimization), exposure to child pornography and advertising, substance abuse, heightened arousal to children, and exposure to aggressive role models/family violence (Ryan & Lane, 1997).

Early theories about children who sexually abuse others proposed that these individuals move through a predictable progression. In this cycle, an event causes a negative emotional response in the youth. The youth attempts to gain control of this response but fails. He then feels anger and rage, which in turn lead to thoughts of retaliation and fantasies of overpowering another, which lead to an assault (Grayson, 1991).

More recently this cycle has been criticized as too rigid—interviews with offenders reveal that life problems (at school, in the family) and any number of thoughts or feelings can trigger an offending behavior (Longo, 2002).

Regardless of how they arise, over time offenses may escalate from “hands off” behaviors to assaults involving penetration, etc. (Grayson).

Traits of Offenders

A significant amount of research has been conducted on juvenile sex offenders. Although these efforts have revealed much solid information about this population, each of these children is unique. Perhaps the only statement that is reliably true for all juvenile sex offenders is that the traits and progression of behavior can vary tremendously from one individual to another.

That said, we do know that nine of ten juvenile sex offenders are male (Fehrenbach et al.; Johnson, 1988; Berliner, 1995), and that juvenile sex offenders often commit their first sexual offense before age 15 and even before age 12. We also know that juvenile sex offenders are found in every socioeconomic class and every racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural group.

Children who sexually abuse are far more likely than the general population to have been physically, sexually, or otherwise abused. Studies indicate that between 40% and 80% of sexually abusive youth have themselves been sexually abused, and that 20% to 50% have been physically abused (CSOM, 1999).

Some professionals believe a history of victimization is virtually universal among juvenile sex offenders. Experienced therapist Robert Longo writes, “As I think back to the thousands of sex offenders I have interviewed and the hundreds I have treated, I cannot think of many cases in which a patient didn’t have some history of abuse, neglect, family dysfunction, or some form of maltreatment within his or her history” (Longo, 2001).

According to the Center for Sex Offender Management (1999) the following are other common traits among juvenile sex offenders.

• Difficulties with impulse control and judgement

• High rates of learning disabilities and academic dysfunction (30% to 60%)

• Mental illness: up to 80% have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder

A minority of sexually abusive youth also have deviant sexual arousal and interest patterns. “These arousal and interest patterns are recurrent and intense, and relate directly to the nature of the sexual behavior problem (e.g., sexual arousal to young children)” (CSOM, 1999).

Two Types of Offenders

Clinical observation and empirical research indicate that, as is the case for adult sexual offenders, juvenile sexual offenders fall into two groups: those who sexually abuse children and those who victimize peers and adults. These two groups, as reflected in the chart on the following page, have clear differences not only in the victims they select, but in their offense patterns, social and criminal histories, behavior patterns, and in the treatment they require.


Since it was first identified as a serious problem, there have been tremendous advances in the treatments available for children and teens who sexually offend. In 1983 there were only 20 programs in North America for juvenile sex offenders; today there are well over 1,000 worldwide (Ryan, 2000).

“The majority of juvenile sexual offender treatment programs have generally adhered to a traditional adult sex offender model. Standard interventions include the teaching of relapse prevention and the sexual abuse cycle, empathy training, anger management, social and interpersonal skills training, cognitive restructuring, assertiveness training, journaling, and sex education” (Hunter & Longo, In press).

Although treatment is widely acknowledged as helpful to juvenile sex offenders and as an important component in the prevention of future sexual offenses, additional studies of the effectiveness of different methods are required.

Treatment can be a difficult hurdle for juvenile sex offenders. In one study, as many as 50% of youths entering a community-based treatment program were expelled during the first year of participation, most often for failure to comply with attendance requirements or therapeutic directives (Hunter, 2000). As the next section explains, this failure to complete treatment can increase a youth’s chances re-offending.


A common belief about juvenile sexual offenders is that even after treatment, most will offend again. Hunter (2000), citing the research literature, finds “no compelling evidence to suggest that the majority of juvenile sex offenders are likely to become adult sex offenders. . . . . juveniles who engage in sexual aggression frequently cease such behavior by the time they reach adulthood” (p. 1).

Juveniles who participate in treatment programs have sexual recidivism rates that range between 7% and 13% over follow-up periods of two to five years. Research indicates that recidivism for nonsexual offenses is much higher among juveniles (25–50%) (Hunter, 2000).

Youths participating in treatment have lower recidivism rates than either adult sex offenders or untreated juvenile sex offenders. In an analysis of eight separate studies, Alexander (1999) found that while adults had re-offend rates that averaged 13%, juveniles who participated in offense-specific treatment had a recidivism rate that averaged 7.1% in a 3–5 year follow-up. Worling (2001), in a large-scale study that examined data from across Canada, found that only 5% of youths who underwent treatment were charged with another sexual offense within six years, compared to 18% of the youths who did not participate in treatment (Ryan, 2000).

Practice Implications

  • Take juvenile offenses seriously.
  • Respect confidentiality, but make safety a priority.
  • Get good supervision.
  • Maintain clear, consistent boundaries with offenders. Be a role model by asking before you touch others. Be wary of “grooming” behaviors.
  • Attend training and learn all you can about juvenile sex offense.
  • Consider the safety of all involved before placing an offender with a family or group home.

References for this and other articles in this issue