August 21, 2014

An Oklahoma program treats juvenile sex offenders as kids, not criminals

8-21-2014 Oklahoma:

Shedding the stigma and reducing recidivism through support, education and therapy – not prison time

OKLAHOMA CITY – Sex offender. The phrase conjures pariahs living under bridges. Adults "grooming" children for devastating abuse. Violent men who take what is not freely given. Broken people.

And yet, here comes Tyler, bounding down the hall with his dusty blonde Justin Bieber haircut and chunky sneakers. He turned 16 today. He and his family have just come from Chuck E. Cheese. Tyler’s mom smiles as she tells the other parents in her support and education group at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center, "Teenagers can regress back to Chuck E. Cheese if they want."

"A grown man can regress back to Chuck E. Cheese if they want," laughs Dr. Michael Gomez, who leads the group.

Under Oklahoma law, Tyler is a sex offender. But here at the University of Oklahoma’s Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, he’s "an adolescent with illegal sexual behavior." Doctors here teach kids like Tyler that 'sex offender' "isn’t their identity," Tyler’s mom, Amanda, says. "It’s a mistake you made." A serious mistake requiring treatment, but one that need not define them. "Kids are kids and should be treated as kids," says Jaclyn Rivera, assistant district attorney in the juvenile division of the Oklahoma County District Attorney Office. Rivera tries many of these cases and, whenever possible, makes treatment here a condition of probation. "You don’t want to be throwing around labels when you’re talking about kids," she says.

Founded in 1986, the University of Oklahoma’s program has pioneered the use of a weekly family-oriented support, education and therapy group to treat these children. Based on simple behavioral-therapy principles like positive reinforcement, positive social involvement with peers and clear structure and expectations, the program has had astounding success. Its recidivism rate – the proportion of kids from the program who go on to commit another sex offense – is 3 to 5 percent, about the same as the rate of sex offenses among the general population.

"You need to have good sense and you need to know the literature. And you have to like adolescents," says Barbara Bonner, the child psychologist and professor of pediatrics who founded the program and still runs it today. Other than that, Bonner says, it’s not the highly specialized, extremely difficult intervention that is often necessary for adult sex offenders – and that most state systems assume is necessary for kids. "We’re not mixing chlorine and hydrogen. We’re just saying, 'Stop it.'"

From the time he was little, Tyler had a classic case of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He couldn’t sit still. He had no impulse control. He constantly got in trouble at school. Nothing serious, but "a pileup of littles," says Amanda, like leaning back in his chair, pushing in line. "He didn’t have any friends, because kids didn’t want to get in trouble with him." When Tyler was 7, his older sister – 11 at the time – abused him. The children gave each other oral sex, which workers from the state’s Department of Human Services characterized as "an extreme case of 'I’ll show you mine, you show me yours,'" Amanda recalls. She felt guilty about not being aware of the abuse sooner, but DHS set both kids up with counseling, and Amanda hoped the family could put it behind them. Criminal charges were never filed. "We treated it, I thought," she says. "But adolescence started kicking in."

When he was 14, Tyler began doing to his younger siblings what his older sister had done to him: He asked his younger sister to touch him and his little brother for oral sex. She was 7; he was 5. Amanda again called DHS, which investigated and then referred the case to the police. Last year he was adjudicated delinquent – the juvenile-court equivalent of "found guilty" – of lewd acts with a child under 16. ..Continued.. by Beth Schwartzapfel

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