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Perspectives in Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Adolescent Sex Offenders -- Vermont, 1984

To determine the extent and characteristics of sex offenses committed by adolescents in Vermont, the Vermont Department of Health conducted a survey of caseworkers at the Departments of Social and Rehabilitation Services (the statewide child-protection agency) and Corrections (1). The survey collected information on 161 persons, including all those aged 19 or younger who were known by caseworkers in 1984 and were identified as having committed sex offenses. Neither conviction for a sex offense nor adjudication as a delinquent was required for case inclusion. Data were not available to ascertain how representative this subset of sex offenders was of all actual adolescent sex offenders.

Over 92% of the offenders were males, with a median age of 15 years. Median age of female offenders was 13 years. Victims ranged in age from 2 years to 60 years (median 7 years). Offenders victimized persons younger than themselves in 91% of cases. More than two-thirds of the victims were aged 9 years or younger, and nearly half were aged 6 years or younger. Twenty-eight percent of the victims were males. Male offenders victimized females in over 77% of their offenses; female offenders victimized males in 92% of their offenses.

Categorization by type of sex offense was based on invasiveness of the offense. For each offender, the most serious offense known to have been committed was classified. Categories included penetration, oral-genital acts, fondling, and noncontact offenses. The most serious offense classification, penetration, was also the most common (60% of cases). Of these, 53% were penile penetration. As age of offender increased, penetration offenses accounted for a larger proportion of the most serious reported offenses (Figure 1). Of the penetration offenses reported in this study, the largest proportion were committed against the youngest victims.

Ninety-one percent of all known offenses occurred between individuals who were family members, friends, or acquaintances. Twenty percent occurred between immediate family members; 20%, between extended family members; 51%, between friends or acquaintances; and 9%, between strangers. The most frequent family relationships were brother (offender)/sister (victim), step-brother (offender)/step-sister (victim), and cousins. More penetration offenses occurred against friends/acquaintances than against strangers or family members. However, penetration offenses represented a higher proportion of known offenses against immediate family members than against those in any other relationship category (Figure 2).

The method of coercion was known in 81% of the cases. Nearly 8% of those involved weapon use, and another 5% involved a weapon threat. Physical force was used in 26%, and threatened in 4%. Verbal threats were made in the remaining 57%. Three-quarters of the offenses occurred in a home, most often that of the victim.

Twenty-nine percent of the offenders were either adjudicated delinquent or convicted for a sexual offense. More than 25% of the offenders received no type of treatment; less than 12% received specialized treatment for sex offenses. Reported by J Wasserman, S Kappel, R Coffin, MD, R Aronson, MD, Vermont Dept of Health, WM Young, Vermont Dept of Social and Rehabilitation Svcs, AJ Walton, Jr, MPA, Vermont Dept of Corrections; Violence Epidemiology Br, Center for Health Promotion and Education, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: This study of adolescent sex offenders emphasizes the increasing awareness in the public health community that violence is a serious public health problem and that nonfatal interpersonal violence has far-reaching consequences in terms of morbidity and quality of life. Sexual violence is one type of interpersonal violence that markedly diminishes the quality of life and warrants further attention. While not all sexual offenses involve the threat or use of physical force, they frequently include exploitation by virtue of such things as the relationship between victim and offender or the age difference between them.

Although sexual abuse has traditionally been a focus of criminal justice and is a relatively new public health area, the Vermont Department of Health initiated this study with the cooperation of the Vermont Departments of Corrections and Social and Rehabilitation Services. The findings suggest that productive research and prevention efforts might be developed around another relatively new focus for public health--the concentration on perpetrators of abusive behaviors, rather than the traditional concentration on victims. In the past, public health personnel have placed greater emphasis on morbidity and mortality of victims than on information about perpetrators of interpersonal injury. However, research using data sources with perpetrator information may be extremely valuable in developing prevention and intervention strategies. Access to such information can often be facilitated by cooperation with criminal justice and social service agencies.

It should be emphasized that the reported findings in Vermont describe only known adolescent sex offenders, and more specifically, only those known to caseworkers. The same bias affects data from other sources. These studies generally focus on victims rather than offenders, and they are considered to constitute only a small portion of child sex abuse (estimated between 5% and 25%) (2). For example, state child-protection agencies have provided the American Humane Association with national data on sexual abuse to children. Police statistics also underestimate the actual volume of sex offenses, because many such victimizations are never reported to police. Nevertheless, descriptions of the known Vermont adolescent sex offenders are consistent with findings from studies of child sex-abuse victims, which found disproportionate perpetration by men (2,3). Studies of child sex-abuse victims have also shown that about one-fourth of victimizations occur to children younger than 8 years of age (2). Reports of abusive behaviors by sex offenders of all ages differ somewhat from the Vermont findings for adolescent sex offenders. Fondling or groping constitutes the largest reported abuse category (2), whereas penetration was most frequently reported in Vermont. Consistent with the Vermont study, American Humane Association research indicates that the children and/or their families know the offenders in 75% of child sex-abuse cases (3). Each of these studies may reflect biases such that more information is learned about certain offenders and their offenses than about others. For example, troubled families may be more likely to be in contact with caseworkers; thus sex abuse in such families may be more likely to be known to a caseworker.

The Vermont report suggests that a multidisciplinary, interagency, coordinated effort is needed to develop a comprehensive statewide strategy for preventing sexual assault. The report notes that, at present, few adolescent sex offenders are charged or convicted, and few receive specialized treatment for sex offenses.

The report also suggests that early intervention with offenders may be effective in preventing child sex abuse. Although a variety of intervention strategies and treatment approaches for offenders have been developed, there has been virtually no evaluation of them (2). Adolescent sex offenders are thought by some to be more treatable than adult sex offenders (4), but it is also believed that effectiveness depends on specialized assessment and treatment for sex offenses. While more than 225 adolescent sex offender treatment programs and services exist nationwide (1), none exist in Vermont. Without specialized treatment resources available, appropriate identification, assessment, and referral are less likely to occur; hence, the pervasiveness of the adolescent sex offender problem is likely to be greatly underestimated.

One study of incarcerated sex offenders found that 80% of the offenders reported being victims of sex abuse as children (5). Victim treatment may serve prevention goals by blocking the cycle of repetitive sexual victimization. However, while this is plausible, better studies utilizing well-selected control groups are needed to determine whether sex abusers of children are more likely than nonabusers to have been abuse victims themselves (6). Since all abused children do not become abusers, the ways in which victimization interacts with other factors to produce abusers needs to be determined (6).

Since many adult sex offenders began committing offenses during adolescence, intervention during the adolescent years might prevent the continuation of the behavior into the adult years. While there is not yet any clear evidence that the early identification/treatment strategy is effective, further examination of this possibility may make an important public health contribution.

References

  1. Vermont Department of Health. Adolescent sex offenders in Vermont. Burlington, Vermont: Vermont Agency of Human Services, 1985.

  2. Finkelhor D. Child sexual abuse. In: Violence as a public health problem, background papers prepared for the Surgeon General's workshop on violence and public health, Leesburg,



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