Children Abusing Children
A NEW SILENT AND VIOLENT EPIDEMIC
NEAR 50% SEXUAL ABUSE SUFFERED BY CHILDREN INFLICTED BY OTHER CHILDREN
Coldly executed acts of sadistic violence often seem crazy, incomprehensible and irrational. But they are not. Look at the background forces and you will discover defects in the offenders’ psychological functioning and social environment.
There is a psychology to crime. It is inside the confines of the head of the offender. There you will find an evaluative process, a cognitive process, and personality traits that explain the behavior. Anomie, differential association, learned behaviour, social learning, strain—the academic theories and scientific methodology seem insufficient to explain the grief and pain you feel when life is snatched from a child.
When the perpetrator is an adult, the label predator—demonic, evil, possessed, psychopathic, and sadistic—somehow makes it easier for us to rationalize the crime. But when the perpetrator is a child it leaves us confused. You just don’t expect children to harm children.
But statistics speak of a horrific reality. Near 50 per cent of the sexual abuse suffered by children is inflicted on them by other children. It is now a silent and violent epidemic: children sexually abusing other children. It is frightening. Hard as it is to believe, I have read cases of children as young as five sexually abusing other children. Perhaps you are wondering who or what is to blame.
A good place to look is at the family where we usually find there has been significant exposure to adult models of aggression, dominance, intimidation, and abuse. Unstable family backgrounds and a history of witnessing family violence or being the recipient of abuse and neglect play a contributing role in the life histories of sex offenders.
Clinical experience suggests that male adolescents who molest or rape younger boys may have a particularly high incidence of having been sexually abused when they themselves were younger. When it comes to violent sexual offending, forceful offenders are more likely to have been penetrated during their own sexual abuse history.
As a clinician, once you begin to assess and evaluate adolescent sexual behavior and fantasies, both consensual and deviant, either through the battery of psychological tests and social competence measures available or in a shared therapeutic alliance, you begin to understand the exact nature of the sexual offense, details of the event, what preceded and what followed the offense, how the young offender felt, the nature of his/her thoughts before, during, and after the offense, and whether the adolescent understands the seriousness and inappropriateness of the behavior.
Although not as prevalent as with adolescent males, there are adolescent females who also molest. What you discover is tumultuous. Some have impaired impulse control, difficulty controlling their sexual impulses, and act of them, violently and often criminally.
A self-report study, published a few years ago, in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence evaluated 405 male juvenile sex offenders younger than 18. Over 60 per cent reported involvement in child molestation. More than 30 per cent reported watching pornography. And near 30 per cent said they were involved in exhibitionism, fetishism, frottage, voyeurism, obscene phone calls and phone sex. Believe it or not, there are adolescents with true paraphilias.
It is an article of faith among clinicians who work with sexual offenders, adolescents or adults, that deviant sexual arousal patterns are instrumental in the commission of sexual offences. And then, of course, there is psychosis that also contributes to the display and development of inappropriate sexual behavior.
The good news is that adolescent sexual offenders have recently been the focus of a number of research studies that indicate that sexual offending often begins with prior sexual abuse, prior victimization, and subsequent sexual abuse. The bad news is that no empirically validated model exists that explains the development of deviant sexual behavior in adolescents. Deviant sexual behavior varies from individual to individual. However, clinical experience tells you that sexual offenses are symptoms of an insidious, compounding tragedy: a self-perpetuating cycle of violence.
Sex offenders’ unconscionable crimes are learned from the abusive treatment they experienced. Although many child abuse victims do not go on to abuse others, sadly, statistics reveal that all children who abuse other children have suffered some form of sexual abuse or neglect. Therefore, considerable etiological significance must be given to the question of early sexual victimization especially when adolescent sexual offenders seem to be enacting previous experiences.
Various social deficits have also been linked to the commission of a sexual offense. School performance often appears problematic. Past studies reveal that over 50 per cent of adolescent sexual offenders have a learning disability, near 80 per cent have repeated a school grade, and over 50 per cent have either been suspended or expelled because of behavior management problems. Slow intellectual development usually means psychological immaturity, a rudimentary understanding of right versus wrong, and great difficulty conforming to society’s expectations.
A number of other psychological characteristics are often cited to account for sexual offenses committed by adolescent males; low self-esteem, a sense of masculine inadequacy, fear of intimacy, gender-identity confusion, sex role stereotypes, hostility towards girls and women, feelings of powerlessness, anger, poor impulse control, lack of moral development and empathy and an inability to deal with stress and anger. These are just a few.
All the pathways to sexual deviance may never be known. There are also numerous cognitive distortions, among adolescent and adult sexual offenders, attributed to the acceptability of such behavior. To the social risk factors add executive neuropsychological (dis) functioning and emotional numbing. These are red flags for violent sexual assault. Impaired emotional responsiveness, a failure in sensory-emotional integration, is a major contributor to violent behavior.
Sexual abuse by juveniles is widely accepted as a significant criminal justice problem. In the US, over 15,000 children and adolescents are arrested, annually, for sex crimes. Predatory or non violent, with all crimes, there is a path of action, a line of interpretation, and an emotional process. Atypical erotic fantasy or an enduring cycle of violence and victimization, you may even have your own theories, but the fact remains: victimization increases the prevalence of offending.
Two years ago, Franklin Zimring, an expert on juvenile justice and law professor at University of California, Berkley, published An American Travesty: Legal Responses to Adolescent Sexual Offending. It is a critique of public policy based on emotion rather than data. It is easy to get emotional.
The central issue, particularly in Trinidad & Tobago, is not the emotionalism of impassioned placards, enraged village crowds howling and hurling threats outside the court, or pushing and shoving for a quick glimpse of the offenders, although it does make exciting television footage and photo journalism, but to understand the root causes and the emergence of a distinctive, atypical sexual dynamic and its relevance in explaining the qualities of a deviant sexual experience which turns into rape and murder.
Of course, and in keeping with a utilitarian penology, we want the punishment to be certain, severe and swift. We want the punishment to fit the crime. The true test of a democracy is due process of the law for the victim and the victimiser(s). But there are larger questions to be raised and more importantly to be answered.
The big question is can state facilities in the Caribbean region really offer required treatment to adolescent or adult sexual offenders. There is a high risk to repeat as a sex offender. And let us not forget that offenders, adolescents and adults, housed in correctional facilities are also subjected to assaults and sexual abuse.
There must be proactive child protection criminal justice policy that calls for intervention and early detection programs. Trinidad & Tobago’s criminal justice system needs empirical bite and intellectual depth in its approach to criminality. Crime control, deterrence and prevention, cannot be the only concern of any criminal justice system. It is time to get inside the black box and open up a systemic, theoretical, and empirical inquiry into criminality.
So now that the culprits have been collared, cuffed and confined, only the sentencing phase remains with a judgment to be handed down. And while we might be quick to condemn and point a finger, just remember, there is also a finger pointing back at each of us. We must all acknowledge that guilt must be shared. The more ominous problem is not the sexual offenders who are caught but those who go undetected.
Renee Cummings is an addiction therapist, rehabilitation and criminal justice professional that specializes in Deviance. She received her MA in Criminal Justice from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York.