UPDATED, MARCH 28: To include correct form of therapy in the sixth paragraph. “Beyond losing your child, hearing that they have been acting out sexually against other children is the worst news you can get,” says Janet Routzen, executive director of the White Buffalo Calf Woman Society (WBCWS) on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.
In addition to providing services and shelter to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking, the White Buffalo Calf Woman Society provides sexual assault advocacy services, conducts education and outreach among community and youth groups and helps coordinate counseling. In 2014, it conducted a community-needs assessment with the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) that found “the overall rate of sexual assault was extremely high on the Reservation and that youth sexual behavior problems, including child-on-child sexual assault were a serious issue that needs to be addressed.”
According to the DOJ, Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped than women from other ethnicities. There is a dearth of data regarding rates of sexual violence against Native children but according to the DOJ, Native youth experience child abuse at 15.9 per one thousand compared to 10.7 percent for white youth.
“This is that thing under the rock that nobody wants to talk about,” says Routzen who worked as Rosebud tribal prosecutor before joining WBCWS.
What she and her colleagues learned about juvenile sexual offenders as they dove deeper into the issue surprised them. Juvenile offenders, or transgressors, as Routzen prefers to describe them, fall into an entirely different category than adult offenders. For instance:
- More than 90 percent of arrests of youth for sex offenses represent a one-time event that will never recur.
- Youth charged with sex offenses are amenable to treatment because they are in the developmental stages of their lives. Their sexual offending behavior is not fixed.
- Most youth sex offenders can be treated successfully through weekly outpatient group treatment lasting 8 to 28 months.
These facts provide new opportunities to help children who have often been viewed as hopelessly broken, destined to grow into adult sexual predators.
The White Buffalo Calf Woman Society worked with mental health providers at Sinte Gleska University to create Wakanyan Ki Najin Pi, Standing up Sacred Again in Creation. Wakanyan Ki Najin Pi was created with guidance from the National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth (NCSBY) staff and uses a mental health treatment specifically aimed at children, Problematic Sexual Behavior – Cognitive Behavior Therapy (PSB-CBT). The treatment combines cognitive behavior therapy along with parent and family therapy. Cognitive behavior therapy is the most widely used treatment for mental disorders and focuses on developing personal coping strategies and changing thinking patterns and behaviors.
Wakanyan Ki Najin Pi includes Lakota culture in the treatment, such as teaching families about traditional roles of men and women. Unlike older treatment models, in which children were taken away from home and family and housed in jail-like settings, Wakanyan Ki Najin Pi sees children on an out-patient basis, close to their homes. Family and caregivers also participate in the therapy that focuses on learning appropriate behavior and boundaries and ways to resist impulsiveness. It also offers children an opportunity to talk about what they did. Since the victims in such cases are often siblings of the offender, the treatment offers a setting in which the transgressor can apologize to their victims.
‘In the end, the transgressor learns that what they did was inappropriate and wrong and hurt the victim. The victim is able to receive an apology so that the event does not continue to haunt them,” Routzen says. Youth transgressors are referred to Wakanyan Ki Najin Pi by law enforcement or other social service agencies and are offered the opportunity to participate in therapy as an alternative to entering the justice system.
Routzen says the biggest barrier to getting treatment for transgressors are parents.
Jane Silovsky, PhD. Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma, licensed clinical child psychologist and associate director of the Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, agrees. She is one of the training and technical assistance providers for participants in the Justice Department grant and also works with the NCSBY. “We are asking people to talk about the most sensitive part of their parenting practices. There is a lot of motivation for people to want to run away from this problem. It’s especially difficult if parents or caregivers have their own history of sexual assault; it impacts their ability to accept their child’s behavior.”
Silovsky adds, “Parenting is hard. Participating in this therapy acknowledges that for people and helps parents regroup and address their own healing needs.”
But how does one differentiate between a sexual offense and children simply playing doctor?
Routzen explains, “We define activity as a problematic sexual behavior if the victim is coerced into the activity and/or is younger than the transgressor. Sometimes kids are just acting out what they see. They may be exposed to pornography or see adults having sex. Many of our children have no healthy adult models and no one to instruct them in the differences between appropriate versus inappropriate behavior.”
Although Native children may be uniquely susceptible to abuse due to the fallout from unaddressed historical sexual trauma from the boarding school era, Routzen emphasizes that this is not only an Indian problem. According to the NCSBY, more than one-third of sexual offenses against child victims are committed by other youth, with 12-14 being the peak ages.
According to the Justice’s juvenile division, sexual behaviors that bring youth into contact with law enforcement can include events as diverse as sexting, sharing pornography with younger children, fondling a child over the clothes, grabbing peers in a sexual way at school, date rape, gang rape, or performing oral, vaginal, or anal sex on a much younger child. Offenses can involve a single event, a few isolated events, or a large number of events with multiple victims; the behavior seldom involves strangers.
“The old myth of the child super predator is just that, a myth,” says Silovsky. “The really scary youth sex offenders make up a super tiny number of offenders.”
Unfortunately, law enforcement and court systems tend to treat sex offenders alike, regardless of age. Thirty-eight states require juvenile sex offenders to be included in public sex offender registries. The remaining states only add the names of youths who are convicted in adult courts.
Some states add names to a registry for a set amount of time, while others keep offenders on the list until they die. According to the NCSBY, juvenile sex offenders who are sentenced as adults, including incarceration and inclusion in sex offender registries are nearly eight times more likely to commit suicide.
Nicole Pittman, a director at the advocacy group Impact Justice told National Public Radio in a 2015 storythat of the hundreds of children on sex offender lists she has interviewed, at least 20 percent of them had attempted suicide.
In the same story, Elizabeth Letourneau, a professor with Johns Hopkins University and an expert on juvenile sex offenders noted that juvenile sex offenders who are listed on registries are more likely to subsequently be charged with drug or property crimes.
In March, 2016, The New Yorker published an in-depth story on juvenile sexual offenders that focused on those who have been included on public sex offender registries. The article entitled, The List, offered a typical example of a juvenile sex offender named Leah DuBuc. At age 10 DuBuc went to live with her father and new stepmother after her parents’ divorce. The stepmother brought three sons to the marriage. Dubuc, who had never had brothers was curious about boys. After watching a movie depicting intercourse, she began mimicking sex with her new stepbrothers.
Later that year, DuBuc complained to a police officer at school about mistreatment at home; when authorities arrived to investigate, they learned of her sexual misbehavior.
In 1997 she was charged with eight counts of criminal sexual misconduct, in the first and second degree, sent to a residential juvenile sex offender treatment facility and included on Michigan’s sex offender registry. After considerable work, she was able to get her name off the list in 2010 but has found that some employers still have access to her expunged history.
Registered sex offenders must register their names with police departments when they move, have limitations on where they can live and as adults may find the law forbids them from being alone with their own children.
“Making these kids into criminals isn’t going to help the problem,” Routzen says.
“Our parents are so often in denial about their child’s behavior because it brings up their own trauma issues. Unless we address our traumas head on and work towards healing, we will continue the cycle of abuse and victimization. There is real hope for these kids; they can be taught boundaries, but we have to step up as a community.”