Family Environments of Adolescent Sex Offenders and Other Juvenile Delinquents

Article excerpt

Prior to the 1980s, adolescent sex offenses were not taken seriously; typically they were explained as normal experimentation or developmental curiosity. The problem was either minimized or denied. Although research has mushroomed in the last decade, it has been concerned primarily with individual characteristics of offenders and offenses or with the family background of offenders. Information is sparse about the family environments of these offenders, and it is also unclear how the family environments of adolescent offenders differ, if they do, from those of juvenile delinquents who have committed either violent or nonviolent offenses or from the environments of normal adolescents, since few studies compare these groups or include a representative sample of nonoffenders as a comparison group.

This study was designed to assess adolescent sex offenders' perceptions of their family environments. The perceptions of male adolescent sex offenders were compared with those of male juvenile delinquents who had committed violent nonsex offenses, male juvenile delinquents who had committed nonviolent nonsex offenses, and the perceptions of a normative adolescent sample. Family environment was examined, using the Family Environment Scale (FES) (Moos & Moos, 1986) which assesses relationship, personal growth, and system maintenance dimensions.

Families of adolescent offenders are frequently involved in treatment, and findings from this study are likely to enhance services to these families. In residential treatment facilities, adolescent sex offenders and other juvenile delinquents are frequently placed together, but most experts advocate offense-specific treatment for sex offenders (Knopp, 1985). Professionals in the sex-offender field claim that adolescent sex offenders are unique and distinct from other delinquent and nondelinquent adolescents (Knopp, 1985; O'Brien, 1985). Results from this study may help clarify whether, and in what ways, the family environments of adolescent sex offenders differ from those of juvenile delinquents and from a normative adolescent population. Findings may also promote development of theories on the etiology of sex offenses by adolescents, and help in the early identification of at-risk families.

LITERATURE REVIEW

The Uniform Crime Reports (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1991) indicate that in 1991, 95,533 males were arrested for sex offenses, including forcible rape but not prostitution. Seventeen percent (15,760) of these offenders were under the age of eighteen. These figures are probably underestimates due to the high number of offenses that go unreported. Ryan (1988), using the data from the Uniform Data Collection System of the National Adolescent Perpetrator Network in which the majority of the offenders were categorized as first-time offenders, found that the average number of victims per offender was seven, indicating that many offenses were not reported. In addition to underreporting, only a small number of complaints ever result in an arrest (Groth & Loredo, 1981). Ageton (1983), in a general population study, found that 3-4% of adolescents aged 15-20 had committed a sex offense. She estimated that 500,000 offenses occur annually, a vast difference from the less than 16,000 arrests in 1991.

Studies of adult sex offenders (Abel, Mittleman, & Becker, 1984; Becker & Abel, 1985) indicate that about half of adult offenders report that their first sex offense occurred as an adolescent, and often offenses escalated in frequency and severity over time. These alarming findings have led to increased efforts to identify and treat adolescent sex offenders and to recognize this group as a distinct juvenile justice problem and clinical population.

A thorough examination of the various sociocultural contexts of adolescent sex offenders is beyond the scope of this study; however, one significant context that will be examined is the family environment. …