Victims of Juvenile Offenders: An Important Component of the Juvenile Justice Equation

Article excerpt

When the field of victim assistance marked its genesis more than three decades ago in 1972, little attention was initially paid to the creation and implementation of victims' rights and the provision of quality victim services in the nation's juvenile justice systems. Many victim assistance professionals assume responsibility for this perceived oversight, as they were busy for two decades focusing on victims' rights and services in the adult criminal justice system.

The American Correctional Association played a significant role in focusing attention on the plight of victims of juvenile offenders. In 1994, its Victims Committee published the landmark Report and Recommendations on Victims of Juvenile Offenders. The report's primary premise is summed up in a statement made by co-author Sharon English, former director of the Office of Prevention and Victim Services of the California Youth Authority: "Victims of crime should not be discriminated against due solely to the age of their offender."

For most victims, the shock, distress and trauma of being burglarized by someone who is 14 years old versus 20 years old, or being raped by a 12-year-old youth versus a 35-year-old adult is no different and, indeed, can be exacerbated because of the age of the offender.

Uniqueness of These Victims

Important insights into the needs and concerns of victims of juvenile offenders were identified through a national project sponsored in 1998 by the Balanced and Restorative Justice project, with support from the U.S. Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime. A series of focus groups held across the country identified 14 characteristics that are unique to victims of juvenile offenders, including the following.

The shock, vulnerability and trauma victims endure may be enhanced due to the age of the child offender. Most people still want to believe that children are not capable of committing criminal acts, especially those involving violence. Furthermore, adults are supposed to have control over their younger counterparts--control that disappears when they are victimized by youthful offenders.

In the Balanced and Restorative Justice focus group research project of Florida Atlantic University, many victims of juvenile offenders were surprised by the range of emotional responses the crime had upon them. One victim confessed, "It hit me that I didn't want to face the fact that I was weak, and I let this bother me so much. I never thought of myself as a victim. I thought, 'I can't live like this' ... running away from anything that might occur." Another victim disclosed, "I didn't realize I was a victim for months. The feelings I thought were just fear made me think that I was a weak person. So I couldn't even deal with the feelings of a victim and try to make sense of it."

The victim's vulnerability may increase when the victim knows the juvenile offender. Relationships that have relied on mutual friendship and respect are often severed in these situations. If the juvenile offender is a friend of the family, the victim may begin to second-guess his or her judgment in the character of other people with whom he or she associates. Bonds of trust are easily shattered by juvenile victimization.

Victims of juvenile offenders may generalize about people who remind them of the perpetrator. This can affect their trust in other children and their tendency to avoid situations involving them. One middle school teacher who was assaulted by a youth expressed difficulty in getting up in front of a class full of children who were the same age as her assailant.

Victims sometimes report feeling embarrassed that they were hurt by a child. Since adults are expected to have a semblance of control over children, their victimization can prove to be a source of shame because the scales of authority and control have been tipped in the opposite direction.

Many victims report enhanced fear following victimization by a juvenile offender. …