Are juvenile sex offences on the rise? What role do accountability and therapy play in tackling the problem? Canada-based lecturer and social worker Peter W. Choate addressed these issues in a talk in the city

Reports of schoolchildren raping a classmate, or older children sexually molesting younger children are not unheard of. In fact, about one-third of child sexual abuse is by juvenile offenders. This is the bitter reality, the world over.

Handling it can be tricky, but it is crucial for all concerned — the victim, the offender and for broader community safety as well — that the juvenile sex offender is not just held accountable but is also given reformative therapy. Peter W. Choate, lecturer, Mount Royal University, Canada and a social worker who has enormous experience in handling juvenile sex offences was in the city recently to deliver a lecture on ‘Juvenile Sex Offending – Understanding and Accountability’ facilitated by Tulir – Centre for Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse. Excerpts from an interview.

How crucial is it to hold the offender accountable?

If the offender is not held accountable, it would mean that the victim has undergone the traumatic experience of revealing the offence to no positive effect. So then, why would the next victim come forward to reveal the offender’s name?

Does a juvenile sex offender go on to become a serial sex offender?

Most juvenile offenders are single or few-occasion offenders. It is only a small group among them who continue and become serial offenders. There are assessment tools which can differentiate between the two groups. It is also possible to gauge an offender’s mindset. Serial offenders don’t have empathy for the victim. They deny or minimise their responsibility in an offence. And if the offender blames the victim, then you know he might repeat it.

The first group understands they have committed an offence, feel guilty, and are receptive to intervention and reform. The serial offending group thinks, ‘My mistake is in getting caught’. I understand reformative therapy for juvenile sex offenders is underdeveloped in India, but it can be very effective.

Why should a juvenile sex offender be given attention? Shouldn’t the care be focussed on the victim?

While research varies, it is estimated that around 60 per cent of juvenile offenders have themselves been victims of sexual or physical abuse, in the past. When you give the offender therapy, it helps him come to terms with the abuse he faced and handle it better; it also helps him reform and the community is protected thereby. Even with offenders who have not been victims themselves, therapy could keep them from creating more victims in the future.

Describe the therapy protocol that ought to be given to a juvenile offender.

Every culture and country needs to find its own solution which should include prevention, intervention, and healing, all of which are so crucial.

We should get a clear history of the offender, find out his vulnerabilities and the root cause for these and heal them. Therapy should teach impulse control, problem-solving, and increase self-control and self-regulation. It should get the offender to relate to what the offence does to the victim. Therapy includes counselling, social education, followed by supervision for some years with the offender reporting to the social worker. The high risk group which don’t understand that they have committed an offence may have to face closer scrutiny by the courts and possible imprisonment.

If a juvenile has committed a sexual offence, what should be done next?

It is hard for families to learn that their child has committed a sexual offence. They feel they have failed.

But if they have the best interests of their child in mind, they should give him therapy. Though it is not easy, with therapy, many juvenile offenders do get over it and back to normality.

Does public notification help?

Public notification can make the problem worse and it defeats the objective of rehabilitation.

About child sexual offence by siblings...

It happens. Don’t downplay it. If you downplay it, you are sending the message that ‘It is okay’, and that he can continue with it, with the same person or with others.

On female juvenile offenders...

It's more prevalent than we think. One reason might be that females don’t brag about their offence.

Is juvenile sexual offence on the increase, or is it just more reported now?

We really don’t know. Data is emerging as more cases are reported. But if we keep seeking solutions that fit our culture, we make progress towards a safer society for our juveniles. Change is a slow process, and it requires the ability of the community to talk about it.