CNY Gets Serious About Juvenile Sexual Offenders

The Post-Standard (Syracuse, New York)

January 22, 2006 Sunday



BYLINE: By Greg Munno and Cammi Clark, Staff writers


LENGTH: 2490 words

Never closer than the length of an arm, nine boys walk single file into a small brick cottage on Syracuse’s East Side.

One by one, they approach a line of red tape on the floor, stop, and wait for a signal to proceed.

The boys live in dorm-sized rooms with tinted windows. They eat in silence. MTV is banned. Any television at all is a privilege that must be earned. Even masturbation has rules during the 10-minute shower, or not at all.

These restrictions are part of a new program at Elmcrest Children’s Center designed for youth who have acted out sexually, committing offenses that range from inappropriate touching, to manipulating other kids to have sex with them, to rape.The program is the strictest run by Elmcrest in the tidy collection of cottages on the nonprofit’s campus off Salt Springs Road.

“A lot of these kids have crossed boundaries consistently throughout their childhood,” said Aaron Schioppa, program supervisor for Elmcrest’s special supervision cottage. “These rules are put in place to teach them boundaries, and to keep them and others safe.”

Elmcrest’s new program, and three other budding efforts in Central New York, are part of a nationwide push to combat the taboo but very real problem of children who sexually abuse other children. The programs combine 24-hour supervision with intensive therapy and on-site education.

Of the more than 78,000 U.S. children a year who are sexually abused,as many as half are abused by other minors

Random sexual assaults by adult strangers rivet the imaginations of fearful parents. But of the more than 78,000 U.S. children a year who are sexually abused, most are abused by people they know, and as many as half are abused by other minors, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Government and nonprofit agencies have started to recognize that specialized programs are needed to deal with children who act out sexually, according to a state spokesman and experts such as Catherine Diana, clinical director of sexual abuse services at Elmcrest.

New York spends more than $2 million a year on sex offender treatment programs in its youth detention facilities, according to Brian Marchetti, a spokesman for the state’s Office of Children and Family Services. About a decade ago, the agency began hiring social workers who specialize in children who have sexually offended. It now has six of those specialists working in Children and Family Services’ facilities, Marchetti said.

In addition to Elmcrest’s new program in Syracuse, the Rochester-based Hillside Family of Agencies has taken over the former KidsPeace campus in Seneca County and devoted 64 beds to children who have sexually abused other kids. Hillside also acquired and is expanding Snell Farms in Bath, another home for troubled children that now devotes all its beds to the treatment of those who have committed sex offenses.

A third agency, the William George Agency for Children Services, in Freeville, declined to participate in this story. According to the Office of Children and Family Services, the agency outside Ithaca became the first in the state to focus on juvenile sex offenders when it dedicated one of its cottages to that population a decade ago. Ever since, it has steadily increased the number of beds it dedicates to sexually abusive youngsters.

Although FBI statistics show that the number of children charged with sexual abuse has remained fairly steady in recent years both nationally and locally, Marchetti said the new services coming on line reflect the recognition that the population being charged with sex crimes is a more troubled, complex one.

“Over the past few years, an increasing number of nonprofits in New York have focused resources on juvenile sex offenders,” Marchetti said. “This development has occurred, in part, due to youth coming into the juvenile rehabilitation system with deep-seated issues involving being sexually abused themselves and acting out sexually against others.”

Marchetti added that the state “views this trend toward specialization as a positive development that gives judges and local districts more options when determining where to place a child.”

Treating children who have sexually offended costs a lot of money. The residents of specialized, highly supervised treatment centers such as Elmcrest are technically in the custody of either the state or their county of origin.

Either way, the county, state and federal governments end up splitting the cost of everything in these children’s lives – food, housing, education, medications, therapy, transportation to court dates and 24-hour-a-day supervision. It takes 17 full-time equivalents, for instance, to ensure adequate staffing at Elmcrest’s 9-bed cottage for youth who have sexually offended, said Joe Geglia, Elmcrest’s director of external affairs.

At Elmcrest, the bill comes to $146,467.47 a year for each resident in the sex offender program, Geglia said. That includes the amount Elmcrest pays per-pupil to the Syracuse City School District to run its on-campus school and summer school program. The cost is in line with other, similar programs, according to state statistics.

By comparison, a year of room, board and tuition at Harvard University comes to $41,675.

Onondaga County Family Court Judge David Klim says even more resources should be devoted to treating young sex offenders. The cost and lack of availability of these programs sometimes deter judges and counties from sending children into treatment, Klim said.

“Because of the limited resources, (some of) these cases are being compromised,” Klim said. “They are not getting the treatment they need. I do think that some should be – and more are – placed in residential treatment. Although it’s very costly, what we can’t forget is the short-term cost weighed against the long-term cost. If they become adult offenders, studies show that each will scar many, even hundreds, of victims.”

Hidden crimes

If you find it surprising that children – often well before the age of puberty – sexually abuse, you’re not alone.

“I’ve found that people outside the juvenile justice system are not aware of this problem,” Onondaga County Family Court Judge Martha Walsh Hood said. “Parents rarely view other children as a threat and, in many cases, don’t even know that the type of abuse occurring is something a kid so young is physically capable of.”

Government itself does a poor job of tracking the number of children who abuse other children.

Officials with local district attorney offices, departments of social services and the state Unified Court System, which oversees Family Court in New York, all say they do not know how many children accused of sexual crimes are currently in the system.

They explain that most children accused of these crimes are brought into Family Court as “juvenile delinquents.” The underlying crime behind the delinquency charge is often buried in a child’s file, making it difficult for the agencies to review their records and come up with an accurate count.

They also note that juvenile sexual offenses often go unreported and, when there are arrests, the cases are handled in Family Court, where records are sealed and names kept confidential.

By the numbers in CNY

The FBI, which collects statistics directly from individual police agencies, keeps estimates of the number of local juvenile sexual arrests each year.

Agencies in Cayuga, Cortland, Madison, Oneida, Onondaga and Oswego counties reported to the FBI that they arrested an average of 159 juveniles per year over the last five years on sexual abuse charges that range from inappropriate touching to rape.

From 1995 through 2005, 40 Onondaga County children under age 10 were placed on probation because of sexual offenses, according to Probation Commissioner Mary Winter. Four of those children were 7 years old.

During the same time period, 413 children between the ages of 11 and 15 were placed on probation for sexual offenses, Winter said. Last year alone, nine 12-year-olds entered probation after being found to have committed a sex offense.

These numbers represent a fraction of the sexual crimes committed by juveniles, both reported and unreported, say experts like Gail Ryan, director of the nationally renowned Kempe Perpetration Prevention Program in Denver.

“The problem is the same in every state,” Ryan said. “We just don’t have good centralized data. There’s all these kids in youth corrections, the child welfare system, being served as out patients, and no one has a good handle on it. So what you see in the FBI stats is just one aspect of it.”

Elmcrest and Hillside have been dealing with troubled youth since the mid-1800s, but it’s only in the last two years that they created specialized programs for children who sexually offend.

In 2004, Elmcrest opened its nine-bed cottage in Syracuse for sex offenders age 14 to 18 and another cottage for hard-to-place children age 9 to 13, most of whom also have acted out sexually.

Hillside, meanwhile, recently took over two programs that had large numbers of children who abused other children – Snell Farms outside of Bath, a 28-bed facility exclusively for sex offenders, and the former KidsPeace in Seneca County, which had dealt with a mixed population but now dedicates 64 of its 80 beds to sex offenders.

The children at these facilities come from Onondaga County and other parts of Central and Upstate New York.

Elmcrest and Hillside allowed The Post-Standard to tour their campuses and interview, to varying degrees, 15 of the residents in their sex-offender programs.

Hillside required that no identifying information about their residents be disclosed other than the county where they lived before entering the program. Elmcrest allowed the paper to use only first names. Both agencies said they are bound by the courts and the state to keep the identities of children placed in their care confidential.

These children have little in common, other than age and gender. They generally range from 11 to 17, although many of them started offending at younger ages. They are all male.

Studies have estimated that girls account for between 2 percent and 10 percent of juvenile sexual offenders, according to a Department of Justice review. There are no residential treatment centers for girls in New York state.

The residents at Elmcrest and Hillside are white, black and Latino, from small North Country towns, inner cities and the suburbs in between. They come from broken homes and nuclear families. Some are nerdy and shy, others handsome and athletic.

Yet these children have crossed a line that few do, learning about sex and exploring it not through playful experimentation, but through force, coercion and manipulation, said Diana, who in addition to designing Elmcrest’s sexual offender program works with sexual offenders in private practice.

“Not a lot of our kids are violent,” Elmcrest’s Schioppa said. “But their behavior is clearly abusive. They bribe. They threaten. They target kids who are younger and not their intellectual equivalents. You don’t end up here for playing doctor.”

“I am filled with self-disgust’

Marcus shifted his weight and nervously rubbed his hands. Then he recounted how he raped his 9-year-old sister two years ago.

“I used intimidation,” said Marcus, now 14. “I’d have my pocket knife on me at all times and throw it at the wall to show her I would hurt her.”

Marcus recounted his crime in a session designed to determine whether he was ready to move up in the Elmcrest program. If he advances, he will be allowed more privileges, such as watching television, and moves closer to a time when he’ll be reunited with his family or placed in a less-restrictive environment.

Like the other eight boys in his unit at Elmcrest, Marcus isn’t sure of the root of his sexual aggression. He knows that from the time he was little he felt awkward around other people, and preferred to read books than play with other kids. He’s always been smart – Elmcrest staff said he’s an excellent student – and wants to go to an Ivy League school and become a lawyer.

Marcus, using the terminology taught to him at Elmcrest, says that several “thinking errors” led him to rape his sister.

The primary error was that he never stopped to consider his sister’s feelings – he lacked empathy for her.

“I felt entitled to take whatever I wanted from her,” Marcus said. “It was like, “I want it now.”‘

He realizes now that his sister suffered greatly at his hands.

“It was violent; it was painful,” he said. “I am filled with self-disgust.”

Learning it’s wrong to pursue sex through coercive behavior and developing an understanding of what the victim of a sexual crime goes through are two major components of Elmcrest’s program.

Marcus, at least intellectually, has grasped these concepts. The group of mental health workers decided he could advance to the second stage of the program.

Will that mean he won’t offend again when he returns to society?

Time will tell if it works

Ryan, the Kempe Center expert, said that’s a key question, given the cost of the programs, and the fact that Marcus – like all minors whose crimes are dealt with in Family Court – must be released by the time he’s 18. His records must also be sealed and he doesn’t have to register as a sex offender.

A U.S. Department of Justice report found a “paucity,” or lack, of studies on the effects of sex offender treatment and that “research on juvenile sex offender recidivism is particularly lacking.” Recidivism is when people reoffend after release from supervision.

And the programs in Central New York are too new to have data of their own – Elmcrest graduated its first resident last summer. Plus, there is no way to compel clients to keep in touch with them and tell them of any new offenses.

But Ryan said there is evidence that treatment works, and added that some children who offend sexually simply grow out of their behavior. Ryan pointed to a 2000 Canadian study – which she called the most rigorous yet – that found recidivism rates were less than 10 percent among young offenders.

“The public opinion is that you can’t really treat sex offenders,” said Ryan. “It is true for some types of offenders, but not others, and the studies that have been done suggest children are truly different than the adult offender. They are not miniature adults. They are developing, changing.”

Biology of sex offenders

When people learn that children – often well before puberty – commit sex crimes, they often wonder whether it’s physically possible, said Dr. Ann Botash, professor of pediatrics and director of the Child Abuse Referral and Evaluation (CARE) program at SUNY Upstate Medical University.

Botash notes that males can get erections as babies and are occasionally even born with erections. Boys cannot ejaculate before puberty – which usually starts after age 10 – but they can have sex, and even experience the sensation of an orgasm, she said.

Still, Botash said, it is rare to see prepubescent boys engage in intercourse.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO Photos by Stephen D. Cannerelli/Staff photographer RESIDENTS at Hillside Children’s Center’s Seneca County treatment facility for youthful sex offenders walk single file as they leave school after a day of classes. Below is a detail from Elmcrest Children’s Center. New York spends more than $2 million a year on sex offender programs for children.

Stephen D. Cannerelli/Staff photographer SHARON McINROY teaches seventh- and eighth-graders at the Langston Hughes School at the Hillside treatment facility in Seneca County. The on-campus schools make it easier for staff to protect the residents’ confidentiality while supervising them. The pupils are from across Upstate New York.

Stephen D. Cannerelli/Staff photographer HILLSIDE RESIDENTS often do community service as part of their treatment. Here, the children are helping residents of the Homestead Nursing Home in Penn Yan plant a garden. Hillside employs a horticulture teacher who helps residents grow vegetables and flowers from seed. Pepper Harris, the nursing home resident here with the hands of a Hillside resident on her shoulders, knows about the boy’s sex offenses. She said she doesn’t care: Her relationship with the boys is more important to her than a mistake they made in their past. “Every time they leave it more beautiful than when they got here,” Harris said of the boys’ work. “You’ve been good to us,” she told some of the Hillside boys. “We love to see it when you come and we hate to see it when you leave.”

Treating kids who Sexually abuse other kids Elmcrest Children’s Center and Hillside Children’s Center run treatment programs for children who have sexually abused other children. The programs teach children self-discipline, to develop empathy for others and to set boundaries.

In the television room at Elmcrest, chairs are carefully spaced so residents don’t come into physical contact with one another. All physical contact with others is barred.

The tape on the floor establishes where each chair belongs a tool to help staff recognize if residents are trying to slide closer together, said Troy Hopson, a shift supervisor.

TV itself is strictly controlled to avoid programs that are potentially sexually stimulating; reruns of “Full House” played during two of The Post-Standard’s visits.

A sign at Hillside marks the number of days since staff at the facility had tophysically restrain a child. On this day, a resident had be restrained, so the number of days had just been covered up. A child is restrained if he becomes a danger to himself or others. Staff say restraining a child is the hardest thing they have to do.

This artwork by several residents at Hillside emphasizes one of the program’s main goals teaching the children skills forproperly dealing with life,stress and emotions. This poster lists some guidelines forhelping children overcome sexually abusive behavior.

Residents entering Elmcrest for the first time are encouraged to recount the actions that brought them there.

Bedrooms at the Elmcrest cottage are spartan by design. There are restrictions on what residents can post on the walls. The center bars boys from posting anything that might stimulate them. Staff monitor the music children listen to on the radio. Windows are tinted.

A diagram inside the group therapy room at Elmcrest shows how perpetrators of abuse overcome obstacles to abuse. It forces them “to recognize the behaviors that allowed them to abuse in the first place,” said Catherine Diana, who designed Elmcrest’s treatment program.

GRAPHIC: Juvenile sex arrests The following is a look at arrests of minors for sex-related crimes reported by local law enforcement agencies to the FBI for 1999 through 2003. The offenses range from rape to indecent exposure. Year1999 2000 2001 2002 2003

Cayuga10 12 18 21 15

Cortland 5 6 8 5 6

Madison 5 14 13 7 11

Oneida 34 39 47 41 40

Onondaga 52 81 72 64 47

Oswego 13 25 26 23 34

Total 119 177 184 161 153

Note: Experts consider these statistics the best available, but say the numbers are low and inconsistent. The number of agencies reporting to the FBI varies slightly from year to year; sex crimes tend to be underreported; and not all sex crimes by minors even among those that are reported lead to arrests on sex-specific charges.

Source: FBI The Post-Standard. Note:

GRAPHIC: Treating Kids who sexually abuse other kids. The Post-Standard.

Note: For text see microfilm.

Copyright 2006 Post-Standard

All Rights Reserved.

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