Duggar Case Raises Questions about Juvenile Sex Offenders

When news broke last week that Josh Duggar, one of the family members of "19 Kids and Counting" fame, had admitted to sexually molesting five young girls when he was only 14 years old, it prompted public outcry. The Duggars, staunch conservatives, are seen as hypocrites for "covering up" the sexual abuse. Instead of reporting the 2002 sexual abuse after an underage female reported that Josh had fondled her while she slept, the Duggar parents "reprimanded" their son. Nine months later, other girls came forward saying the sexual abuse continued. The Duggars went to church elders about the problem, and they sent their son to a "program [that] consisted of hard physical work and counseling," where he remained for four months. Later, Josh's mother Michelle would admit that Josh had never received formal counseling, and instead had gone to stay with a family friend and work in his remodeling and construction business.

It wasn't until 2006, some four years after the first girl reported to James and Michelle Duggar that Josh had been molesting her, that a police report was filed. That came only after the family was scheduled to appear on Oprah! and producers received a letter detailing the abuse. Only after Harpo Studios forwarded the letter to the Department of Human Services was a formal law enforcement investigation opened. Though Josh Duggar was never charged, he admitted that he molested the girls and said he turned back to his faith for forgiveness and redemption.

For many people, it is impossible to separate the 14-year-old Josh Duggar who fondled other children from the 27-year-old man he is today. It is easy to for people to brand him as a pedophile, but the fact is, he was not a grown man seeking sexual favors from children, but rather a minor himself.

This article is not to debate whether or not the Duggars acted appropriately in the way they handled the situation, or whether or not TLC acted appropriately in cancelling the show. Instead, it is to highlight the nature of juvenile sex offenders and how they generally differ from adult sex offenders.

In many states, juvenile sex offenders are treated precisely the same as adult sex offenders, but typically, this is a grave injustice, and juvenile sex offenses are not fueled by the same intent as sex crimes committed by adults. The old belief, "once a sex offender, always a sex offender," does not statistically bear out, and the recidivism rate for juvenile sex offenders is even lower than that of adult sex offenders.

The Illinois Juvenile Justice System conducted a study to support reform of juvenile sex offender laws in that state. Its findings showed the stark difference between most juvenile sex offenders and adult sex offenders:

The vast majority of these youth have not acted in response to a deviant sexual arousal or a focused intent to harm others, which are considered key risk factors for future sexual offending. Instead, most youth sexual offending has roots in developmental issues such as immaturity, developmental delays, deficits in social skills and difficulties coping with prior sexual abuse. Research on adolescent brain development shows that youth are still gaining the capacity to make decisions, assess risk, control impulses, make moral judgments, consider future consequences, evaluate rewards and punishment, and react to positive and negative feedback.

Youth who sexually offend are very unlikely to become adult sexual offenders. Most youth sexual offending involves a family member or a person known to the youth and is not predatory. Treatment does work, and different types of interventions have been found to be effective in changing the harmful behavior of youth who sexually offend. The vast majority of these youth do not repeat their harmful conduct.

Regardless of their individual circumstances, risks, needs or strengths, youth adjudicated delinquent for a sexual offense are subject to a complex and expanding set of requirements and restrictions, which may include where they can live, what kind of job they can perform and whether they can attend their own children’s extracurricular school events. These carry lasting negative consequences for the offending youth. There is no persuasive evidence that placing youth on sex offender registries prevents reoffending, but the registry requirements can undermine the long-term well-being of victims, families, youth and communities.

Oklahoma maintains separate sex offender registries for juveniles and adults, and not every child adjudicated for a sex offense is placed on the juvenile sex offender registry. This is because the state recognizes the difference between motivating factors for sex crimes among children and adults. Research at the University of Oklahoma has determined that highly punitive measures against juvenile sex offenders have a detrimental effect and do nothing to prevent recidivism. In fact, the recidivism rates among juvenile sex offenders who receive treatment is considerably lower than that of offenders who are treated as pariahs and institutionalized and separated from healthy relationships. The University has developed a juvenile sex offender treatment program that helps redirect troubled kids and focuses not only on appropriate sexual behaviors, but also decision-making and problem solving skills. Parents and caregivers are also required to attend. The program has been in place for nearly 30 years, and has a staggering success rate, with only a few children failing the program.

Whether or not the Duggars acted appropriately in handling the sexual abuse in their family, one good thing may come out of the scandal--an increased focus on juvenile sex crimes and suitable actions that preserve justice for all involved.

Image credit: Emil Pakarklis

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