Rebuilding Young Lives and Families

The following article gives some insight to the Sex Offender Program and how it works to rebuild their lives with their families.

DATE: Sunday, 20 July 2003
PAPER: The Dallas Morning News
HEAD: OFFERING young offenders AN OUT An intensive rehabilitation program goes to the root causes of sex abuse.
BYLINE: Tim Wyatt
CREDIT: Staff Writer
CORRECTIONS:  A front-page story in Sunday's paper about juvenile sex offenders incorrectly said that a 15-year-old offender was left alone in the lobby of the Child Advocacy Center in Plano. The boy was left with his father. (Ran: Tuesday, July 22, 2003)




Program emphasizes rehabilitation of sex offenders


By TIM WYATT / The Dallas Morning News


McKINNEY – Dressed in an orange jail jumper and sporting a freshly shaven head, a skinny young man stands up, and without hesitation, recites when and how often he sexually molested children over the last four years:

A 5-year-old girl once in 1999, his 8-year-old sister repeatedly over a three-year span, his younger brother one time early last year.

Therapist Terry Bauer doesn't flinch at the 15-year-old's confession. Facing a semicircle of eight other young men in a steel-and-concrete pod of Collin County's juvenile jail, she sits and listens to tale after graphic tale of sexual assault. The names or hometowns of the young men, or their families, are not included in this story to protect their identities and those of their victims.

Ms. Bauer said she can't begin to reprogram how the boys think about their crimes until they admit to every single act.


"[They are] not monsters who do this," she said during a break between group therapy sessions. "It's the kid next door. And I truly believe that they're not pedophiles in training."


Collin County authorities are offering intense therapy in a jailhouse setting to every local juvenile charged with aggravated sexual assault as an alternative to Texas Youth Commission prison camps. Once they complete the eight- to 12-month program, they are sent home to rebuild their lives with their families.

Many times, victim and offender are members of the same family. Counselors spend months preparing parents, victims and the juvenile sex offenders to confront what has happened in often tearful reunions.

The victims tell what the abuser did to them. The offenders take responsibility.

"It's extremely emotional, and it's incredible to watch it unfold," Ms. Bauer said.

In its three years of existence, all but one child offered the treatment program decided to enroll. During that time, Collin County officials say they have treated more than 60 kids in the lock-down program without having one of them arrested for another crime.

"This was almost a blessing, an oasis," said the father of a 16-year-old who spent nine months in therapy behind bars for molesting a child. "The system is normally about punishment," he said. "But people need to realize sex offenders also come from good, Christian families, too – and at the end of the day, these are still our kids."

Treatment options


There are more than 800 juvenile sex offenders in the Texas Youth Commission prison camps. However, the state juvenile prison system has enough beds to offer its own intensive treatment program to only one-fourth of the young sex offenders there.

An additional 1,700 kids statewide were listed on probation for sex offenses last year.

Some counties have responded with their own treatment options. Tarrant County has a therapy-intensive lock-down program similar to Collin's. Collin also provides outpatient treatment to 50 offenders. Dallas County runs an outpatient treatment program that has the same goal – to teach young offenders how to deal with their sexuality in appropriate ways.

Prison studies appear to support the growing focus on treatment.

About half of young sex offenders who have served time in juvenile prison will return, either for violating parole or committing crimes within three years of release, Texas prison authorities say.

Prison studies also show that relatively few underage inmates – about 4 percent – who receive intensive treatment from the Texas Youth Commission rape or molest again within three years of release.

Dr. Richard Tewksbury, a professor of justice administration at the University of Louisville, said juvenile justice authorities across the country are finding that locking down young offenders for punishment alone is a bigger risk than a good therapy program.

"We're recognizing that immersion in therapy is astronomically improving the chances of success over institutionalizing a kid," Dr. Tewksbury said. "When the treatment is done right – including the whole family – you have a very low risk when the offender comes back home."

Joe Scott, director of juvenile probation for Collin County, said some might think authorities are coddling sex offenders, who face up to two years of confinement for their crimes. "But regardless of what you do with these kids, they're going to be out in two years."

"They have issues that must be dealt with," he said. "And the sooner, the better."

Frank discussions


During a recent Tuesday morning group session in juvenile detention on the outskirts of McKinney, the topic focused on victim empathy, a trait that Ms. Bauer said virtually every sex offender lacks at the time of the crime.

"She wasn't my sister," one 14-year-old boy tells the group. "She wasn't even human. I would just blank my mind ... she was a sexual object."

She was 11 years old and had endured a year of her brother's sexual advances before their parents caught him.



Another 14-year-old blurts out, "I justified my actions because it was done to me – and he still hasn't taken responsibility for it.

"Finally," the boy says, "I came in here and told everything about everything."

A 15-year-old boy immediately picks up where the other left off by recalling a talk with a school friend before he was arrested for molesting his younger sister. The friend, he says, confessed to him that her suicide attempt arose from being molested by a family member.

"It struck me then," he says. "That could happen to [his sister]. She could commit suicide for what I did."

Even then, he says, he could not stop it.

"Being locked up in an orange jump suit and shaved head did," he tells the group.

A long, quiet pause.

The backbone of Collin County's program is uncovering the truth and teaching the young offenders to approach their lives without secrets.

Offenders go through a battery of lie-detector examinations to strip away denial and excuses. Most of the children arrive with one conviction related to one victim, but Ms. Bauer said she's found that the average 14-year-old in the program will admit to three or four more incidents after the first series of lie-detector tests are done.

County prosecutors have agreed that new charges won't arise from those confessions. And with the approval of judges, the stigma of "registered sex-offender" will not show up on Web sites or in newspapers.

The kids, mostly boys, go to group therapy twice a week and one-on-one sessions every other week. They live in single cells and are monitored 24 hours a day.

The program is voluntary, but the young offenders are sent to TYC if they don't make it here.


"The kids get a sense of punishment and a sense of severity of what they've done, because the program is here in jail," Ms. Bauer said. "They're thinking about it all the time, alone in their rooms, in group therapy, and in one-on-one therapy. Beyond that, it is a nurturing program that teaches these kids to learn differently and think differently."

One 15-year-old boy who underwent seven months of therapy behind bars for molesting a younger sibling eventually admitted to sexually assaulting all three of his younger brothers and sisters.

Months after his release, his vocabulary has changed. Phrases like "cycle of abuse" and "cognitive distortion" lace his tale of being physically abused by his biological father, then molesting his younger brother and sisters in his adoptive family for almost five years before getting caught.

He said the Collin program changed him through persistence as much as intensity.

"We got about two hours of therapy a day, and 22 hours to think about it," the boy said. "We wrote about, read about it; there was just no slack, no let-up.

"It taught me ways to get out of any dark place," he said, referring to a past of acting out on everyday frustrations and stress through sexual gratification.

Tough treatment


Ms. Bauer and others say parents sometimes recoil at the program's rigor.

"The parents usually hate me at first," Ms. Bauer said. "I'm the wicked witch who put their kid in jail. I've been accused many times of brainwashing children. My stance on that is their brains needed to be cleaned up. I'm just going to rinse them a little."

Plano attorney Howard Shapiro said he might have more clients in the treatment program than any other local lawyer, because he's watched it improve their chances of a future outside the criminal justice system.

"I haven't had one child or parent not walk out of there 100 percent convinced that they had been through the best program there is," Mr. Shapiro said. "Because failure means they'll re-offend, and that's everybody's concern."

As the offenders prepare to return to their families, another therapist readies parents to hear the full extent of what their children have done to other children, many of whom turn out to be stepbrothers and sisters, cousins and next-door neighbors.

Mothers and fathers struggle with guilt, blame, anger, betrayal and openly wonder what they did – or didn't do – to contribute to the problem.

Did they talk too much? Hug too little? Ignore the obvious or complain to often?

As one father put it, "I didn't expect it to happen to my family, but it did. It took a number of sessions to accept what had happened."



About six months into treatment, the boys begin regular phone calls to their parents.

"And that's where a lot of the healing really begins for the family," Ms. Bauer said. "It's also where most parents' denial about what has happened is shattered forever. They're having dialogue with their boys in ways that they've never had before."



All work toward the day the family will be reunited.

"You saw their faces, and they were scared," a 16-year-old program graduate said of his reunion. "It hit hard. And you realize you were responsible for this, and they have to live with that for the rest of their lives."

Jim Clune of the National CASA Association in Seattle said the idea of reuniting young offenders with their victims may appear risky but, under the right supervision, is better than breaking up a family permanently.

"When you're talking about something as delicate and intricate as reuniting a victim and perpetrator, there are so many things that can lead to failure," said Mr. Clune, whose organization oversees training and recruitment for court-appointed child advocates across the nation. "But this collaboration sounds like it's having a direct impact on their success."

Once home, the graduates remain on strict probation, barred from being alone with any kids two years younger. Parents must always be in sight. The boys sleep in their rooms rigged with locks and alarms.

And they continue to report for polygraph exams. The in-house treatment and the monitoring afterward last for a total of two years.

One father said the experience tore apart his family and brought it together.

He and his wife adopted an outgoing and intelligent boy when he was 8 years old. Now, he's the kind of teenager who looks adults in the eye when he speaks, with a vocabulary beyond his years.

His father said anger boiled within the boy, who had been abused himself.

"His anger almost consumed him," the father said.

The family spent almost a year apart after the molestation of the younger children was discovered, but the bonds of kinship strengthened as family members talked about what happened, he said.

"It's been a night-and-day change – a huge awakening for him," the father said. "But the end result was he finally accepted us as his family. He knew we were going to stay by him. He was still our son."

Rejoining society


After months of living on the inside, the transition to normal life can be frightening.

One 15-year-old boy told his group about a terrifying moment just before an eye-to-eye visit with his sister at the Child Advocacy Center in Plano.

Children were all around, and a counselor left him alone. The quiet, soft-spoken boy told them about his panic, knowing that the situation broke the rules he spent months learning – to avoid contact with young children.

"It was scary, there were little kids all around," he said.

The bashful teenager said he asked his dad to escort him to the bathroom. He felt silly bringing him, but he didn't want to take the chance of being in a restroom with a young child.

The boy spoke as the others in the group listened intently, most of whom had yet to get to this point in their therapy.

The reunion with his 9-year-old sister "went real well," he said. "But I was nervous about what to say."

His sister talked about how she had nightmares from what he had done to her, and she wanted to know why he chose to have sex with her.

She told him her friends blamed her for being a victim, and how the humiliation of what happened had spilled onto the school's playground with taunts from classmates.

Then his head dropped, and his voice lowered a notch to retell what bothered her the most about the last 12 months since he went away.

"She used to rely on me for protection, but she couldn't trust me anymore," he said. "She wanted a big brother to help take care of her again."