Out of 10,729 people found guilty or cautioned for sexual offences in 1994, one-third were under 20. The fact that a significant number of these teenage perpetrators have been sexually abused themselves is slowly coming to light.
A multi-agency approach, which aims to offer help to young people who sexually abuse is being pilot-tested in north Wales. The Wrexham Young Offenders Review Group wants to stop police giving cautions to offenders without the back-up of an assessment or an offer of treatment. The group has representation from social services, police, probation and education.
One problem with young people who sexually abuse is that they can start off with an isolated, but serious assault. But, if left unchallenged and untreated, their behaviour can escalate into a regular cycle of abuse.
Two months into a six-month trial period, the Wrexham project’s intention is to pave the way for similar groups to be established throughout north Wales. Begun amid growing concern about the increasing number of young people who sexually abuse, and after detailed talks with the north Wales police force, its aim is to improve the management of teenage sex offenders who would otherwise end up in secure accommodation or custody without treatment.
The three main principles of the Wrexham group are:
No young person who admits to committing a sexual offence will be given an immediate caution without a referral to the group;
Decisions on prosecution will be deferred for a maximum of 28 days to allow an assessment of the young person, and;
The inter-agency police unit will make decisions about young people who sexually abuse.
Despite its small population, north Wales is 18th on the national list of 40 police areas with the highest incidence of sexual offences. “This places north Wales very much at the upper end of the table in terms of the severity of this problem," said John Jevons, Clwyd social services director.
We admitted that the actual number of teenage sex offenders is greater than that indicated by the collected figures because of under-reporting of sexual offences. “Young people who abuse sexually have been largely overlooked in terms of their need for specialist intervention. Professionals are realising the serious long-term effects of not intervening," he argued.
The inception of the Wrexham group comes 18 months after the setting up of STRATA, the Strategy Group for Research, Assessment and Treatment of Young People. With representation from Clwyd and Gwynedd social services departments, it drew up useful practice guidelines on young sex offenders.
The STRATA guidelines say that all young people who are alleged to have committed sexually abusive acts should also be the subject of a social services child protection case conference in their own right.
"We feel that an initial case conference should be called which initiates the assessment procedure and reconvenes following a four-week deferment. We recognise that differences exist in the local system but recommend that cases remain within the child protection domain irrespective of the specialism of the key workers," say the guidelines. Jevons said: “The present situation is variable, and there is no agreed policy either locally or nationally, though it is generally agreed that young people who abuse should be located within the child protection system."
Training and awareness
The guidelines recommend training improvements for staff, including a basic introductory course for social workers, residential staff and foster parents and awareness-raising sessions. These changes would improve the quality of assessments conducted by staff to identify the degree of risk involved in each case. For example, an assessment could recommend therapeutic intervention or prosecution when the protection of the public is of concern or where a mandate for treatment is required.
Linda Butler, principal child therapist and STRATA group member, said: “One of the advantages of the Wrexham group is that when a young person is alleged to have committed a sexual offence, their case is discussed by the group, the social services manager of youth justice, the probation department and education." Decisions on the next step will, in some cases, be easy because of the seriousness of the allegations. The time-lapse between the young person being charged and going to court will give enough time for pre-sentence reports to be completed by social services or probation. But it is the grey areas in cases where evidence of abuse is more difficult to prove which present the real dilemmas.
"Previously, in these less clear-cut cases, some young people were being instantly cautioned when they should have been assessed and offered some help. It was an ad hoc system," said Butler.
If it is decided that a young person needs treatment, they are referred for therapy, which covers victim empathy work, action accountability, and risk reduction. “They could be referred to a therapist or more specialist help could be bought in. But it is too early for the group to talk about what treatment is best. At the moment, we are working on ways of making better provision for treatment," said Butler.
Jevons feels that such a self-contained treatment project with its own internal management structure could well serve all of north Wales, and talks are taking place with Barnardo's, the children's charity. Plans are also under way for a new treatment support project.
But there has to be a more widespread acceptance that young people do sexually offend, and that they and their victims need practical help.
Acknowledgements: Community Care, 1995