For Juvenile Sex Offenders, Intensive Program Offers Chance to Change
For two months, David Carr, a 16-year-old resident of the Counterpoint center for juvenile sex offenders, worked on a "clarification" letter to his sister.
"It's a really hard process," said David, whose sister was one of seven victims, ages 7 to 16, he sexually offended. "I've written two drafts, and get a lot of feedback from my peers."
Clarification is a term therapists use to describe the point at which the offender tells the victim, directly or indirectly, that the offender was responsible for what happened and clarifies that it was not the victim's fault. It is one of many stages most Counterpoint residents go through before graduating from the intensive residential program, which is administered by the Morrison Center for Children and Family Services in Portland, OR and serves 20 boys between the ages of 12 and 18.
An Intense Program for Troubled Boys
Counterpoint residents complete daily therapy sessions and attend a year-round, on-site academic program. The boys, who stay an average of 18 months, are either referred by the juvenile justice system or come to the program on the recommendation of family, school or social service agency.
Boys who are deemed prone to violent behavior, and those who don't demonstrate a motivation to change, are screened out of the program.
Data collected for a 2003 Counterpoint program assessment show that 62 percent of all the boys were sexually abused themselves, 42 percent were physically abused, 79 percent experienced some form of abuse or neglect, and 40 percent were victims of multiple forms of abuse.
"These kids have such horrendous histories themselves, yet they are so resilient, it makes me step back," said Jodie Teitelbaum, Counterpoint program manager. "The amount of work they have to do here most people won't do in a lifetime."
Unlike kids in juvenile detention centers, Counterpoint boys are not locked up, although they are under 24-hour sight and sound supervision, with audio monitors in their rooms. Located in a rural area outside Portland, Counterpoint is housed in a single complex where counselors, teachers and residential staff all work on-site. At lunch, staff and teachers sit at the same tables with the boys, where the conversation covers everything from sports to the importance of respecting racial differences. The kids go on field trips, including the occasional outing to a Trail Blazer basketball game. And six of the boys live off-site with foster parents, which gives them an opportunity to participate in family life
A Cognitive Therapy Model
Like many contemporary juvenile offender treatment programs, Counterpoint is based on a cognitive behavioral and relapse prevention therapy model. The key is for offenders to take responsibility for their abusive actions and reject the "thinking errors" they used to justify their abuse of another child.
David, who will graduate from Counterpoint soon, said the program forced him to confront his problems. "I used to sexualize a lot of things," said David, who is an avid basketball player and has earned admiration from his Counterpoint peers for his drawing ability. "I don't do that now." He passed a series of polygraphs as part of his evaluation and graduation requirements and will join his brother in a foster home when he is released. "I am a safe person," he said. The sister he victimized lives in another state with their mother.
Because juveniles are still learning and developing, it is easier for therapists to help them modify their thinking patterns. One therapeutic technique involves identifying triggers for disruptive behavior and making the link between emotion and behavior.
Steve, an 18-year-old recent Counterpoint graduate who next lived in a Portland independent living group home, gives an example. "What helped me was learning to express my feelings and learning to recognize the warning signs. Like isolation is one of my warning signs, or looking at certain materials." What does Steve do after he recognizes one of his warning signs? "I check my thinking to see where I'm at," he says. Steve also said calling Counterpoint staff or talking to other people in his group home helps him combat isolation.
Adolescents: Better Prospects for Change
Because of the nature and gravity of sex offenses, the public is often skeptical that sex offenders can be successfully treated. Public attitudes are also influenced by high-profile media coverage of extreme cases, such as a California man thought to have molested thousands of boys. Experts who provide treatment for offenders agree that the first priority is community safety.
But they also point to the potential for successful treatment, especially in the juvenile population. "Adolescence is a time when you're figuring out who you're going to be," said Teitelbaum. "These boys exhibited offending behavior, but that's not necessarily who they are going to be."
National statistics support Teitelbaum's claim. Although 25 to 50 percent of adult sex offenders re-offend after treatment, only 10 percent of all juvenile sex offenders who receive treatment do so. "Adults seem to specialize," said Cindy Smith, now retired a program director at the University of Baltimore Criminal Justice Graduate Program and author of several national studies on juvenile sex offenders. "They find what they like and repeat it. Juveniles have not yet found their niche. They are testing."
Life After Counterpoint
After leaving the program, Steve worked as a highway litter crew member for the Oregon Department of Transportation. He is now looking for another job. "I am not a sex offender," says Steve, who was convicted of 1st degree sodomy in connection with a 7- and 4-year old. "I am currently recovering from sex offender disorder."
Although sex offender disorder is not a clinical term, Counterpoint staff said there are several reasons the boys don't refer to themselves as sex offenders. Perhaps most important is that the term implies the boys can't change. For his part, Steve says he wants to offer some advice to current residents. "If I was to say something to the other guys, I'd say put your heart into it because you will learn things about yourself."
Art, Biology...and Therapy
During the first week of the Counterpoint summer school program, about 10 boys in a human development and biology class look up textbook information on health and fitness for a research paper. In an art class, students work on the color wheel. And in a drug and alcohol class, they design a poster about the myths and realities of marijuana.
"All adolescents go through crazy times," says Saskia Berberich, a Counterpoint art teacher who previously taught in a public high school. The behavioral problems in the two settings aren't so different, she said. "You see boys acting out as a result of neglectful and abusive behavior."
After a year of 24/7 therapy, many of the boys are startlingly upfront about their offenses and the impact on the kids they abused. Therapy terminology like "victim stance," "cycle work" and "accountability" comes easily to them.
Michael Lopez, a 16-year-old who offended six people, all family members, says he thinks Counterpoint's accountability groups are "the most serious." "That's where we have to take ownership for the people we've hurt," said Michael, who cites history and creative writing as two of his favorite subjects. He ticks off other Counterpoint therapy groups he attends on a daily or weekly basis: anger management, healthy relationships, thinking errors, and personal history.
"The boys have to be willing to own something by the time they leave here," said Teitelbaum. There is also a certain scared straight aspect to Counterpoint. Boys who re-offend know they will likely end up in jail, with limited future prospects. "We're always having them think about what will make them safe," Teitelbaum said.
Community, Family Safety
Are these kids safe to let back in the community? Follow up research at Counterpoint shows a recidivism rate of only 4 percent after one year. Further research is necessary to evaluate the kids at 3- and 5-year intervals.
Of course, not all the kids do graduate, and Counterpoint staff said that is part of their job: to determine which boys will be safe in the community.
In a presentation to a Portland community college family violence class in the winter of 2004, Counterpoint executive director Dixie Stevens noted that there were an estimated 1500 juvenile sex offenders in Oregon at the time. "They are not all in jail," she said. "And very few of them are in treatment. The most important thing we can do is get more of them into treatment when they are young and can be helped. Because they will be out there in the community."
About 1000 treatment programs such as Counterpoint exist around the country, and can serve only a fraction of those eligible. According to a 2009 study, juveniles account for more one third of those known to police for committing sex crimes against minors. But funding for research and treatment programs is scarce, and many juvenile offenders wind up in correctional facilities without specialized therapeutic programs.
David, who spent two years at an Oregon youth correctional facility before coming to Counterpoint, has experienced both and is clear on the difference. "When I was at Hillcrest, I was not handling my anger. When I do get angry I hit people. The kids (at Hillcrest) thought it was cool." Since coming to Counterpoint, said David, he hasn't hit anyone (hitting can lead to expulsion.) "I had more to lose here," he said. "It's hard to get a chance to get into these programs."
- Morrison Center Child and Family Services
- Center for Sex Offender Management
- Safer Society Foundation
*This article was originally published on SparkAction (then Connect for Kids) on August 8, 2005. It was reviewed and updated in 2012.*
Linda Baker is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.