Drastic Steps

At one program in San Diego, boys must sign a 15-page contract, giving over their liberty of thought and action. They must report on their fantasies and inform potential lovers of their sexual offenses.


When a child older than 12 is accused of molesting another child, a judge has two choices. She may decide either to protect the child by placing him in the dependency system, or treat him as an adolescent and send him into the juvenile delinquency system. There, if a “true finding” of abuse is made, he can be punished more severely.

A juvenile sexual offense is serious business: it can mean sentences of up to eight years per offense. In many states, each offense counts as a strike in three-strike laws and includes the requirement to register as a sex offender — a mark that can last a lifetime. A 12-year-old New Jersey boy who groped his 8-year-old brother in the bath, for example, is now being compelled to register.

Because the penalties are so great and incarceration is often so harsh, defense attorneys try desperately to keep kids out of delinquency court or, failing that, get them on probation and in treatment. But it’s hard to say whether such treatment is always better.

A typical program is David McWhirter’s Sexual Treatment Education Program and Services, or STEPS, where many of San Diego’s teenaged sex offenders on probation are treated. On enrolling in STEPS, the boys — and in STEPS they are all boys — sign a 15-page contract, giving over their liberty of thought and action for what can amount to two or more years. Their parents, too, guarantee they will enforce the contract.

“I understand that I am required to keep a daily written record in a journal…of my deviant sexual fantasies or other specific thoughts that are related to my sexually aggressive behavior,” reads the contract. “I will complete a written autobiography assignment during the first two months of my involvement at STEPS, that will include descriptions of: (a) My past sexual offenses, fantasies, and my state of mind during offenses; (b) Any sexual and/or physical abuse that has happened to me; (c) My history of sexual behavior other than outright offenses; (d) How I kept my problem a secret and avoided getting caught. This assignment will be completed with a minimum of six pages.”

But it’s usually a lot longer, says STEPS Assistant Director Diane Barnett. “I’ve not seen a child come in and keep the same number of offenses. One boy came in with one offense and ended up with 100.” One incident of fondling, broken down into all its acts, could account for five “offenses.” The growing list “helps them break the denial of the seriousness of their offenses,” says Barnett.

Using a cognitive-behavioral approach imported from adult sex-offender programs, the program progresses to the boys composing a “cycle” of their every thought, feeling, and sensation leading up to, during, and after a sexual “offense.”

The kids then develop “backup plans” — thought processes free of “thinking errors” — that they can use to prevent “reoffending.” When a boy starts dreaming about sex with a younger kid, for instance, he might substitute a picture of himself behind bars. The boys are required to report on their masturbation, confessing whatever fantasies are left in their strip-searched imaginations.

Even outside the building, STEPS is watching. The boys may have no contact with their “victims” without program permission, or ever be alone with anybody considered “victim age.” They must submit to random drug tests and inform potential lovers that they are a sex offender.

“Once they’ve developed enough empathy,” Barnett says, “we start looking at atonement.” That’s a 20-step process, step 7 of which is Apologizing on the Knees to the victim, the victim’s family, and the boy’s own family. At these sessions, says Barnett, “sometimes the family will be saying, ‘I will send you to court!’ The mother is shouting, ‘I’ll kill you!’ It’s very emotional.”

“As soon as that kid’s knees hit the floor, most often, he will be sobbing. To the parents, it will look like I am being mean,” she says. “But I will tell them, ‘When this is all over, you will have your own boy back.'”

Back to A Question of Abuse.