NEW YORK (AP) -- Recent high-profile cases of child sex abuse have roused national revulsion against the adults who perpetrated them. Rarely mentioned is the sobering statistic that more than one-third of the sexual abuse of America's children is committed by other minors.
For many of the therapists and attorneys who deal with them, these juvenile offenders pose a profoundly complicated challenge for the child-protection and criminal justice systems. It's a diverse group that defies stereotypes, encompassing a minority of youths who represent a threat of long-term danger to others and a majority who are responsive to treatment and unlikely to reoffend.
"There's a long continuum, from kids who will never do it again to a kid who probably will be an adult rapist/pedophile," said Steve Bengis, executive director of the New England Adolescent Research Institute in Holyoke, Mass. "It's not a `one size fits all' yet we end out with public policy that's geared toward the worst 5 percent."
That public policy includes a federal law, the Adam Walsh Act, with a requirement that states include certain juvenile offenders as young as 14 on their sex-offender registries. Many professionals who deal with young offenders object to the requirement, saying it can wreak lifelong harm on adolescents who might otherwise get back on the track toward law-abiding, productive lives.
Some states have balked at complying with the juvenile registration requirement, even at the price of losing some federal criminal-justice funding. Other states have provisions tougher than the federal act, subjecting children younger than 14 to the possibility of 25-year or lifetime listings on publicly accessible registries that include photos of the offenders.