Program counsels teen sex offenders

April 27, 1992|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Staff Writer

In a family with more than its share of problems, Tom Smith and his younger sister, Sue, were each other's closest allies.

Buffeted by the physical and psychological abuse of an alcoholic father and, later, the divorce of their parents, Tom and Sue forged an emotional bond that helped them through the stormiest times.

But the bond was broken three years ago when Tom, then 13, tried to rape his 11-year-old sister on two separate occasions.

Tom lost his best ally. "We were very, very close," he says of Sue, "but then she became very, very angry at me."

That would have been the death of the relationship, Tom says, if his family hadn't entered the Juvenile Sex Offenders Treatment Program run by the Baltimore County Department of Social Services.

The program was established in 1985 to provide intensive psychotherapy to adolescents who exhibit inappropriate sexual behavior. It treats 10 to 12 offenders each year; nearly all of the offenders are boys 12 to 18 years old, says program coordinator Nancy Hayes-Gary, a clinical psychologist.

"We find that most adults who commit sexual abuse started doing it as teens, so there's good reason for a program like this," says Dr. Hayes-Gary.

About half of the offenders have committed incest against a sibling, she says; half have been psychologically or physically abused by elders.

Tom claims that, when he was 5, he was sexually abused by a female baby-sitter.

The names of members of the "Smith" family are not being used, at their request. The father declined to take part in the treatment sessions or to talk to a reporter. Only Tom and his mother consented to be interviewed for this story.

Tom and his mother, Lucy, however, say that the program helped them confront the long-suppressed anger and pain that, they believe, led up to the incidents of incest.

"I'd hate to imagine where we'd be without this program," Lucy Smith says.

The state Juvenile Services Administration reports 605 cases of juvenile sex offenses were reported in Maryland last year. Baltimore County had 70 reported cases, or 11.6 percent of the state total.

State statistics also indicate that the number of arrests for juvenile sex offenses in Maryland rose by 36 percent from 1980 through 1991. Experts attribute the rise partly to an increase in the awareness and reporting of such offenses.

A state law against sexual abuse was expanded in 1988 to include "any household or family member," in addition to any temporary or permanent caretaker of a minor. Before the change in the law, cases of sibling incest were "handled as a family problem by the family, if they were handled at all," says Kristina E. Debye, coordinator of the social service department's Sexual Abuse Treatment Program, which oversees the juvenile offenders program.

After Sue informed her mother of the two incidents of sexual molestation, Tom agreed to appear in the county's Juvenile Court and plead guilty to sexual abuse. The court ordered him to enter the offenders program. But while he waited to be placed in the program, he was forced by the court to move into a foster home to be separated from his sister.

Finally, about a year after he committed the two offenses, Tom began his treatment at the Department of Social Services in Towson. He underwent individual psychotherapy and "family therapy" with his sister and his mother.

On average, the treatment lasts 16 months. By the time Tom is finished, he will have been in the program slightly less than two years, says Dr. Hayes-Gary.

"While all the therapy was starting out, I wasn't sure how to feel," Tom recalls. "I was still angry at my father, I think. But I learned not to take my anger out on windows and walls and other people. Now I talk to my mom or to my counselor here. It helps."

Lucy Smith says the therapy sessions allowed her to "let out all the anger" she felt toward her son for molesting her daughter.

"When it first happened, I was devastated," the mother says. "Then I started making excuses for Tom. I thought, well, he's going through puberty, or he's just being a curious kid. But when we started the treatment, I got mad at him. Really mad."

In addition to the family therapy psychotherapy session, offenders must attend a weekly group therapy session with other offenders.

"My first time in the group therapy, I tried to be all macho and show I wasn't like everyone else there," says Tom. "But there were other guys who'd been in the group longer, and they'd challenge me on my B.S. because they'd used it themselves when they were starting in the program."

Before treatment is concluded, the offender must meet in regular "responsibility sessions" with the person he abused. Tom and Sue began those sessions recently, their first face-to-face meetings since the incest incidents took place.

"I've told her it was my fault, that she shouldn't feel bad about what happened," Tom says. "This has been the hardest part of the program so far, having these meetings with my sister."

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