Teenage sex offenders a growing challenge for social workers
In world of online porn, more than 25% of sex offenders found by Garda are teenagers
Joan Cherry, of the Northside Interagency Partnership: “Their whole lives are on the internet or the Xbox. They spend 10 hours a day online never going outside, never meeting up with friends.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
What’s the best way to deal with sex offenders? Most people would probably answer they should be locked up, ideally for a long time.
But what if the offender in question is a 17-year-old? Or as young as 12?
This is where Joan Cherry comes in. She is one of a small number of social workers who have worked with young sexual offenders – or as she prefers to refer to them, “young people in conflict with the law”.
Sexual offending by young people is a serious problem in Ireland and one which, according to Cherry, is getting worse. More than a quarter of all sexual offenders detected by the Garda are teenagers, some as young as 13. In 2015, one in five people arrested for rape was under 18.
The public rarely hears about these cases as most are dealt with outside a courtroom, usually through the Garda Youth Diversion Programme or through organisations such as the Northside Interagency Programme (NIAP), which Cherry led for 17 years, until her retirement last December.
The teenagers using NIAP’s therapy programme are getting younger every year, according to Cherry.
“We’re taking on kids who are still in primary school now. We’ve recently taken on a couple of 12-year-olds because of concerns about their behaviour where there’s a lot of inappropriate sexualised language, following other kids into the toilet, trying to touch them.
“We had to take them on now because if we waited a year they would just get worse,” Cherry says.
NIAP takes what Cherry calls a “holistic approach” with its clients. There is individual therapy and family therapy. But the main form of treatment is group therapy. NIAP runs two groups, one for younger teenagers and one for older ones.
This group therapy is vital, not just because it is the most efficient use of extremely limited resources but also because it allows a child to see he is not some sort of freak; there are other children with the same issues.
“That is so important because the level of stigma that the young people and their parents feel is huge,” Cherry says.
Much of NIAP’s work is helping parents too, Cherry explains. In many cases the victim and abuser are brother and sister, meaning the parents face a nearly impossible choice of how to deal with it.
“Parents really walk a tightrope between protecting their daughter and wanting to help their son. They want to be there for both children and this can give rise to a lot of tensions within families.”
She recalls the work she did with one family.
“There was a big row because the daughter thought her mother had given the son a bigger dinner. But of course it wasn’t about the dinner.”
Most of NIAP’s cases are referred to them by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, meaning the authorities are already aware of the alleged abuse. Some come through other channels and in those cases NIAP must alert Tusla to any potentially dangerous behaviour.
The system is called “limited confidentiality”. The boys (and all the children Cherry has dealt with have been male) are told before they start that most of what they say will be kept between them and their therapist. But if they disclose a previous instance of abuse or if the therapist becomes concerned they may do it again, an official report is made.
Cherry has been working in the area long enough to start to recognise a pattern in teenagers who commit abuse.
Very few are paedophiles in the sense they have a sexual attraction to children, she says. “Most abuse is done to meet a need. That need could be anger, jealousy, revenge, etc.
“We get a lot of children from blended families where, for example, the father has remarried and there are new children in the family. Quite often there the abuse happens because of jealousy, feeling left out or believing that Dad cares more about his new children.”
By far the most worrying new trend is the oversized role the internet plays in the lives of many abusive children, she says.
“Their whole lives are on the internet or the Xbox. They spend 10 hours a day online never going outside, never meeting up with friends. They say they have loads of friends online, but they have no social skills. That’s a huge risk factor.
“A lot of the time our therapeutic work with them is to get them to move from that world into this world. To take [a] shower, have regular meals, go to school.”
Added to this is the ready availability of extreme pornography that children as young as 11 are accessing. This material, which is often sexually violent in nature, gives boys a grossly unrepresentative image of what a consensual sexual relationship looks like, Cherry says.
“A 17-year-old boy meets a girl on Facebook and meets up with her,” Cherry says by way of example. “Thanks to what he’s seen on the internet he thinks they’re going to have sex straight away and her two friends are going to be there and there’ll be handcuffs. That’s not real life.”
NIAP takes in between 12 and 17 new clients a year and demand is increasing all the time. It currently has one teenager who has been on its waiting list for 10 months.
Waiting so long for intervention can be disastrous, according to Cherry. “Getting in early is so important when they’re that age. If you get in early enough you can effectively stop them in their tracks.”
NIAP does not like drawing too much attention to itself, hence its anodyne name. One of the reasons for this is the reaction of people when they find out what it does. Many people feel resources in this area should go exclusively to victims rather than the abusers.
Cherry has a prepared answer for critics. What she does stops the creation of more victims.
“My motivation is the protection of victims. If we don’t address the issues that these young men present, my concern is their offending behaviour will get worse. We need to target them, we need to make them accountable, we need to get them to take full responsibility. And in that way I think we’re helping victims.”
In fact, it was this motivation that prompted the establishment of NIAP, Cherry says. She was a social worker in the Mater hospital in the late 1980s when three cousins, 10 and 11 years old, were referred to her. They had been sexually abused by their 17-year-old uncle.
“They kept asking me, ‘what is happening to him?’ I couldn’t answer that question.”
One day the father of one of the girls came in to see Cherry. He was extremely angry and had a copy of the local newspaper in his hand. “What do you know about this?” he demanded, pointing to a court report in the paper.
The young man had been sentenced for the abuse. When the judge asked the garda how the girls were doing, he replied “they are doing fine”. The abuser got a suspended sentence.
“The father was furious that someone would stand up and say the girls are okay when they clearly weren’t,” Cherry says.
“And I felt his fury. That was my motivation. Because we felt these young men needed to be held accountable. Because otherwise all the burden of dealing with what happened falls on the shoulders of the victims.”