Better lives,through better choices.

Public Policy

What key research findings are important for guiding public policies and agency practices?

  • Greater than one-third of sexual offenses against children are committed by other youth. Approximately one quarter of the child victims are related to the youth with illegal sexual behavior, and few victims are strangers to the youth (Finkelhor, Ormrod, & Chaffin, 2009). Preventing sexual abuse in the first place will significantly reduce the number of child victims.
  • Decades of research indicate that sexual recidivism of youth is generally very low overall, typically ranging from 2-15%.  In fact a recent large meta-analytic study of adjudicated juveniles not in adult court found less than 3% recidivated with a sexual offense. (Caldwell, 2016).
  • Due to the generally low recidivism rate, efforts at risk prediction leads to more false positives (labeling a youth as high risk, when they are not) than accurate predictions. Thus, ethical policies and practices should attend to reducing inadvertent harm caused.
  • Youth are quite distinct from adult sexual offenders in terms of etiology, context, impact, responsivity, and outcomes of the behavior. Adult sex offending policies and practices are not developmentally appropriate for youth with problematic or illegal sexual behavior.
  • Further, youth with problematic sexual behaviors are quite heterogeneous in terms of age (3-18 years of age), causes, risks and protective factors, severity and frequency of sexual behaviors, impact on the victims, family context, and responsivity to interventions [see examples here and here].
  • Effective treatment for youth with problematic and illegal sexual behavior exist (See Intervention (Coming Soon).  Unfortunately, a limited number of youth have access to receive evidence-based treatment at the level of care needed (Dopp, Borduin, & Brown, 2015).  Further, victims’ access to referral and to evidence-based care is limited, as is coordinated evidence-based care for the family in intrafamilal cases implemented.
  • Youth develop and mature and most frequently stop engaging in all types of offending.  Research by Caldwell and colleagues have found reduced risk of violent recidivism even with youth who have psychopathic features (Caldwell, 2011; Caldwell, 2013; Caldwell, McCormick, & Umstead, 2007; Caldwell, McCormick, Wolfe, 2012; Caldwell, Skeem, Salekin, & Van Rybroek, 2006; Caldwell, & Van Rybroek, 2005; Caldwell, Vitacco, & Van Rybroek, 2006) holistic interventions that include the youth, family, and involved social system have the most evidence of effectiveness.
  • Juvenile registration and notification policies have not been found to improve public safety.  Research has indicated that registration of juveniles does not improve recidivism, and instead has deleterious impacts on case processing (e.g., increased plea bargaining) and on child well-being (e.g., suicidal thoughts and behavior, harassment, mental health, and school problems) (e.g., Caldwell & Dickinson, 2009; Letourneau & Armstrong, 2008; Letourneau, Bandyopadhyay, Sinha, & Armstrong, 2009; Letourneau, Harris, Shields, Walfield, & Kahn, 2016).
  • Interventions that employ the Risk-Need-Responsivity Model of Assessment and Crime Prevention Through Human Services are associated with reductions in juvenile and adult recidivism, including sexual recidivism. See Intervention (Coming Soon)and Glossary


Increased containment or incapacitation methods, when applied to juvenile offenders, are extremely unlikely to significantly reduce the already very low recidivism rate..."   

Caldwell, 2016, Page 8


 What are common barriers to effective public policy and procedures in response to problematic and illegal sexual behavior of youth?

  • Multiple agencies are commonly involved in cases of problematic sexual behavior of youth. Professionals include but are not limited to:
      • Law enforcement officers
      • Child protective services and child welfare workers
      • Juvenile justice personnel
      • Child advocacy center staff
      • Prosecutors, Defense Attorneys, Guardian ad Litems
      • Judges
      • School personnel
      • Faith based community
      • Medical and mental health professionals
    • Policies and procedures for cases of youth problematic sexual behavior usually do not provide a clear pathway for agencies for interagency identification, coordination and response. 
    • Law enforcement, juvenile justice and child welfare typically struggle to determine the best practices for response – that is, how  the youth are identified in the community, assessed (e.g., safety, risks, and service needs), safety plans developed, addressed in courts when relevant, referred for services, and provided evidence-based  intervention.
    • States and the federal government have developed and enacted extensive public policies designed to reduce sex offending by managing identified sex offenders with strategies thought to increase community safety.  These policies have increasingly been applied to adolescents and even children. Research indicates these does not improve recidivism, and instead has deleterious impacts on the case and youth (See Public Policy).
    • Without clear alternative pathways for identifying youth with problematic sexual behavior and responding, law enforcement, prosecutors, and juvenile justice often are often unsure how to manage serious problematic sexual behavior of children. Children as young as six may face juvenile sex offense charges.  Alternatively, in some communities, no response is provided when children with problematic sexual behavior are identified, leading to no treatment or safety plan being provided in cases when it is needed. Some communities have interagency teams who develop protocol to address triage, and include pathways to direct services with no legal involvement.
    • Child protective services and child welfare workers are often uncertain if acts of problematic sexual behavior of a youth falls under their required response for investigation or assessment due to their mandate to focus on adults who perpetrate child abuse or neglect, and what intervention options are available.  State’s differ on child welfare policies and practices related to problematic sexual behavior of youth.
    • Without developmentally appropriate interagency policies and practices, professional responses are more vulnerable to subjective influences, such as misperceptions and misunderstandings regarding normative sexual behavior in children and myths regarding the population as homogenous and perceptions of sexual deviance and intransience, as well as the taboo nature of the topic.


A descriptive comment by a study participant.

The system that any child [with problematic sexual behavior] ends up in, happens in an arbitrary and inconsistent way."   

Mason & Hackett, 2004, Page 167


  • Lack of available trained providers in evidence-based treatments and alternative community-based housing options when a youth cannot yet live with siblings at home are a common barrier across the country.  These challenges can lead to either
    • the youth being left in the community without safety plans or treatment or
    • the youth being placed in costly, unnecessary restrictive settings (e.g., inpatient psychiatric units, residential treatment, group homes) that may have deleterious effects, such as exposing the youth to negative peer influences and removing the youth from positive community supports. 
  • Funds available to cover evidence-based intervention implementation itself is limited. Youth may not have a diagnosable condition for third-party payers (problematic sexual behavior is not a mental health disorder). Juvenile justice funding is limited and often require formal charges and adjudication of the youth.
  • Blended funding (e.g., foundation grants, VOCA funding, Medicaid, billing, juvenile justice and child welfare contracts) appears necessary for treatment programs, as well as the case management, outreach education, and collaboration with outside agencies needed to establish and sustain evidence based programs in the community. However, blended funding efforts are difficult and too often is unavailable.  


...the lengthy, restrictive, and expensive treatments dictated deplete funding and workforce resources dramatically. These are funds and workforce resources that could be used to develop a fuller range of services better matched to the actual needs of the service population. For example. the annual cost to place one child in specialized institutional care can easily be more than the annual cost to fund an entire outpatient program for 50 children."   

Chaffin, 2008, Page 119


What are the implications of applying adult sex offending laws and policies to youth with problematic sexual behavior?

Policies can have significant life altering consequences youth and their families.

  • Youth may be the subject of community or school notification activities and required to comply with residency restrictions prohibiting them and their family from living nears schools, parks, or other places where children, including prosocial agemates, may congregate.  Sometimes youth are expelled from schools or not allowed to participate in activities that promote healthy development, such as school clubs, sports, and dances. Lack of prosocial experiences can exacerbate mental health symptoms.
  • Like adult sex offenders, if the youth does not comply with mandated public registration requirements and maintenance of current information on the registries, prosecution for a felony may occur and result in severe consequences, including lengthy incarceration well into adulthood. 
  • When youth cross state lines, the registry and notification requirements of the state they have entered are applied. Youth may be placed on a public sex offender registry when this has not been required in the individual’s home state or inadvertently fail to comply with the state’s requirements resulting in greater penalties.  (See here for state’s registry requirements and timelines)


Crime is more likely to occur when the bonds with mainstream society are weakened--that is, when individuals lost or fail to develop social anchors such as school involvement, stable employment, stable residency,...(and) becoming part of prosocial friendship networks..."   

Chaffin, 2008, Page 113


What are some similarities and differences of formal adjudication vs. informal processes?

  • Formal adjudication within the juvenile court for sexual offenses may create concurrent and lasting consequences such as required sex offender registration.
  • Informal processes may avoid severe consequences, such as sex offender registration while referring adolescents to appropriate treatment or supervision as an alternative to adjudication. 
  • If communities have active diversion and supervision programs, juvenile justice professionals (e.g., probation officers, district attorneys, judges) can choose between formal and informal tracks.  If such programs are lacking, diversion may happen earlier, such as by a police officer.
  • Formalized juvenile justice diversion programs may be most able to emphasize the seriousness of the illegal sexual behavior, provide external motivation for appropriate interventions, and facilitate pro-social development and behavior as well as community safety.