Child abusers: treat them young and stop the cycle

Unmaking paedophiles

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Early next year, Sidney Cooke, leader of the paedophile gang that raped and murdered 14-year-old Jason Swift, will be released from prison. There will be a public outcry at the prospect of such a dangerous man at liberty in the community. Like Robert Oliver, his co-defendant, who was freed in September, he will probably be hounded from city to city by angry parents.

In the meantime, at a conference in London today, psychiatrists, probation officers and social workers will air the latest research about children who sexually abuse other children. It is an uncomfortable issue, difficult to confront. This is not about playing doctors and nurses. It is about 10-year-old rapists and eight-year-old boys who forcibly penetrate their siblings with objects.

The conference, to be attended by Allan Levy, QC, the eminent childcare lawyer, will receive little publicity, in contrast to the hysterical media coverage of men like Oliver and Cooke. Yet the two subjects are intimately related. For paedophiles do not spring out of the woodwork at the age of 40. Up to half of adult offenders carry out their first assaults in adolescence or earlier.

Society's dilemma about adult abusers stems from the knowledge that they cannot be reformed, only contained. Experience shows that they offend time and again. Young abusers, on the other hand, offer some hope. Professionals believe that the right kind of intervention, made at an early enough stage, can prevent them from becoming locked into a pattern of compulsive behaviour.

Over the last decade, a number of intensive treatment programmes have been set up that aim to break this destructive cycle. In group and individual psychotherapy, young people are impelled to face up to the consequences of their actions and to examine their own often profoundly troubled backgrounds.

It is early days, but the people working in this field are tentatively optimistic. Of the youngsters who have completed a project in Salford, Greater Manchester, for instance, only 4 per cent have reoffended since 1992. Such statistics are unreliable, since the vast majority of child abuse goes undetected. But project workers say the clinical evidence is compelling. In most cases, they say, children who undergo therapy emerge less sexually aggressive, better able to empathise with their victims and more conscious of potentially hazardous situations: in short, less of a risk to other children.

The programmes are run by the probation service, hospitals and voluntary agencies such as the NSPCC. But there are only a handful of them, serving small parts of the country. Even where a local treatment facility exists, social service departments - the main source of referrals - are often reluctant to provide the funds for a placement. This is highly specialised, highly expensive work. Given competing demands on limited budgets - including care for victims of abuse - it is not given high priority.

The barriers are conceptual, as well as financial. When the extent of adult paedophilia began to be uncovered in the 1980s, society reacted with disbelief. As, in the 1990s, the next layer has been peeled away, revealing that children themselves can be abusive, this idea has met even greater resistance. There is still a tendency for childcare experts to put such behaviour down to adolescent experimentation, and a reluctance by police to prosecute for fear of labelling young people as sex offenders.

The small group of dedicated clinicians working in this area believes that thousands of deeply disturbed young people are slipping through the net, moving inexorably on to ever more serious offences. One-third of people convicted for sex crimes are under 21. Yet Eileen Vizard, a consultant child psychiatrist who sees children as young as six at the Young Abusers Project in London says that funding is withheld even in some desperate cases. By the mid-teens, she says, it is often too late to intervene.

In 1992, the charity NCH Action for Children set up a committee of inquiry into young abusers and issued a report regarded as the definitive statement on the subject. Among the recommendations of the report, commissioned jointly with the Department of Health, was the creation of a national network of specialist services.

Five years on, services are still patchy and swamped by demand. The Government has yet to indicate its line on the issue, although Jack Straw's punitive approach to juvenile crime generally does not bode well for this group of offenders. Simply locking them up is not the answer, and only a couple of young offender institutions offer intensive treatment programmes.

What is required is a joint policy and strategy initiative from central government that spans all the relevant departments - health, education, social security, criminal justice - and facilitates the establishment of a wide spectrum of projects: in the community, in residential units and in youth custody centres. It should also be made clear to social and health service managers that the problem should be placed very high on their agenda.

Realising these ambitions will not come cheap. But withholding the resources will prove far more costly, in terms of accommodating offenders in prison and repairing the damage to future victims. It is not good enough to throw our hands up in horror when another small child is raped and strangled. While we fail to meet this challenge, we are creating the next generation of paedophiles.

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