When the molester is a sibling
By COLLEEN JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
Published September 17, 2007

 TAMPA – A real-life nightmare stole the mother’s sleep.

 Her 14-year-old son had sexually violated his younger sister, then 5 or 6. The mother knew she had to take action, but what? Turn in her son to help her daughter or risk endangering her daughter to protect her son?

 She turned him in, but what happened next surprised her. He spent just three weeks in juvenile detention, then was returned home to a family unequipped to deal with him.

 "I couldn’t sit across the table from him" at meals, the mother said. "I hated to hear him talk."

 In July, a North Tampa mother made headlines when she balked at allowing her 13-year-old son to remain in the same home as the two half brothers he had sexually assaulted. She said authorities threatened to charge her with child abandonment.

 A local therapist says it was the third case he knew of in a year where parents refused to take a child back into their home after he victimized a sibling. But more often, because of a lack of funding and alternative housing options, the offender and victim remain under the same roof with limited or no assistance to be had.

 Families deserve better, providers say.

 "There is no pamphlet you can throw at a family and say, ‘Good luck with this,’" said Lora Karas, a member of Hillsborough County’s Sexual Abuse Intervention Network.

 Last year, Hillsborough referred 150 felony juvenile sex cases to the Department of Juvenile Justice; Pinellas reported 103. Of those cases, 45 in Hillsborough and 29 in Pinellas ultimately were not prosecuted. The department doesn’t keep statistics for sibling-on-sibling cases.

 No one-size-fits-all template defines youth who act out sexually. But there are common threads, experts say. Most have no previous criminal history. About half have been sexually abused themselves. Their likelihood of re-offending is low.

 They tend to be socially disconnected from their peers but are nice kids who don’t give their parents reason to suspect any wrongdoing, said several therapists interviewed for this story.

 "We have a certain amount of guilt that it happened under our nose and we didn’t see it," said the father of a 13-year-old boy who molested his 5-year-old brother and the brother’s 6-year-old friend on at least two occasions. The teen’s parents were home when it happened.

 Parents speak out

 Three sets of Hillsborough parents forced to juggle children who had abused and been abused spoke recently with the St. Petersburg Times. Their names are being withheld to protect the victims’ identities.

 The 13-year-old was questioned by law enforcement but wasn’t arrested. Months later, he entered a diversion program that allowed him to avoid time in detention.

 Both Hillsborough and Pinellas offer diversion programs to youths who prosecutors believe are unlikely to re-offend. The programs emphasize treatment, a particularly appealing course when the abuse occurred within a family and future interaction between the aggressor and victim is likely.

 Family Service Centers, which provides treatment for juvenile sex offenders and victims in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, recommends keeping siblings in separate households during their counseling. The organization provides reunification sessions before the siblings end up back in the same house.

 But an alternative placement, often with a relative, is found for only about half the centers’ cases, said Rhonda Sheared, vice president of programs and development.

 "It is a dilemma for families when they don’t have another place where a child can go," she said. "That’s probably the hardest thing."

 Permanent separation isn’t usually recommended. Offending siblings, already suffering from poor social skills, need to build healthy relationships with their families and not be treated like criminals.

 The young victims might view a prolonged separation as punishment. The mother of the molested daughter in Hillsborough recalls her little girl crying while her brother was in detention and wondering if he would be angry with her.

 Parents bear the delicate task of balancing the needs of the offending child and the victim.

 Their support for both children matters more for recovery than does the severity of the abuse, said Rachael Haskell, who counsels parents at the APPLE Abuse Prevention Psychotherapy and Life Education Trauma Response Center in Tampa.

 "They want to show that they value (the victim’s) feelings and guard the safety of the child that’s been affected," Haskell said. "But they also don’t want the other child to have overwhelming shame and guilt because that hinders recovery."

 Shelter would help

 Providers in Hillsborough County think parents, offenders and victims would benefit from a more definitive initial response.

 They are pushing for a temporary shelter where the offending sibling could go immediately after the abuse comes to light. It would give families a chance to implement a safety plan and learn from professionals the healthiest way to navigate an unspeakable situation. In Hillsborough, SAIN provides free door alarms.

 A swift break would suggest to the offending youth the seriousness of his behavior, said Chip Royall, who counsels juvenile sex offenders in Hillsborough through APPLE and private practice.

 "It sends a really strong message to the kid: ‘Wow, what I did to my sister was bad,’" said Royall, who is on the board of Florida’s Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. "The kids who never get picked up or never go to detention, they don’t think it was a big deal."

 Professionals could assess the offender at the shelter and parse out whether the behavior was youthful sexual experimentation or something more sinister.

 A governor’s task force on juvenile sex offenders issued a report last year that strongly recommended comprehensive psychological evaluations at the start of a case. That way, court officials can decide the level of sanctions and treatment needed, from incarceration to outpatient programs or one of the state’s 465 residential beds for juvenile sex offenders.

 Pinellas County already has a successful evaluation unit. Hillsborough doesn’t.

 The parents who spoke with the Times still participate in counseling two years after learning about the abuse. So do their sons who committed the sex offenses. Neither teen has re-offended.

 The mother of the 14-year-old offender put an alarm on his bedroom door. It annoyed the whole family.

 "One more thing to remind us all of what happened, every five minutes," she said.

 The parents of the three offenders say they now tend to be overly protective. They don’t let the younger boy play in his brother’s room anymore. Neither child has sleepovers. The older boy’s Internet access is limited and monitored.

 They made peace with what happened, the father said. But it is fragile.

 "The family," he said, "is sort of changed forever."

 Colleen Jenkins can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or [email protected].