HARRINGTON, Maine — The 11-year-old boy in this Washington County town accused of gross sexual assault is perhaps the youngest person in Maine history to be charged with this serious crime, according to Maine law enforcement officials.
The accused boy and his alleged victim, an 8-year-old boy, were both students at Harrington Elementary School, where outraged parents staged a protest earlier this week after learning the accused was allowed to remain in school.
The criminal charge and the subsequent outcry also placed renewed attention on a seldom discussed issue in Maine: a child sexually abusing another child. Experts say the incidence of kids molesting or raping other kids is not that rare.
“Juvenile sexual offenses are an issue anywhere,” said Dr. Sue Righthand, a Rockland-based clinical psychologist who works with the Department of Corrections and has published several reports on sexual offenders in Maine.
Pre-teen and teenage boys account for more than one-third of sexual crimes involving other children reported to police in the United States, according to a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice study about juveniles who commit sex offenses against children.
“Although those who commit sex offenses against minors are often described as ‘pedophiles’ or ‘predators’ and thought of as adults, it is important to understand that a substantial portion of these offenses are committed by other minors,” the study states.
The study also found that over 90 percent of juvenile perpetrators of child sexual crimes are boys, and that when the victim is a boy, he is usually under age 12. This is because male juvenile offenders “tend to focus on much younger and sexually immature boys rather than their peers.”
“There appears to be a peak around age 13 or 14 with offenses against younger children,” said Righthand, who also is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Maine.
Educating young people about what is appropriate behavior and helping offenders develop healthy relationships are keys to preventing recurrence and should be a statewide goal, she added.
“There is a lot we could do as a society,” she said.
This sentiment rings true with the mother of the 8-year-old boy in Washington County, who is now enrolled in private school. The Bangor Daily News is not naming her to protect the identity of the alleged victim.
She said this taboo topic must be discussed, so parents can better protect their children.
“It’s been all over that school for a month and everybody needs to talk about it,” the mother of two said. “[Parents and school staff] need to learn how to deal with it and they also need to be taught about safety and sexual abuse.”
A lot is done about “stranger danger” but not enough has been done to educate people about others who could hurt them, she said. The Harrington mother, who knows the accused boy well, believes the boy charged will only change his ways with proper psychological treatment.
“He needs a lot of therapy and a lot of help,” she said. “I really do hope he gets it.”
Crimes often unreported
Between 2003 and 2012, there were 156 Mainers age 17 or younger charged with committing rape or attempted rape, according to data in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program.
Juveniles accounted for 19 percent of the 815 arrests for those crimes in Maine during that period. Statutory rape and other sex offenses are not included in the FBI data.
The federal crime data reveals nothing about who was sexually assaulted, so there is no way to tell how many of the victims were children. Anecdotally, however, police say that in cases of juvenile sexual assault, the victims are often other juveniles.
“Juveniles likely offend against other juveniles, although I don’t have any actual data to back that up,” said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.
Of the 368 reported rapes in Maine in 2012 — the last year data is available — police arrested five teenage suspects — all males — out of 53 people charged, the crime index shows. Of the five, two were 13 or 14, one was 15, one was 16 and one 17, according to data provided by McCausland.
Although determining the exact figures for sexual assaults involving child perpetrators and child victims in Maine is difficult, said Cara Courchesne, communications and outreach coordinator for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, it’s clear the crime is a major issue.
“Almost 50 percent of our calls that we get on the crisis and support line are regular people who are calling on behalf of a child or are adults who were sexually abused as children,” she said. “It’s a big problem.”
One of every 12 high school students in Maine — 13.3 percent of girls and 10.4 percent of boys — report they have been physically forced to have sex, Courchesne said.
A recent national study estimates that 42.2 percent of female rape victims were children when the crime happened and 27.8 percent of male victims were age 10 or younger, she said.
Rape and other sexual crimes often go unreported, Courchesne and other experts say.
“It’s still a very daunting process, after just going through something that traumatic,” Courchesne said, explaining why sexual assault victims often don’t come forward. “It’s definitely safe to say a vast majority of sex assault crimes are not prosecuted. People feel a lot of shame and … the idea of facing a criminal justice system is difficult.”
To help overcome the stigma, the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault gave thousands of prevention education programs in 2013.
“We reached about 30,000 students last year in Maine,” Courchesne said.
Treating young sex offenders
A dozen juveniles are incarcerated at Mountain View Youth Development Center in Charleston and Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland for sex offenses, according to Scott Fish, spokesman for the Department of Corrections.
Those convicted of sexual crimes and others with identified deviant sexual behaviors are enrolled in the two facilities’ Sexual Behavior Treatment programs.
The program has four phases: identifying and assessing youth with sexual behavioral problems, providing therapy about sexual abuse and its effects, deciding what charges are necessary against each individual to prevent future crimes, and assessing the risks associated with community reintegration.
“We get involved at the point of arrest — at the point of referral,” said Dave Barrett, the Juvenile Community Corrections administrator for Region 3, which includes Bangor, Calais, Dover-Foxcroft, Ellsworth, Houlton, Lincoln and Presque Isle.
Juveniles convicted for sex crimes make up only a small portion of those incarcerated in the youth programs, he said.
When young people charged with sexual assaults are presented to the court, they are usually given an opportunity to avoid entering a juvenile corrections facility by entering a treatment program and “engaging in counseling that would address the issues presented in the case [so] we don’t see them do this again,” said Melanie Portas, assistant district attorney for Androscoggin County. “If they were victims, we try to get treatment for that.”
If they do land at Mountain View or Long Creek, they’ll enter the treatment program that includes “intensive clinical interventions with not only the youth but the family,” Barrett said. “The family is at the center of what is going on here.”
Intervention treatment is effective, according to data about therapy program graduates that was analyzed by the University of Southern Maine’s Edmund S. Muskie School of Public Service. “Between 2006 and 2009, 78 kids were treated and released, and one person was charged [with a sex crime] as an adult,” Barrett said. “With effective treatment, the recidivism rate is extremely low.”
Righthand, who co-wrote a 2010 report “ Reducing Sexual Offending Among Juveniles in Maine,” said effective treatment programs work with teenagers and young adults because their “brains are still developing up through at least age 25.”
“The keys are to help these youth to develop prosocial and respectful and caring lifestyles,” she said. “There is reason to have hope.”
And for victims, Righthand added: “It’s not their fault if it happens to them. If somebody does perpetuate sex abuse, they do need to be helped to take responsibility [for the crime] and not do it again. These are our kids and our future.”
To reach a sexual assault advocate, call the Statewide Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Line at 800-871-7741, TTY 888-458-5599. This free and confidential 24-hour service is accessible from anywhere in Maine. Calls are automatically routed to the closest sexual violence service provider.