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Counties, health center unite to help young sex offenders

7:52 AM, Jun. 17, 2013  |  Comments
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There are many facets to a healthy community.

Many recognize the crucial role the Fox Cities Community Health Center plays in providing for the community's physical well-being through affordable, accessible services.

Its commitment to community health, however, extends beyond meeting the Fox Cities' medical needs. The nonprofit health center also is making the Fox Valley a safer place.

The health center - in collaboration Calumet, Outagamie and Winnebago counties - runs an innovative program from its Menasha clinic for children and teens who have committed sex offenses. The program, in its third year, attempts to reach young offenders before they hurt more people.

It's a program that couldn't have happened without teamwork. The counties came together about five years ago after recognizing they simply didn't have the resources individually to meet the specialized needs of young sex offenders.

Counselors say they're making an impact.

Pablo Serna, a health center counselor, said sex offenders - whether young or old - share some common traits. But there is a key difference between kids and adults.

"We find their thought patterns aren't so well established," he said of his young clients.

Programming places a heavy emphasis on family healing.

Often, younger siblings are the victims. It creates an enormous emotional burden for parents who struggle with how to love and care for both the victim and offender.

"It's a nightmare of a position to be in," Serna said.

Safety plans are established. Counselors and social workers keep in close communication.

Prior to the program, young offenders were frequently taken out of the home.

Serna says community-based treatment promotes healing and is far more cost effective.

The cost savings are a side benefit, Serna said. Preventing recidivism is the ultimate goal.

The Fox Valley program isn't old enough to show any long-term pattern of success, though early results look promising. Serna said he's heard of four new offenses among about 50 young people who've gone through counseling.

The program uses a group counseling model that expedites progress and has drawn national interest .

"There is something much more powerful in meeting as a group," Serna said. "When it's one-on-one, they're on guard. Their defenses are up. When there are seven or eight, and you're seeing other kids going through the same thing, it makes it safer to talk."

Though Serna was encouraged by some young offenders who sought after-care when the program ended, he realizes he isn't going to reach everyone. When that happens, the traditional means of handling young offenders remains available.

"If I give them every opportunity to succeed and they choose not to, they belong in a more restrictive setting," he said.

- Jim Collar: 920-993-1000, ext. 216, or jcollar@postcrescent.com; on Twitter @JimCollar

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