OGDEN — Forty years ago, society had few answers for what to do with juvenile sex offenders.
“The only options were to lock the boy up or send him to the State Hospital,” David Fowers said.
Worse, the victims often were an afterthought.
Fowers, with four decades of experience in social work centered on juvenile sex crimes, is pleased today that both offenders and victims are being handled with cultivated best practices backed by research involving multiple disciplines.
“The state now has eight different levels of outpatient and residential treatment” for offenders, he said, and a network of services for sex crime victims is growing.
For his role in this transformation, the licensed clinical social worker has won international recognition from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.
Fowers, 70, of Ogden, recently received the 2019 Gail-Burns Smith Award.
The Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based groups said the award is named for an early advocate of how “victim advocates and sex offender management professionals could collaborate to effectively prevent child sexual abuse.”
The award praised Fowers for toiling early in his career to promote education and training for those working in juvenile sex offender treatment. Fowers also filled the gap by developing treatment standards, the award said.
Further, Fowers helped form the Network on Juveniles Offending Sexually, a Utah entity that manages treatment standards. He also helped develop an assessment tool for offenders, the presenters said.
“David’s work to improve services for survivors and offenders of sexual violence perfectly exemplifies the spirit of the Gail Burns-Smith Award,” NSVRC Director Yolanda Edrington said in a press release. “His passion for collaboration and partnership has led to many changes in the state of Utah.”
Fowers is retired but still works part time with stints at Compass Academy, a residential treatment center for juveniles in Moroni.
In an interview, Fowers said he was a director of observation and assessment for the state during his career and also was director of the Millcreek Youth Center on 12th Street in Ogden.
Fowers shied away from the individual spotlight the award brings. He said he has collaborated with many other people, including those in the courts, juvenile justice services, private practices and Child and Family Services.
“We were coming together to make sure all the right people knew what is going on,” he said. That resulted in the collective group being able to “automatically find ways to serve people better.”
In the relatively simplistic approaches of four decades ago, those in authority over juvenile sex offenses assigned everything to “delinquency or mental health,” he said. “Everybody passed the buck.”
In law enforcement, police could arrest a juvenile sex offender “but had nowhere to take them,” Fowers said.
“The prevalent mindset was boys will be boys, they’re playing house or playing behind the barn,” he said.
Over the years, as research and treatments developed, the experts learned that almost half of the child molesting was being perpetrated by juveniles.
“It may be due to impulsiveness, things they get to see and hear, some curiosity,” he said. “But it’s still extremely devastating” to the victims.
With the development of treatment and assessment standards and more research, those in the system learned that with the right intervention, juvenile sex offenders are at low risk of repeat crimes.
For example, if a low-risk offender is housed with high-risk perpetrators, “you will actually help him become much worse,” he said.
Treatment now is not one-size-fits-all, Fowers said. The eight levels of treatment address everything by degree “from mooning all the way up to a secure facility.”
“If we’re not fixing the problem, we’re making it worse,” Fowers said, and even with the advances, Utah still has a high rate of sexual violence.
“One of the things we have done is to bring awareness of the number of children being abused and abusing to the forefront,” he said.
One in three Utah women will be sexually abused in their lifetime, compared to one in five nationally.
Utah crime data shows the state saw a more than 11% increase in rape in 2017, when rates of other major crimes declined. Rape is the only violent crime in Utah that has a higher rate than the rest of the nation, according to the data.
“Boys are being affected as well, but boys don’t report,” Fowers said. “Even if it’s an older woman or a girl, it’s supposed to be a badge of honor instead of a source of shame or embarrassment.”
Services for sexual assault victims also have expanded greatly, Fowers said.
“Victims were not being treated with the kind of respect they deserved,” he said.
Further, victims’ advocates and professionals treating juvenile sex offenders are now working together to find better solutions for both, he said.
“Utah is leading the pack in a lot of these areas, but it is not time to be patting ourselves on the back,” he said.
“We’ve still got a little bit of a closed society in Utah, with due respect,” he said. “I understand some of that priority,” but as a result, some victims “don’t know where to go or what to do.”
Goals now include prevention of sexual violence and developing new types of interventions and intensive treatments for offenders, he said.
“We’ve got to figure out what’s causing this in the first place,” he said. “We dream, we visualize a sexual violence-free society.”