Parents typically picture the threat coming from a stranger on the street or at the playground. But sex attacks against children also come from other youth – family members, neighborhood playmates or classmates.

A recent increase in the number of “kid-on-kid” sex crimes has triggered widespread concern nationwide. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates juvenile sex offenders – those under age 18 – commit close to 25 percent of all rapes against children and approximately 50 percent of all child molestations.

Closer to home, juveniles committed at least 26 percent of all sex crimes in Cook County in 2005.

In Illinois, juvenile sex offenders are required by law to register with local authorities. But the measure has been met with opposition from children’s advocates.

In early December 2006, the Illinois General Assembly could not muster enough votes to overturn a veto of a bill that would have allowed Juvenile Court judges to determine on a case-by-case basis whether juveniles must register as sex offenders.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich vetoed the measure in April 2006, but supporters remain hopeful that the registry law – which treats juvenile sex offenders the same as adults – will change.

“The current law requires [juvenile sex offenders] to register for 10 years or for life, nothing in between and no less than 10 years,” said Elizabeth Clarke, president of the state-sponsored Juvenile Justice Initiative in Springfield. “If juveniles are found guilty of a sexual offense, they are required to automatically register on the adult registry when they hit 17.”

Illinois is among 32 states that list juveniles on public sex offender registries. Other states require juvenile offenders to register once they reach age 18, and some never list them.

Proponents of allowing judges to decide which juvenile sex offenders must register argue that young offenders should be treated as a special criminal class different from adults.

“Kids are developmentally and behaviorally different than adults,” said Margaret Berglind, president and CEO of the Child Care Association of Illinois. “Often a child is already on a sex offender list before we can figure out what life has in store for him.”

According to “The Journal of Interpersonal Violence,” a reference used by clinical psychologists, the average adolescent sex offender abuses seven victims, with some juveniles disclosing 30 or more victims. Adult sex offenders can have up to 100 child victims over the course of their lifetimes, estimates the Oregon- based Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.

Andres Durbak, the director of safety and security for Chicago Public Schools, said administrators and teachers are trained to extend sensitivity to child victims and juvenile offenders involved in sex crimes.

He credits that sensitivity for a 33 percent reduction in kid-on-kid sex crimes in Chicago Public Schools. For the 2005-2006 school year, 18 incidents were reported, a drop from the 27 incidents during the 2004-2005 school year.

“We do everything possible to protect the juvenile offender and the victim. But research has shown that offenders today are yesterday’s victims,” Durbak said. “Scratch the surface, and you’ll find a victim there.”

According to national studies on sexual aggression in youth, 20 percent to 55 percent of juvenile sex offenders experienced some form of sexual abuse themselves.

Dr. Mark Chaffin, a psychologist and professor at the University of Oklahoma, said not all juveniles who commit sex offenses will automatically become adult predators.

“If treated, juvenile sex offenders are far less likely to commit another offense,” he said. “For children under 12 who have aggressive sexual behavior, a 12- week treatment essentially reduces their risk of repeating sex offenses. For little kids, this is not a difficult behavior to modify, and most of these kids don’t have long-term difficulties modifying persistent sexual behavior problems.”

Chaffin described the ridicule and negative long-term effects on juveniles who are listed on sex offender registries.

“Put a kid on a public registry at 14, and he has to be on there for the rest of his life,” Chaffin said. “Schools are notified, families must move, information on the Internet will inform friends at school.

“I don’t think you have to speculate too much to conclude a lot of bad things will happen to these kids because they are on a public Internet registry.”

For children under the age of 11, the following forms of sexual exposure are considered inappropriate:

Viewing pornography

All forms of sexual activity with adolescents and adults

Witnessing sexual behavior between adults, adolescents or other children

Excessive sexual play with a same age or older child who has sexual knowledge

Any situation in which a child is exposed to explicit sexual materials outside of an educational experience taught by qualified staff

Signs of inappropriate sexual behavior:

Demonstrating precocious sexualized activities, gestures, language and knowledge

Engaging in extensive mutual sexual play with same age or younger children

Demonstrating a preoccupation with sexual activities and ideas

Engaging in sexual behaviors in public, such as sexual exposure

Interest in or attempting sexual contact with older children, adolescents, adults or animals

Source: Dr. Phil Rich, a licensed clinical social worker and the author of “Understanding Juvenile Sexual Offenders: Assessment, Treatment and Rehabilitation.”