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Juvenile Justice System (US)

When a child or teen faces criminal charges for violating a sibling, the case is often handled by the Juvenile Justice System (see this flowchart; varies by state).  The specifics of what happened, at what age, when it was made known, and the laws of the state where it happened all factor into whether the case is handled by adult or juvenile court. This decision is made early in the process and will influence not only the legal process but the trajectory of the child’s life.  It is almost always better for the child to have their case handled in juvenile court.  For information specific to your situation, contact a local defense lawyer with expertise in this area.  


The Juvenile Justice System operates under the assumption that children’s and teens’ brains are still developing.  There is reason to hope they will respond well to treatment.  As their brains mature they tend to develop more empathy and better self-control. Because of these factors, juveniles are less likely than adults to be a risk to society for the rest of their lives. Despite the faults of the juvenile system, it is almost always a better option than the adult system.  

If a teen is sentenced to residential treatment, it will usually be in a regional facility for adolescents who have acted out sexually. This could require travel, limited contact and visitation time with parents, and parents may be required to pay for the treatment if the court decides they are able. Other teens are sentenced to outpatient treatment, especially if the family is able to provide a place for them to live that assures the safety of all children involved.


Sometimes juvenile cases are handled by the Department of Human Services instead of going through juvenile criminal court. This is particularly true if a young child caused the harm.

I am not an attorney and this is not legal advice. See guidance on finding a lawyer.I am not an attorney and this is not legal advice. See guidance on finding a lawyer.

Additional Resources

California law firm Wallin & Klarich: Q&A on Juveniles accused of child-on-child sexual abuse

DefendYoungMinds: Solid Advice from a Juvenile Court Judge for children with harmful sexual behavior (Utah)

Defend Young Minds: Parents Guide to Navigating Legal and Reporting Requirements after harmful sexual behavior New Laws Affecting Teens Who Offend | Stop It Now

Letourneau, E. J., & Caldwell, M. F. (2013). Expensive, harmful policies that don't work– or, How juvenile sexual offending is addressed in the U.S

US Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention: Juveniles Who Commit Sex Offenses Against Minors report and Case Flow Process chart and explanation

American Bar Association/National Child Traumatic Stress Network: Trauma-Informed Legal Advocacy a resource for juvenile defense attorneys, with information helpful to parents and other professionals Search Sex Crime Laws by State interactive database

Brad Watts, LPC, CSOTP: Sibling Sexual Abuse book written by a therapist who has experience treating adolescents in court-ordered treatment in Virginia 
Juveniles Who Commit Sex Offenses Against Minors  is a excellent and important summary from the US Department of Justice, based on a snapshot of 2004 data.

Juvenile System

  • Records are private and sealed

  • Focused on treatment--usually provides and requires treatment

  • Greater chance to allow family reunification

  • Housed in youth-focused detention or treatment center that includes access to K-12 education

Adult System

  • Court records are public, often searchable online indefinitely; this includes charges that are dropped or do not lead to a conviction

  • Focused on punishment and protection of the public

  • More barriers to family reunification

  • Housed in adult jails and prisons

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