Tuesday, June 25, 2013

We aren't forgetting about sex offenders--we are forgetting about children

In 1992, a little boy was sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old young man who, as far as I can determine, had no previous arrests for sexual offenses. The episode was life altering for the young victim and even more so for his mother, Judy Cornett. She embarked on a personal vendetta to track out-of-compliance registrants and turn them in. She became a very vocal voice, and still is, earning her both praise and criticism from those who recognize that her persecution of those who had sexually offended is contrary to what research shows as most helpful in lowering future risks.

Others who have been through such an experience have used it as an impetus to action and advocacy. However, such an experience also produces tunnel vision. It isn’t sex offenders who have been forgotten, as the title of the Fox news item suggests. Every media source that can throw the term into a headline does so. Every politician who wants to increase his chances for reelection writes a “get tougher on sex offenders” law.

No, it isn’t sex offenders that have been forgotten; it is children who have been forgotten. The vast majority of children who are victims of molestation or any type of abuse are not victims of registered sex offenders; they are victims of those who are close to them in their lives. And they are indeed forgotten and ignored in the mad frenzy to push former offenders further and further from society.

Cornett says, “…sex offenders are coming out of prison every day….We need to get back on track. We need to get out there. We need to start doing the neighborhood notifications. We need to bring this into the schools.”

This is tunnel vision at its worse. How will this focus on former offenders address these facts?

  • According to FBI statistics, less than 1% of abducted children are victims of a registered offender.
  • According to the Office of Juvenile Justice, stranger molestation of children—not even RSOs, just those not known to the child or family—comprise between 2 and 6% of the total with family and acquaintances making up the rest. 
  • According to all sources, sexual abuse of children comprises less than 10% of all abuse, and virtually all other abuse is at the hands of their caregivers, not registered sex offenders. 

Yes, we need to get on track. We need some portion—any portion—of the money and resources dedicated to tracking registered sex offenders diverted to awareness, education, and prevention programs that will help save children’s lives. What we are doing is criminal. What Ms. Cornett is doing is, possibly, well-intentioned, possibly even understandable, but criminal.

We aren’t ignoring sex offenders. We are ignoring virtually every child in America who is being abused and molested.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The sex offender registry didn't help, but...what if, instead...?

A horrible thing has happened. A little girl, only eight, has been murdered, and the prime suspect** is a man who has been on the sex offender registry in Florida since 1993 for attempted kidnapping and has had some misdemeanor sexual charges since.

Details are still sketchy, and “facts” will change as more is learned, but apparently he met the mother and daughter and gained the trust of the mother on Friday night. He took them shopping and left the store with the child on the pretext of getting them something to eat.

And now…..and now the hue and cry will go up. I could write the headlines myself. Tougher laws for sexual crimes. Mandatory life sentences for any offense involving a child.

But Florida already has some of the toughest laws for those who commit sexual crimes and some of the most stringent restrictions against registered offenders. None of that helped; none of that gave the mother the information that could have saved her child.

What if, instead, Florida had paid more attention to data that says that putting all resources into targeting those who have committed a sexual offense in the past will not reduce present or future sexual offending?

What if, instead, Florida had listened to the experts who said that the only way to reduce sexual crime, especially against children, is through comprehensive awareness, education, and prevention programs?

What if, rather than persecuting every man, woman, and child in Florida who is on the registry, Florida had looked at the research and the data and understood that punishing more and more strictly after the fact does not prevent sexual offenses from continuing to occur?

What if, instead, some of those education and prevention programs had been in place? What if the state of Florida had decided to spend even half of its resources on an attempt at prevention? Would this child’s mother have received literature or attended a meeting or heard a spot on television where she learned that almost all sexual crime against children is committed by those who have or form a connection to the family?

Might she have seen or heard about “grooming” behavior and recognized it enough so that she would have trusted this new man in her life a little less? Might some warning bells have sounded for her if she had read or heard cautions about anyone who pays excessive interest in children or tries to get a child alone, away from the parent?

We will never know, will we?

But when the strident voices are raised demanding longer sentences and more stringent conditions, I hope the state of Florida listens instead to the voices of experts, the voices suggesting once again that laws and conditions will not protect a child against a predator.

This tragic case is proof of that.

** I do not normally modify posts once they have been printed, but I need to make an exception. I originally wrote "...has been murdered by a man who..." I was taken to task, and rightly so, because I was violating my own beliefs and what I demand of others: an assumption of innocence until guilt is shown. Mea culpa.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Oh My Gosh! Sex Offenders in CHURCH??

The first of this month, a treatment provider posted an op-ed about his invitation to his clients to attend his
church and the negative response on the part of the church when one took him up on it. Everyone was properly informed, all of the suggested precautions were in place, but still the church declined this opportunity to practice what they preached.

My comment on the article included the suggestion that he find another church, one that actually practiced the Christianity that they professed.

Yesterday a rebuttal op-ed appeared, written by one who, if he has any affiliations or experiences that would give him insight into the issues involved here, chose not to reveal them.

He begins with erroneous information, calling the former offender who wished to attend church a “child molester” when there was nothing in the original article to indicate what the offense had been. He goes from bad to worse by citing ridiculously high recidivism rates for former offenders from two studies that have been denounced by all other researchers, and indeed even by the author of one of the studies, as not applicable to the general community of registered offenders. He ignores the large body of research all consistently reporting the re-offense rate of registrants in single digits--and most of them, low single digits.

But none of this bothers me as much as the actions of the church. They seem woefully ignorant of the basic tenets of their faith--forgiveness and redemption. They have every right to act to protect their congregation, but the safeguards in place are designed to do that. They even have the right to refuse church attendance to whomever they wish. However, they do not have the right to do that and then continue to call themselves Christian.

If they reject a penitent sinner, one claiming the forgiveness and redemption offered by the founder of Christianity, then they reject Him and forfeit the right to call themselves by His name.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Failure to Register: A Nightmare for Registrants; Job Security for Law Enforcement

Two things came together this week to cause me to consider something I had previously given little thought to—one of the spawn of the constantly increasing ramifications of being a registered sex offender, failure to register (FTR). For an excellent and well-documented analysis of this relatively new “crime,” read this report in the scholarly blog Sexual Abuse—A Journal of Research and Treatment.

The main points of the article, and the ones most relevant to my concerns, are that, first, there is no evidence whatsoever that “failing to register” is correlated with increased re-offending. In other words, registrants are not going off the grid in order to relapse into prior behaviors. In most cases, they aren't "going off the grid" at all but rather are living such transient lives that they are missing deadlines and aren't getting mail.

The second point is how very easy and how very damning failure to register is. First, as the article says,  “FTR is not simply 'failing to register' but, perhaps, most often the failure to register in a timely manner.” Additionally, as the authors point out, “…each failure to report ordinary life events is an opportunity for registrants to commit a new felony.”  The potential consequences are mind-boggling, both for the registrants and for society. “Being required to register for decades is, in reality, retribution with interminable opportunities for FTR. Prudent public policies are compromised when violations of the 'civil' requirements of registration carry severe criminal penalties so damaging that offenders may never recover.”

The second event that set all of this swirling in my mind was a report of a man who had been convicted in 2001 in North Carolina for “indecent liberties with a child.” In 1999, when the event occurred, he was 19 and the child was 13. His sentence of 16 to 20 months, probated, speaks to how benign the liberties most likely were and was most certainly deserved; the differences between a 19 year old young man and a 13 year old girl, even an eager and willing one, should not be ignored.

Forward to 2013; this same young man, now 32, has just been convicted of “felony failure to comply with sex offender registration” after a one-day trial and a jury deliberation of less than one hour. He was sentenced to no less than 23 months and no more than 28 months in the North Carolina Division of Adult Correction.

I could find no details about the failure to comply charge, but he clearly had not absconded; he was readily available for arrest and trial.

From all available evidence, this man did something really stupid when he was 19. He was punished appropriately. He has not repeated his stupidity. He has been compliant with his registration requirements for 14 years. Something happened that changed that. He was relatively easily found and not committing any other crime or offense. This will by no stretch of the imagination contribute to public safety, but he will now spend two years in prison at the expense of the state of North Carolina.



Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"Eeek, put me down! I'd rather burn to death than be rescued by a sex offender!"

This blog entry titled, “Support legislation to prevent sex offenders from becoming volunteer firefighters,” appeared today at http://www.brightonpittsfordpost.com/. It makes a short but urgent appeal for readers to contact their assemblypersons in order to voice support for the bill, now currently stalled in the New York State Assembly.

I left a comment and emailed the opinion editor asking for a rationale behind the legislation.

Have there been incidences of former offenders-now-volunteer firefighters sexually molesting someone before carrying him or her from a burning building? Or while carrying him or her from a burning building? Or after carrying him or her from a burning building?

Have there been complaints as to the behavior of registrant firefighters during the commission of their duties?

Have constituents voiced concerns to legislators or to the Firefighters' Association that such a thing could happen?

That such legislation could even exist is repulsive. This attempt to thwart the efforts of law abiding, civic-minded citizens to serve their communities is terrifying. That such legislation was actually written plays into every myth and stereotype about those who are, for a myriad of reasons, required to register.

This flies in the face of the concept of rehabilitation, the cornerstone on which our judicial system is said to rest. Every state's statement of the purpose and aim of punishment leads to a desire to return the penitent criminal to his community with an increased sense of connectedness that will deter future criminal activity. Did the legislator or legislators who crafted this bill miss those lessons in legislator school?

The bogeyman sex offender, complete with trench coat, made infamous by the long-debunked “Stranger Danger” campaign, has been updated. He no longer lurks around parks and schools, hiding behind the bushes waiting for an innocent child to appear. He now wears a firefighter’s uniform and hat and scales a ladder to enter a burning building and hunt for victims among the smoke and flame.

Citizen, beware; call the fire department at your own risk.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

"Sex offenders should be in jail--or a cemetery"

This appeared under the heading Letter: Sex offenders: Put them in jail at inforum.com June 7, written by Kim Dienstmann of Fargo, North Dakota.

This is my answer to her letter.

Dear Kim,

First of all, I will do you the courtesy of taking your letter at face value and resist the urge to believe that you wrote it as farce or some sort of sick joke.  I will respond to each portion seriously. Your words will be in black; mine will be in blue.

In reading about the challenges of sex offenders finding housing in Fargo, I have the solution. They should be in jail, or perhaps in a cemetery.

Really? You are publicly advocating for the murder of every man, woman, and child on the registry in North Dakota? Or is it just in Fargo?

They took away the “freedom” of each and every one of their victims forever with their acts. Their victims’ lives have been ruined, and where is their help? The victims require counseling; they must pay for their own and, in many cases, are unable to afford it.

You are aware, are you not, that many are on the registry for acts that in no way fit the description you have just given--even that some were falsely accused and wrongly convicted?

Anyone with professional knowledge about the ability of these men and women to be rehabilitated understands it’s not possible.

Did it occur to you to do some research before you made such a statement? Even if you choose not to believe the studies and research showing the efficacy of treatment, the countless thousands—nationally, not just in Fargo—of registrants who are living law-abiding lives in the community, working, raising families, benefiting society, many for twenty or more years after a single, youthful offense, show how ill-thought out your pronouncement is.

We are willing to put other men, women and children at risk so we can provide them housing until their next arrest.

If you mean their next arrest for a repeat sexual offense, this is true of only a tiny fraction of registrants. You can find this in research also. If you mean arrest for a parole violation or another category of crime, such as theft, those arrests would be significantly reduced were it not made so difficult for registrants to secure housing, a job, and re-assimilate into society.

We are not protecting our community at all. The bigger picture would be to understand that communities are full of sexual predators. There are just so many more who haven’t been caught or required to “register.”

This is to some extent true. So why don’t you advocate for programs of awareness, education, and prevention that would help solve this problem?

The predators are usually those closest to the family; they are “friends” or relatives, not the stranger down the street. Why, oh why, are we allowing them to walk free?

Again, very true. You are arguing against yourself, Kim. They are walking free because they have not been accused or arrested. With every focus on those who have been accused, arrested,  paid their debt, and are at very low risk to commit another sexual offense, the overwhelmingly larger problem does not get addressed.

Do I believe in second chances? Not when you have ruined someone else’s life forever ... you might as well have killed them.

I am reluctant to reach conclusions when I do not have all of the facts, but this to me sounds like a cry from someone who has been victimized, and, if true, my heart goes out to you. If true, I pray you find healing and the knowledge that you need not remain a victim. I know many former victims who refuse to let the abuse define their lives. I am both a mother and a sister to former victims. Each person must deal and must heal in his or her own way. 

I pray for you the strength to find your way.