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Sexual abuse of children has doubtless been a constant through history. But it wasn’t outed until the 1970s –- and its magnitude was startling. Many studies found that 1 of 3 females and 1 of 5 males–a full one-quarter of the world–have been molested, often with serious consequences haunting them throughout their adult lives.
Soon the dam broke, and we were flooded by a geyser of sex-offender laws; however, most were counterproductive. Some were well-intentioned, but we all know where that paved road leads.
Now, by 2007, the legal pendulum has swung so loudly to the far right that it has almost nowhere to travel except to a more balanced position. Toddlers are considered sex offenders for hugging their teachers; first-graders are pilloried on the registry; and, in one absurd case, a 13-year-old girl was deemed simultaneously a victim and offender for consensual sex with her 12-year-old boyfriend. “The only thing that comes close to this is dueling,” said Associate Chief Justice Michael Wilkins of Utah, noting that two people who take 20 paces and then shoot could each be considered both victim and offender.
This is insanity. But the general public reflexively supports every law touted by our politicians as “protecting children’s safety.”
To give due credit, the first sex-offender registry, lobbied by Patty Wetterling on behalf of her abducted son Jacob, was not an unreasonable law. Enacted in 1994, it was intended for law enforcement alone, not accessible to the populace, and included only the most serious cases. But by now, the subsequent registries have ensured that even the photos of men caught “watering the foliage” are plastered on the Internet–complete with names, addresses, and other forms of I.D.
Mrs. Wetterling is presently calling sex-offender laws “far out of control.” She’d never visualized the extent to which her initial efforts would reach, and states that “everybody wants to out-tough the next legislator.” It’s all about “ego and boastfulness,” she says, and wants to see public policy become more effective and less punitive — a bereaved mother who yet retains a sense of logic, justice, and fairness.
Other laws such as the Adam Walsh Act require mandatory minimum sentences even for minor transgressions. It’s also retroactive, ignoring our Constitutional prohibition against two punishments for the same crime. And Jessica’s Law has now been passed by 32 states–its unrealistic distance restrictions driving offenders from urban to rural areas. This can throw kids into harm’s way rather than save them, since stress and instability are known to increase recidivism. Ohio is now seeking to repeal this legal nightmare, while Californians who ignored Ohio’s lesson are presently struggling with the same mess. Also, the death penalty for two-time repeaters–even without a child fatality–has been approved by five states. The pendulum can hardly swing further.
Since so many terrible laws now exist in the names of children who’ve gained hard-won immortality, a recent article in CounterPunch has advocated reform. But where to start?
We might consider CAPTA (Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act). Passed in 1974 when molestation became a hot topic, CAPTA blindly called for mandatory reporting of clients who related sexual violations to their therapists. Few other helping professions allow such a breach of confidentiality. And unreported offenders who want to turn their lives around now have no way to seek help.
Hard-liners may insist that reporting of sexual offenders is warranted. Aren’t they the “worst of the worst?” This might be attributed to the residual puritanism of our founding fathers (who weren’t all that irreproachable themselves) — an erotic dichotomy, both obsessed and repulsed by sex. Or, as Niki Delson, clinical social worker and a member of CCOSO (California Coalition on Sexual Offending), describes such mindset: “Whoopee!….and Whoa!” Sex permeates our culture while being simultaneously feared.
Certainly, when kids are sexually victimized, they can suffer psychic trauma, as they can from other types of abuse. But their offenders, contrary to popular misconception, are hardly ever high-risk predators. Less than 10 percent of registrants fall into this category, while the rest are low- to no-risk. In an interview with Chris Hansen of “To Catch a Predator,” Dr. Fred Berlin, founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic said, “…. if the choice was between a sexual offender fondling my 12-year-old or a drunk driver killing my 12-year-old, given that horrible dilemma, it still wouldn’t take me much time to figure out which I think is more serious.”For a perspective on child fatality, the U.S. Dept. Of Health and Human Services has estimated that 1,500 children died from maltreatment in 2003, primarily at the hands of their parents. In that same year, according to the National Center for Statistics and Analyses, 396 children under 14 were killed in alcohol-related crashes. But as for murder by sex offenders, the general estimate is about 50 per year, or one per state. Yet, many parents are so frenzied by political rhetoric about “thousands of snatch-and-runs” that they won’t allow their children to play in their own front yards. And many kids back off from any adult’s display of friendliness. Small wonder that activists like Patty Wetterling are upset by this national neurosis.
Returning to CAPTA, its senseless code confuses therapy with law enforcement and needs to be amended. Before its enactment, Dr. Berlin had treated many voluntary patients who loathed themselves and their deeds–and who progressed to productive, offense-free lives after being treated. Other sex-offender therapists have had similar outcomes. Dr. Raymond Anderson has run a sex-offender clinic since 1978, where men have come for help even in the fantasy stage, intensely troubled by their thoughts. Dr. Jay Adams, who has treated molesters for 30 years in prisons and hospitals cites waiting lists of hundreds hoping for treatment to learn self-restraint.But despite the findings of the U.S. Dept. of Justice, plus academic research, that molesters have by far the lowest recidivism rates of any criminals except murderers, the general public asks: Aren’t they uncontrollable? Hopeless? Lurking behind every door and around every corner, waiting to pounce on the nearest kid? And they parrot wild numbers–such as 95 per cent recidivism–pulled out of the air that floats between some lawmakers’ ears. Shouldn’t we lock all of them up and throw away the key? But the general public doesn’t read government reports or scholarly studies. They only hear sound-bites and see headline-hype.
What they don’t see is a key that cannot be thrown away. It’s called therapy.
Does this type of treatment really work for sexual offenders? According to Dr. Berlin, it does for many, and for many it doesn’t. Why, then, don’t we focus on the many for whom it does? Therapist Earl C. Jones of Alabama cites an old Southern myth: If a dog kills a chicken, that dog must be killed; it has tasted blood and will want more. “Now they’re saying the same of molesters,” he says, “and neither belief is true. Treatment is effective much of the time.”
How is the therapeutic process designed for offenders? First, they need to reconnect with their early traumas. According to Dr. Adams, almost all molesters have been abused as children, sexually, physically, emotionally, or in combination. This can desensitize them, not only to their own feelings but to others as well. However, if they resurrect their original histories, they can also acquire “victim empathy.” Many who haven’t worked through this process delude themselves that the victims share their pleasure. After they acquire empathy, they become aware of the pain they can inflict upon the children.
This is the most important and initial step of sex-offender therapy. It’s also the most difficult. Once the patients complete this phase, relapse-prevention plans can be made. They are also taught “victim respect” as well as “thought-stoppage,” and ways to identify situations that can act as triggers. It’s made clear in therapy that their offenses are extremely wrong, but if they are treated as humans– not monsters, their self-esteem can improve, and better control can be achieved.A full 88 percent of molesters are never reported, according to Stop It Now! Which is a national child-abuse helpline. This percentage is also cited by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, plus other sex-abuse groups. That amounts to millions of unreported molesters in the U.S. and about 93 per cent are family, friends, and others in close positions of trust. (Yet, senseless molester laws are always aimed at the rare stranger-danger.) A goodly number of that 93 per cent care about the children and would like to seek professional treatment, but CAPTA prevents them. Realistically, how many want to risk prison, brutality from other inmates, and a lifetime afterward on the registry as social outcasts? Nearly zero.
Given the tenor of the times, if confidential treatment for the unreported is approved, many stringent conditions will be required. These must include zero tolerance for re-offense as well as complete personal information, all to be turned into the authorities if recidivism is revealed. This is the only way to convince our lawmakers that they won’t be committing political suicide by relieving therapists of their roles as mandatory reporters. No politician wants to be seen as “coddling” molesters or “soft on crime.”
And what if offenders hesitate to sign up for such conditions? It’s possible that some may be reluctant; it’s also possible that many would be willing. Therapists who treat both victims and offenders can attest that quite a few of the latter are in more pain than the former and would be ready to comply with the requirements.
Also, what if some offenders prematurely terminate therapy and fall between the cracks? The answer is that they’re all in the cracks right now. CAPTA has shoved them there, and it’s up to us, the voters — plus enough logical lawmakers — to pull them out.
As for the number of children who might be saved by this enactment, let’s take a leaf from the opposition’s pamphlet. Those who push for harsh, punitive, and destructive laws routinely say that they’re worth it if only one child is spared. We can also say the same for our proposal; however, we envision many more than one child saved from sexual abuse by the approach we advocate. It’s a concept that can do no harm at all–and can only be beneficial. To help the offenders is to help the victims.
Mark Lunsford, the driving force behind the laws bearing his daughter Jessica’s name, insists that her murderer John Couey would never have gotten to her if such a law had been in place. What he doesn’t say, and what is not common knowledge, is that Couey had pled for psychiatric help since 1978, writing that he had “a disease of the mind.” He continued begging for help to no avail for about 20 years–the letters to his attorneys are in his court files. And if he’d received the treatment he so urgently wanted and needed, Jessica might be with us yet. The preventative approach we advocate can be far more effective than the retribution a mentally disordered Couey now faces.We already have over 4,000 petitions merely by sitting on the Internet (and in front of the supermarket) without any publicity. But we need a much larger number of backers to request “Conditional Exemption From Reporting for Molesters Who Voluntarily Seek Professional Treatment” if our legislators are to be persuaded. Please go to www.therapy-key.com, look over our stats and facts–plus the credentials of our Advisory Board and Consultant Dr. Fred Berlin. Then, please send in your petition(s) if you like. Every signature counts!In closing, we’ll quote a renowned philosopher:
“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Henry David Thoreau.
Betty Schneider can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org