My Interview in Salon about Sex Offenders & Child Safety

This past Sunday I held a “Sex Offender Brunch.” Doesn’t everyone? A few days later a reporter from Salon called me up to ask about it. So here’s an excerpt from what I told her. And here’s my piece in the NY Daily News also about the brunch. (This story is lasting as long as the leftovers!)

Note: However interesting my remarks may be, the reader comment by “Zoomie” (a person I don’t know) is moreso.

How did you arrive at taking up reform of the sex offender registry as a cause?

Well, I’m interested in keeping kids safe and I’m also interested in when our fears don’t match reality. That began when I let my son ride the subway and everyone told me, “Don’t you watch ‘Law & Order’?” I was called “America’s worst mom” for trusting him on the subway, even though from my own personal experience, both as a New Yorker and as a reporter, I knew it’s really quite safe. So then I started hearing about other things that we worry about that are actually a lot safer than we think — for instance, in the suburbs, parents are driving their kids to the bus stop. Then I looked up the statistics and it turned out that only between 11 and 13 percent of kids are walking to school anymore — which, I walked to school when I was a kid. I looked up whether it’s really dangerous to wait at the bus stop and, in fact, the No. 1 way that kids die is as passengers in cars. So it seemed strange that we were obsessing about kidnapping and predators and such when the biggest danger to kids is putting them in the car and driving them to the mall.

How did you take up the registry cause, specifically?

I started hearing from some people who were trying to reform the sex offender laws. If you’re worrying about sex offenders in your neighborhood, it turns out that many, if not most, do not present a threat to children — and yet one of the reasons we keep our kids inside is because, if you look at a map and you see some dots, you feel like you’re surrounded by people who are going to possibly kidnap or rape your kid. So I started looking into that, remembering that I’m a reporter, and I started finding studies that showed that you could get on the sex offender list for things that didn’t scare me for my kids’ sake. You could be a sex offender if you go to a prostitute. You could be a sex offender if you urinate in public. You can be a sex offender if you were a high school senior and you had a freshman girlfriend and you graduate and now you’re a college freshman and have your sophomore girlfriend and suddenly you’re a sex offender, according to the law. Those people don’t scare me around my children.

I started hearing what it means to be on the registry and there are all sorts of restrictions that made no sense to me, because they aren’t keeping kids any safer.

Recall that the Free-Range mission is, “Fighting the belief that our kids are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers, Ivy League rejection letters and/or the perils of a non-organic grape.”

This is fighting the “constant danger from creeps, kidnapping…flashers…men” part. And the rest of my interview is here! – L.

 

Not all dots pose a threat to kids.

Not all dots pose a threat to kids.

 

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33 Responses to My Interview in Salon about Sex Offenders & Child Safety

  1. Margaret Moon March 27, 2015 at 10:20 am #

    Bless you for doing your part to clear up the falsehoods and myths about sex offenders, Lenore! I live in California and we have a state board entitled California Sex Offender Management Board, or CASOMB for short. Their latest report, 2014, states that registered offenders reoffend at a rate of 1.8% while on parole and research shows that the longer they go without offending, the less likely that is to happen. By the time seventeen years have passed they are no more likely to offend than anyone else living in your town. And most offenses against children, about 96%, are committed by a family member or close associate, not a stranger. Myths of high re-offense rates are spread by those who have something to gain, TV personalities, politicians, etc. Thanks again for spreading the truth instead of lies.

  2. bob m March 27, 2015 at 10:26 am #

    If you were trying to devise a system that contributes not at all to safety, stirs up unwarranted fears, unnecessarily ruins lives and causes undue panic and over reaction this SOR would be a great model to emulate.

  3. Wendy W March 27, 2015 at 10:33 am #

    A meme showed up on my FB feed last night, showing these “statistics”, claimed to be from the FBI:
    1. Each child has a 25% chance of being molested.
    2. A sex offender lives in “every square mile” of the US.
    3. 1 in 10 men have molested children, with only a 3% chance of being caught.
    The meme links to an article claiming that April 25 is “Alice Day”, a Pedophile and Sexual Predator holiday,
    designated to celebrate the molestation and rape of little girls. Pedophiles/Predators/Child rapists go out in full force to events held for children, parks, child-centered establishments, acquiring photographs, information, and personal contact with children. https://conniesmiles51.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/175/

    I think it’s safe to say that #1 is an average, and the risk to any particular child can vary greatly.
    #2 surely includes all the “offenders” who are not a risk to kids, and again is an average, with actual communities having much higher or lower concentrations- mostly lower, because that’s the way averages work.
    #3 I don’t have a clue how that info was gathered, except I expect it’s the loosest possible definition of “molested”. It’s probably another average, with the the actual “risk” being mush different than the numbers imply.

    It’s easy to refute generalized fears with generalized info such as “crime rates are lower now”, but what is the best way to refute specific stats like these? Especially to the mom of a 6yo girl, which is the person on my friend list who posted it.

  4. George March 27, 2015 at 11:46 am #

    I wonder if a ballot initiative where people could vote on changes would be successful?

  5. Mark Roulo March 27, 2015 at 12:34 pm #

    “what is the best way to refute specific stats like these?”

    Since I suspect that they are not true, start by asking for a specific source. Not “FBI crime statistics”, but an actual URL to an FBI page. I don’t expect that you’ll get it …

  6. Vicky King March 27, 2015 at 1:14 pm #

    I love your common sense articles that expose yet another government attempt at regulating into existence, a problem that isn’t a problem, or taking a real threat and expanding it beyond the scope of what is real to further control that or those they didn’t or couldn’t before.
    It shouldn’t surprise anyone that government is quick to demonize then violate the rights of any group of citizens for filthy lucre. It does this by creating harsh and unsubstantiated laws by casting fear onto the public with corrupt and even false statistics backed up by crony ‘experts’. Experts that can be debunked oftentimes with the governments own research! All because they each have a hand in the cookie jar that results from government overreach.

  7. Vicky King March 27, 2015 at 1:17 pm #

    I like George’s idea!

  8. fred schueler March 27, 2015 at 1:37 pm #

    what is the best way to refute specific stats like these? – often one can look at snopes.com and see that the meme is entirely fabricated as a joke, and then went viral as a real “thing.” This was the case with the recent “feminists against vaccination” poster.

  9. Reziac March 27, 2015 at 1:44 pm #

    Remember that most of these dots, even if they were violent offenders, are *still* not a threat to your kids — frex, sexual battery is usually “beat up his girlfriend”, not “assaulted random kid”.

  10. Bill Kidder March 27, 2015 at 1:55 pm #

    Aww, the interview left out my favorite part about this argument, where you stated
    that there’s no murderer’s registry, and that’s a far worse crime than most of the
    infractions you find on the SO registry.

    Apart from dropping it, it would make more sense to have a registry for all types
    of offenders. Besides the classic big five from pre-MIC-era criminal justice courses
    which dealt with murder, other physical assaults against people, and various
    types of theft, we should add registries for litterers, traffic offenders, cyclists
    caught without helmets in those jurisdictions where this still matters, and
    various offenders against regulatory laws, like that fisherman whose case
    made it to the Supreme Court recently. In other words, where there’s a
    house, there’s a dot on the map.

  11. anonymous mom March 27, 2015 at 3:12 pm #

    Wendy, one thing worth noting when stats like that are presented is that children are far, far, far more likely to be molested by a family member or close family friend than by a stranger.

    Most men (and they are nearly all men) on the registry are not child molesters. Just to use one state as an example, FL–due to the very high number of registered sex offenders it has–now has two levels of registered sex offenders, regular offenders and “sexual predators.” The “sexual predator” designation is given to those who have committed an offense of any type against a child 13 or under, those who have committed a violent and/or forcible offense against anybody of any age, and those who have committed more than one sexual offense of any type. From what I’ve been able to gather looking at as many stats from FL as I can, around 10-15 percent of registered sex offenders in FL are designated “predators.” That means that 85-90% of sex offenders in FL are on the registry for a single offense, either a non-violent, non-forcible statutory offense involving a post-pubescent teen or a victimless offense.

    About a third of those registered committed their offense as minors, and a significant portion of the others are men who, in their late teens or 20s, committed a single non-violent, non-forcible statutory offense (sometimes just virtual, such as exchanging nude pics or racy texts) with an underage girlfriend. Again, I am NOT arguing that is okay or shouldn’t be illegal. But I see no rational reason to believe that a guy who, at 22, would be stupid enough to sleep with a willing 15 year old partner is somebody who would be more likely to molest, kidnap, and/or murder a child than anybody else in the general population.

    When you take together the fact that most sexual assault against children is perpetrated by relatives (often other minor children, whether it be siblings, stepsiblings, or cousins) and close family friends, and that the vast majority of those on the registry have not molested a child, the people on the registry simply are not, in general, the people to look at if you want to protect your child from sexual abuse.

  12. sigh March 27, 2015 at 3:31 pm #

    The public elementary school here was making it a habit to send out “police alerts” to all parents whenever a “sex offender” was released back into the community (to a highly supervised halfway house). These alerts included a mug shot, and the email would encourage parents to show the face to their kids and encourage reporting if the (always man) was seen near the school, or anywhere kids gather. Also for kids to be on the lookout for the guy, as someone “dangerous.”

    When I contacted the police about what the school was doing, and complained that it was in fact making kids LESS safe (look for one particular face of a “bad guy” instead of being aware of your “creep radar” which might go off in the presence of ANYONE, especially someone you’re already familiar with) and encouraging parents to feel hysterical about “bad guys” in the neighbourhood and thus discouraging their kids from doing normal kid things (riding bikes and walking around and playing outdoors), the cops said they never encouraged schools to DISTRIBUTE those alerts, those were for the schools’ eyes only, to let the admin know that if that particular guy shows up on the school grounds, he’s in violation of his court order.

    The police said they would take it up with the school. Happily, I never received one of those “alerts” again.

    I tend to go a little kooky on folks who post those alerts on their Facebook pages, too. I say things like, “If you’re going to insist on plastering the internet with a criminal’s face, why not ALL criminals? Why just those who are labelled ‘sex offenders,’ especially when they are unlikely to reoffend? I’d rather know by sight those who are involved in property crimes.”

  13. sigh March 27, 2015 at 3:33 pm #

    Also: “Sex Offender Brunch” = brilliant

  14. anonymous mom March 27, 2015 at 4:22 pm #

    @sigh: And let’s not forget that some of the children in the school could have been the children of one of those sex offenders. I’ve read about school assemblies where an “expert” came in to talk about the danger of sexual predators to middle and high school students, put up the pictures of the local registered sex offenders, and it turns out that some of those men were the fathers of children in the audience. (In many cases they had committed a single, non-violent offense a decade or two or three earlier.)

    Most sex offenders are not all creepy pedophiles who live isolated lives. Many are men who made a mistake–sometimes an extremely serious one–involving illegal sexual behavior at some point in their lives (often their teens or twenties) who go on to become responsible, law-abiding, mature adults with families, friends, and jobs. And the children of sex offenders are perhaps those most harmed by our current policies.

  15. anonymous mom March 27, 2015 at 4:27 pm #

    To put it in perspective, there are currently around 800K registered sex offenders in the U.S., and that number is growing rapidly (with online sex offenses being by far the fastest growing area of prosecution). All of those offenders have some family–parents, siblings, etc. Many have wives, girlfriends, and children. And all of those family members suffer and are themselves put at risk because of the registry. There are more non-offenders hurt by the registry–parents, spouses, partners, and children who are ostracized, threatened, and in a few cases killed–than there are registered offenders. We have not considered at all the collateral damage the registry does to families, but as the many children, teens, and young adults who have been registered in the last 10 years mature, marry, and have children, it will no doubt become more of an issue.

  16. Emily March 27, 2015 at 4:56 pm #

    What a great idea, having a “Sex Offender Brunch,” in order to get to know these people as human beings, and not boogeymen. Playing doctor, going to the bathroom outside when no other option exists, or being over the age of majority and having a younger girlfriend, shouldn’t condemn someone to “sex offender” status, and anyway, does anyone know if the rule applies if the genders are reversed, and it’s an older girlfriend and younger boyfriend? Anyway, Lenore, maybe in future, you could have your Sex Offender Brunch on Take Your Kids To The Park And Leave Them There Day. That’ll accomplish two things in one, because people wouldn’t be afraid of sex offenders at the park, because they’d all be at the brunch.

  17. Havva March 27, 2015 at 5:24 pm #

    @Wendy W,
    I found an apparently private website (registered offenders list) listing all those items in that order. They gave citation to “Cory Jewell Jensen, M.S., and Steve Jensen, M.A.” and that seems to come from their paper “Understanding and Protecting Your Children From Child Molesters and Predators” the original publisher was credited as OPRAH.com. Those items are in the first paragraph of the article.

    Also in the first paragraph is the fairly consistently found stat that 9 out of 10 abusers are known to the victim.

    The numbers on percent of kids molested vary a lot by different methodologies of estimates. But all are alarmingly high. But molestation isn’t all child rape. The same paper says “Fondling, oral sex, simulated or actual
    intercourse, exhibitionism, taking sexually explicit pictures of children, showing sexually explicit material to children or having sex in front of a child are all considered child sexual abuse.”

    And the following study indicates 40.8% of the incidents were nothing more than indecent exposure. Which of can vary from the stupid to the terrifying.
    https://library.childwelfare.gov/cwig/ws/library/docs/gateway/Record?rpp=10&upp=0&m=1&w=+NATIVE%28%27recno%3D64335%27%29&r=1

    Unfortunately since only the victims of abuse can identify the abusers the only way to protect a child completely is to never let them be alone for even a minute with anyone other than yourself. And to make sure their bedroom is a vault. But that is no way to live. I wouldn’t trade my childhood with that of a helicoptered kid, even if it could have stopped the molestation. An helicoptering probably would have made it worse not better as it was a family member.

    So much as no one wants to put it on the children to self-protect. The reports of children is the only thing that will protect children from molesters. There are 3 things I think adults can do to help with this problem. 1 effective education of children. 2) Believe and act on reports of children. 3) And in my mind most important… end the stigma. No one wants to be ‘damaged goods’. Being the victim of such a feared crime is terrifying. The victims also feel very alone, freakish. Weather the % victimized is 8% or 25% that is a huge support network if only we were open enough to talk about it… but again.. the stigma keeps even adults from being open about what happened to them.

  18. Donald March 27, 2015 at 5:49 pm #

    Years ago the Sex Offence Registry was a good protection for children. However over the years it has been watered down so much that it’s become a great camouflage for the real ones that pose a threat to children. The people that are repeated offenders of rape are put in the same category as someone that pees in a parking lot. Furthermore, 10 years old children that play ‘doctor’ can be put on this list as well. This system was originally made to protect children can now actually turn on and attack the ones they are instructed to protect!

    This is further proof that bureaucracy has become a life form of its own. The bureaucratic system was originally formed to fight corruption. The human is the ‘Achilles Heal’ or weakness in the system. People can be bargained with and procedures bypassed. This is why authority has been taken away from people. Even the most senior bureaucrats are not in charge of it. Nobody is in charge.

    It’s quite common in bureaucracies for rules, procedures and laws to grow so dense that the system starts destroying that what it was originally designed to protect.

    http://www.onmysoapboxx.com/

  19. BL March 27, 2015 at 6:01 pm #

    @Donald
    “Its quite common in bureaucracies for rules, procedures and laws to grow so dense that the system starts destroying that what it was originally designed to protect.”

    Alas. Almost 2000 years have passed since the Roman Juvenal asked “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” And people forget to ask it again.

  20. bsolar March 27, 2015 at 8:45 pm #

    I find this citation of Montesquieu to be more appropriate to the case at hand: “Les lois inutiles affaiblissent les lois ncessaires.” (“Useless laws weaken the necessary laws.”).

  21. sexhysteria March 28, 2015 at 5:10 am #

    Give ’em hell, Lenore! You should be made Minister of Public Safety!

    Why not expose California’s Coalinga Concentration Camp for Sex Offenders? The inmates are sex offenders against children who have completed their prison sentences, including a father who is being confined indefinitely for the “crime” of encouraging his son and a neighbor girl to enjoy sex play.

    A video documentary about the Coalinga “institution” disappeared from YouTube, and only a brief, censored part of the documentary is still on the web. Shame on the State of California and the political opportunists and profiteers in the child sex abuse rescue business!

  22. Jill March 28, 2015 at 9:24 am #

    The question to ask is who profits from the sex offender hysteria. A more sinister question to ask is who profits over creating a pervasive feeling of fear so extreme that we’ve come to accept ideas like “stranger danger” and “super predator” as being perfectly rational.

  23. Richard March 28, 2015 at 12:10 pm #

    The law in California for civil commitment as an SVP at Coalinga requires a finding that there is presently a serious and well-founded risk that the person is likely to engage in acts of sexual violence of not in custody. While there are certainly valid arguments as to the pros and cons, and constitutionality of civil commitment laws like this one, they present an entirely separate issue from the sex offender registries that are generally not based on any determination that the individual is likely to offend in the future.

  24. George March 28, 2015 at 5:24 pm #

    You have guts to take on this issue. Keep up the good work.

  25. Papilio March 28, 2015 at 5:34 pm #

    Last week I zapped by a sex ed show meant for kids ages 10+, which showed naked people (to show what happens to bodies during puberty) and had an interview shot in a sauna with several guests walking/sitting around (host and interviewee were clothed)…

    …and meanwhile in the USA kids need to be protected at all costs from seeing men urinating in public… :-/

  26. Warren March 29, 2015 at 12:24 am #

    Pap,
    I hope there was some trigger warnings for that show.

  27. Emily March 29, 2015 at 2:32 am #

    Another thing about the Sex Offender Registry–I was exposed to images of nudity in school, and through school, before I reached the age of majority. I’m pretty sure my Latin textbook in high school contained images of full-frontal nudity, because that’s what happened at an Ancient Roman bathhouse. I saw pictures of Minoan fertility goddesses with bare breasts in Ancient Civiliaztions class in grade eleven. That same year, I went on a band trip to Italy, where we saw Michelangelo’s David (full frontal nudity), and the Sistine Chapel (more nudity), and a group of us chipped in money to buy a box of (overpriced) penis-shaped pasta for our band teacher’s birthday……which I’m told she later used to make pasta salad for the graduating class barbecue at her house. Since I graduated high school in 2003, I think this “nudity is a Bad Thing that nobody under the age of eighteen should see” mindset is fairly new. But, where do you draw the line? Do you change the school curriculum so that students don’t see or read about nudity, even if it means sacrificing historical accuracy, or denying them a positive cultural experience? If the penis pasta thing had happened now (it actually happened in the spring of 2001), would the over-18’s in the group be considered sex offenders for participating in the purchase? Would my band teacher be a sex offender for serving penis pasta salad to “late-birthday grads,” who hadn’t yet turned eighteen on the day of the barbecue? Would the pasta manufacturers be sex offenders for making penis pasta in the first place? Would the people at the store be sex offenders for selling it to people under the age of majority? Would it make a difference that the pasta didn’t actually look that much like tiny penises, because it was pasta? Anyway, why do we even have this expectation that kids are supposed to live a fully supervised, padded, helmeted, seat-belted, G-rated, milquetoast existence, with no emotional ups and downs, until age eighteen, and any time reality falls short of that unrealistic expectation, someone (usually the adult in charge) is guilty of a crime?

  28. Wow... March 30, 2015 at 9:11 am #

    And even the sex offenders who are actual predators? They’re on that list because their sneakiness failed…they are the ones who were so bad at what it is supposedly, quite a private crime, that they got caught, after all.

  29. Kris March 31, 2015 at 3:49 pm #

    I have a friend who can completely back AnonymousMom’s comment about families being hurt. A friend of mine’s now-ex-husband did sexually abuse a child. I believe the child was 4 or 6, very very young. He was in the Air Force at the time. Once word got out (and yes, he is, of course, on the SOR; don’t know if he had done it previously or will ever again) “Tina” lost many friends. Her kids lost many friends. They moved but it took her quite a while to find a new home and a new life. She felt quite alone for a long time. She didn’t tell me about it until maybe a year or two after it all happened, after I read some frustrated FB posts she was writing and asked what was going on. Had they stayed in the area where her ex was after his jail term, the last name would have easily alerted people to her (past) connection to him and continued to ruin her life. She was blamed by many people for the actions of her ex. She had no idea what he had done at the time. Even when we were stationed together and our kids all played, even spending the night, I never felt he was a threat. I never blamed her and remain her friend to this day. But she pays for his activities. So do her boys (the ex cannot see them and they want nothing to do with him).

    This is certainly an example of someone deservedly on the list. And an example of how the list can hurt families, even when the offender legitimately belongs on it. Thankfully, she and her boys are doing well, have made a great life for themselves, even if it’s a bit tough for them.

  30. Mary March 31, 2015 at 6:38 pm #

    Thank you for taking on a subject that really needs to be discussed openly. I hope there can be a pathway to removal from the registry where appropriate.

  31. MsReader April 5, 2015 at 5:04 pm #

    I’m really disturbed by how you describe the first example cited in the brunch essay about a 12-year-old boy “playing doctor” with his sister. The way you describe his situation seems to trivialize what could have been a very real instance of molestation of his sibling.

    Twelve years old is very old to be “playing doctor” – a euphemism which we use to describe innocent curiosity about their bodies by very young children. You don’t say how old the sister was at the time, but her brother was almost certainly in puberty. She apparently was troubled enough about it to tell her mother, who was troubled enough to tell a counselor. The fact that his sister later forgive him is irrelevant when discussing whether someone committed a crime.

    I think you make some very good points about using better discretion in determining whether someone’s past crimes make them a danger to children today. I’ve never been a believer in the efficacy of “Megan’s Law” offender registries. They seemed like political sound-bite legislation to me that would not prevent sexual abuse and would only unduly infringe upon privacy rights. In my mind, if someone is still not safe around children after serving their time, they should serve more time, but they shouldn’t be subject to public shaming.

    I think you can make those points without trivializing their past crimes. Did that kid molest his sister? No? Then explain how his actions don’t rise to the level of abuse. (I didn’t see any more details describing the situation, but maybe I missed them, or you have a particular point of view on what constitutes molestation between children.)

    Yes? Then acknowledge the seriousness of the crime even if he doesn’t endanger children today. But please don’t be flippant about what occurred by calling it “playing doctor”.

  32. Papilio April 5, 2015 at 7:12 pm #

    @Warren: LOL. The only trigger warning I’ve ever seen on TV was right before an episode of Criminal Minds (in which a plane crashed), with regard to what has happened to flight MH17. That warning I could understand.